The Church: Real People
The church is made up of real people with warts and all, flawed yet graced, sinners yet saved by the all-surpassing greatness and love of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. We want to be in a community of people where we can be real, transparent, and vulnerable. We want to be in a place where we don’t have to hide behind the mask, where we don’t have to pretend that we’ve got it all together. That’s the beauty of what the church is truly supposed to be–a group of people, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, who love and serve each other and serve the world around us. The church is supposed to be real people who worship a real Savior who meet real needs to reach a real world. This is how Jesus is building His Church…
Jesus is building His Church through real people with a real ministry to each other.
We are in the 5th chapter of the Story of God: Creation, Chaos, Covenant, Christ, and now Church. The church is not a building but a group of people transformed and empowered by Jesus to reach a lost and broken world. This is God’s plan. We are it. There is no Plan B. To help us explore this reality that Jesus is building His Church through real people with a real ministry to each other, we are going to turn to Romans 16:1-16. And as we talk about this passage, we’ll unpack our big idea and talk about two big themes: (1) Real People, and (2) Real Ministry
Theme #1: Real People
Here’s what I love about the Bible. It’s a real book with a real history, filled with real people. We get to the end of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, a letter that many theologians see as the deepest expression of theology in all of the New Testament, and it ends with a list of names. It ends with a list of names of real people who had experienced the very real grace of Jesus Christ. They were lost, but now they were found. Let’s look at this list of names and learn some things from this group of real people.
Phoebe. Here’s what we likely know and can infer about Phoebe. She lives in place called Cenchrea, which is a suburb of ancient Corinth. Cenchrea was the eastern seaport to Corinth, so there was a lot of commerce and business and tons of people who flowed through the streets of Cenchrea. Paul likely planted a church there when he was in Corinth. This woman named Phoebe had become a leader in the church. Paul calls her a servant and what some New Testament scholars translate that word as a “deaconess.” Regardless of whether she has an “official” role in the church at Cenchrea, Paul thinks enough of her to entrust her with this letter. She’s probably travelling to Rome on business, and she’s going to deliver this letter to the church in Rome.
Another thing that we likely know about her is that she is likely a wealthy woman. We’ll talk more about this later, but Paul tells the church at Rome that she has been a “helper of many.” The word “helper” literally means a “benefactor or patroness,” and the implication is that she has helped many people financially. Phoebe is woman with means who is using her wealth and status to advance the gospel and build the church in Cenchrea and beyond.
Other names in the list of real people. Paul mentions 26 people by name in this list of real people because Jesus is building His Church through real people with a real ministry to each other and a real mission to the world around them. It’s a diverse group of people, but there’s something powerful about this list of names of real people. Here’s some things we know about this list of names…
Men and Women. Out of this list, there are 9 women: Phoebe, Mary, Junias, Tryphaena and Tryphosa (the root which means “delicate and dainty” – likely not a guy name), and more. There’s Rufus’ mother (v. 13) who’s basically adopted Paul as her own. You know those types of moms. In the early church, both men and women are serving alongside each other, advancing the gospel, and building the church.
Jews and Gentiles. There are names of Jews–Andronicus and Junias, very possibly a Jewish missionary couple. There are names of Gentiles (non-Jews) that have come out of worshipping the Greco-Roman gods and now worship Jesus Christ. Jesus has done an amazing work to bring Jews and Gentiles into the Church. These are real people with a real ministry one to another.
Slaves and Nobility. There are slave names in this list–Urbanus and Stachys. There are also names of people who are potentially nobility–the “household of Aristobulus” and the “household of Narcissus.” And in those households, Paul is referring to the servants in those households as well.
So it’s amazing to think of the diversity of people in the early church. People whose lives had been changed by the reality of Jesus Christ, by the reality that they were lost, but they had been found by Jesus, by the reality that Jesus was doing a new thing, forming a new community, for His glory and for our good.
Theme #2: Real Ministry
So Jesus saves a group of people who are headed towards death and then gives them life and a divine do-over. And then these people, from countless different backgrounds give their lives to Him and then give their lives to each other. Real people with a real ministry. What does it really mean to truly minister to each other? The first two verses of Romans 16 helps us answer that question with three qualities of real ministry. In real ministry, we…
Open our hearts to each other (v. 1). When Paul sends Phoebe with this epic letter to the Roman church, he asks the people in the church at Rome to “receive her in the Lord.” It literally means to take her in and welcome her. When we welcome someone, we accept them. Paul shares a similar idea on Romans 15:7… “So open your hearts to one another as Christ has opened His heart to you, and God will be glorified” (Phillips Translation). When we open our hearts to each other, we welcome each other into our lives. And when you look at this list of names, there’s some really different people here. As these very real people are called to really minister to each other, they are first called to open their hearts to each other the same way that Christ has opened His heart to us–welcoming, inviting, accepting, loving.
Help each other (v. 2a). Now there’s a second thing involved in real ministry. It’s helping each other. Paul asks the community of Christ in Rome not only to open their hearts to Phoebe, but he secondly asks them to “help” her. That word “help” literally means to come stand alongside. It also carries with it the implication of putting yourself at the disposal of another person as you come to their aid. It’s a willingness to come alongside a person who has a need and to seek to really meet that need. That’s what is involved in real ministry between real people.
