Paul wrote to the Romans:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 16:1-2 – July 30, 2012)
As the letter to the Romans draws to a close, Paul sends greetings to several persons by name: Phoebe (named here), Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Mary, Andronicus, Junia, and many others. As I read through there names, I cannot help but wonder who these otherwise forgotten church members were. What were their roles in the church? What did they do outside the church?
Each Sunday in my congregation, following the tradition of the Episcopal Church, we pray for
The Universal Church, its members, and its mission,
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble
The departed . . . . (BCP 1979, page 35)
We prepare a master prayer list for the Prayer Leader which includes various names under each of these categories: other congregations, dioceses, and provinces together with their clergy and bishops; the president, our governor, soldiers serving overseas; those who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries; those who are ill or injured; those who have died and those who are bereaved. As these names are read out, most in the congregation know who some of them are, but probably no one knows them all. And in a few years time, and certainly after a century or more, someone reading the prayer list will have little if any idea who any of them are. The list will be as strange and curious as Paul’s extended greetings at the end of this letter.
And yet, these people are the church! Without such people there would be no church. The church is nothing without the people. It is not the buildings; it is not the organization or the hierarchy. The church is the people of God, nothing else. The church consists of these unremarkable individuals who go about their daily lives trying to do what is right, trying to serve one another and the world around them, praying for one another and for others, doing their best to live out the gospel as they understand it.
I am reminded of Ben Sira, the author of the apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus, who after praising the great and memorable added, “Of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” (Ben Sira 44:9-10)
So as we come to the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome with his greetings to those important church members who have otherwise been forgotten, let us praise church members who go quietly through their days doing their best to serve God, giving time and treasure as they are able, whose names will not be remembered or known beyond a small circle of fellow Christians, but who are the true pillars of the church. Let us praise them and thank them, and thank God for them.
Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.