One of my favorite Northshore stories is a story of a group of people “helping” another person. It’s a story of coming alongside someone in dire need and standing with them and serving them sacrificially.
This is the story of Ha Nguyen and some of her friends from Northshore.
I still remember clearly the day when my family doctor called me and said he had some concern about the unusual little “bump” on the side of my neck. From the tone of his voice, I knew right away that there must be something serious. About a week later, I learned from the ENT doctor that the little bump on my neck was the sign of throat cancer.
Needless to say, the news was devastating. When I got back home from the doctor office with Janet Kipp – my friend from Northshore – my husband was waiting for me in front of the house. Clueless about what to do or what to expect, we just stood there and started to pray that the Lord would be with us and guide us through this difficult time.
The next six-month period of my life was a big rollercoaster with lots of ups and downs. We were able to find an excellent oncologist in the area through our next-door neighbors, Konnie and David Drews, who also go to Northshore. I had to go to the clinic almost every day for treatment. Right from the beginning, Janet promised me that she would take care of me since we don’t have any family here in the US. I felt that my worry was melting away. The treatment was about 6 months and I knew I would need a tremendous support from all of my friends and family to go through this. My mother in law and mom came and stayed for 6 months to take care of my kids. My father in law and dad also took turns being here.
Janet and Konnie found a website which was very useful in coordinating helps offered by my friends. Twice a week, friends delivered meals for us, sometime with cards or flowers. People came and cleaned my house. Flowers were planted. The lawn was mowed. The garden was weeded. Everyday someone would show up at front of my door, drive me to the clinic, and then a different person would give me a ride back home. Most of the people who helped are from Northshore. I have known them through MOPS, Tuesday morning Bible study, and Awana… and I didn’t even know some of them until they showed up at my house.
My little boys Danny and Minh got so many activities and play dates from Northshore families through out the summer that they didn’t even realize that I was so sick. It was such a blessing to see our kids had so much fun and enjoyed their friends during those months.
I lost all my hair after 3 rounds of chemotherapy. My friends from my MOPS table knitted a bunch of cute hats for me. They came with all kind of styles and colors that I could easy match with my outfits.
I would never be able to go through this difficult time without the help from my friends. It was a rough journey and I’m glad that it was over. Even now I still received flowers and cards, emails and phone calls from people asking how I am doing? I truly believe these friends are a gift from God. I am so grateful that God is with me always and provides everything that I need. He is faithful and is my Living Hope.
This is what it means to be a real people with a real ministry to one another. We help each other. We stand by each other and put ourselves at each other’s disposal as we meet real needs in real peoples’ lives.
Give to each other (v. 2b). The final thing that Paul mentions in real ministry is that in the community of Christ, we give to each other… to the work of the ministry and for the work of the mission of God through Jesus Christ. Here’s what Paul says about Phoebe at the end of v. 2 – “she herself has also been a helper of many.” Once again as I mentioned earlier, the word “helper” here literally means a “benefactor or patroness” and it refers to her helping many people financially. Whether it was missionaries traveling through Corinth and Cenchrea (Paul being one of those) or people within her church, Phoebe is a woman who gave her resources to minister to people around her. It’s what we do in the community of Christ.
Here’s the heart of real ministry and giving resources to each other in Acts 2:44-45.
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
In the Old Testament, there was the law of the tithe. 10% of an individuals resources and income (and it was likely closer to 23% when all of the other offerings and sacrifices were accounted for). In the New Testament, there’s something different at work–the spirit of generosity. Which one do you think is more? The law of the tithe or the spirit of generosity? I’ll let that be a rhetorical question. The bottom line is that as we open our hearts to one another the way that Jesus Christ has opened His heart to us, and we help each other, standing alongside each other, coming to each other’s aid, it also means that in real ministry, we give to each other and to the work of ministry and mission with a spirit of generosity… sacrificial generosity. In this giving of ourselves, we are meeting real needs. We are doing real ministry one to another Giving with generosity is part of Christian maturity, Christian ministry, and Christian mission. It’s what it means to be part of what Jesus is building in this world.
Jesus Christ is building His Church, a collection of real people who are broken yet loved, sinners saved and rescued by grace who are drawn to Jesus, transformed by His power and life, put together to in community with each other to share life, ministry, and mission. As we are called to a real ministry one to another, we open our hearts to one another, we help one another, and give in the spirit of sacrificial generosity to take care of each other and to serve a desperate would around us.
Where are you in terms of real ministry within your own local community of Christ? Have you opened your heart to some people at your church? Are you connected in community in a small group? If you’re in a small group, are you willing to open yourself up and be vulnerable and transparent? How are you doing with your willingness to serve and help other people in your local community of Christ? Are you willing to put yourself at other’s disposal? Perhaps it’s being generous with your time by watching somebody’s kids for an evening to give them a date night. Perhaps it’s simply being willing to connect for breakfast, lunch, or coffee, to simply listen to what’s going on in their heart and in their life. And lastly, are you giving financially to the work of the ministry and mission of your local church with a spirit of sacrificial generosity. Are you re-ordering any of your priorities to financially support what Jesus is up to in this world through your local church? As we grow in this real ministry one to another, the world will take notice.
Jesus is building His Church through real people with a real ministry to each other. So let’s join together in this amazing adventure!