All Saints Day, Series on Romans:

For All the Saints


Scripture reading: Romans 16:1-16.

Sermon text: Romans 16:18-27.

Thirty-five people mentioned specifically, 3 family groups mentioned generally. At least 8 women, including the letter-carrier and one mentioned in the same breath as the Apostles themselves. Only 6 of the people mentioned appear more than once in Scripture. One person said “hi” at the end of the letter although he had nothing to do with its contents. One family mentioned descended directly from Herod the Great.

Most people tend to gloss over the list of names in Romans 16, seeing nothing of importance here. After all, St. Paul had already explained God’s role in choosing Israel as His covenant people, Israel’s failure to keep the covenant, and Jesus’ sacrifice that fulfilled the covenant and brought salvation to fallen humanity. St. Paul had already described our need for God, our justification through Jesus’ death and our confession of Him as Lord, and the peace we receive through that confession and the relationship we receive as a result. God’s grace received its greatest explanation in the book of Romans. How could St. Paul end such a glorious book?

Remember that St. Paul had never visited Rome; he didn’t know the Roman congregations personally, and he couldn’t expect the Christians there to recognize his apostolic authority as the Gentile churches in Asia and Greece had done. St. Paul used the ending of his letter to remind the Romans of their common friends and family members. These people would recognize St. Paul as an apostle because of their intimate knowledge of his life and work.

However, these people accomplished great things that deserve mentioning. As St. Paul mentioned people, he often explained how he knew them. Some of these people may never appear again in Scripture, but they played key roles in the life of the Apostle who wrote more of the New Testament than the other Apostles combined.

I think today’s occasion on the Church calendar helps us understand chapter 16 far better. Today is All Saints Day, the day the Church celebrates the lives of believers who have preceded us in this life and now worship Christ in heaven. None of us can say we live by our own efforts. None of us would know about the salvation of Jesus without someone writing the Scriptures and without teachers to explain them to us. We worship today because, as said before, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

As we remember those who preceded us and whose faith still resonates in our own lives, it’s highly appropriate for us to examine the people St. Paul mentioned and see what their lives mean to us today.

St. Paul began with Phoebe, “a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The word St. Paul used to describe Phoebe, “diakonos,” is the term from which we derive our word “deacon.” The Church Fathers attest to the existence of deaconesses in the early Church, especially in the East. Phoebe had served St. Paul as a “patron,” meaning she had supported his ministry with material support. St. Paul also mentioned Phoebe had supported others in their ministries throughout her area.

We first find Prisca (KJV “Priscilla”) and Aquila first in Acts 18, where St. Paul met them in Corinth. Aquila and his wife accepted St. Paul in their tent making business to help him support his ministry without having to rely on funding from the Corinthian believers. Prisca and Aquila apparently already were believers in Jesus from their time in Rome before Claudius expelled the Jews in A.D. 49. St. Paul mentioned that this devoted couple “risked their necks for my life,” most likely an allusion to the riot in Corinth mentioned in Acts 18. This devoted couple later taught Apollos after the gifted teacher arrived in Corinth following St. Paul’s departure, converting him to orthodox Christianity by building on his knowledge of John the Baptist. Now back in Rome, Prisca and Aquila hosted a church in their home.

Epaenetus appears nowhere else in Scripture; St. Paul described him as “the first convert to Christ in Asia.” Epaenetus’ conversion signaled the spread of the gospel from  the Middle East into the heart of the Roman Empire in modern Turkey.

St. Paul mentioned “Mary,” but we have no way of knowing this woman’s identity beyond her listing here. Countless Jewish women bore the name “Mary” in the first century; today, only Almighty God knows her true identity.

St. Paul mentioned several relatives in this chapter, beginning with Adonronicus and Junia. St. Paul called them his “fellow prisoners,” but we have no way of knowing what he meant because these people are never mentioned in any connection St. Paul in the rest of the New Testament. The Apostles knew these people; in fact, St. Paul recognized them as “apostles” himself and as his predecessors in the faith. St. Paul later mentioned another kinsman, Herodion.

St. Paul sent greetings to “those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.” Aristobulus was the grandson of Herod the Great by his wife Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess. Aristobulus was educated in Rome with his brothers and the future emperor Claudius. This greeting tells us the gospel had already penetrated into imperial circles in Rome.

St. Paul mentions that Persis “has worked hard in the Lord.” We know nothing else of Persis.

Rufus first appears in the New Testament in the Gospel of St. Mark, who refers to Simon of Cyrene as the father of “Alexander and Rufus.” The Romans forced Simon to carry Jesus’ cross to His crucifixion. Alexander and Rufus were apparently well known to churches throughout the Empire. St. Paul had apparently spent a great deal of time with this family, because he said of Rufus’ mother that she “as been a mother to me as well.”

We know a lot about St. Timothy because of his prominent role in St. Paul’s ministry. St. Paul sent St. Timothy to churches when he could not go himself. St. Paul’s last letter was addressed to St. Timothy, who he called his “son” in his letter to the Philippians. St. Timothy was with St. Paul when he wrote this letter.

Gaius, a Macedonian, served as St. Paul’s host in Corinth and apparently also hosted at least one congregation in his house. St. Paul baptized Gaius after his conversion in Corinth. Gaius nearly died during the Corinthian riot St. Luke described in Acts 18. Gaius was the recipient of the letter we know as 3 John.

Erastus accompanied St. Timothy to Macedonia on a missionary trip in Acts 19. The Church Fathers referred to Erastus served as the church treasurer of Corinth.

We know nothing of the rest of the people St. Paul mentioned. Their identities and deeds are known only to God Himself. Still, their actions in the life of Christianity’s greatest Apostle helped mold St. Paul into the servant God needed to spread the gospel  and write his works.

Do we see any lessons from these people? Why should we care about these people, these “unknown soldiers” of the faith?

First, studying the lives of the saints reminds us again we stand in the line of a godly people who thought the gospel worth the cost of their lives. The Church continued through the persecutions that nearly killed Prisca, Aquila, and Gaius; the Church persevered through the executions of St. Peter, St. Paul, and countless other believers who gave their lives for our faith. Their examples should strengthen us when we find ourselves standing against enemies of the faith.

We need to recognize that we stand on the achievements of generations of Christians before us. Unnamed Christians brought the gospel to my ancestors in Scotland; St. Patrick most likely brought the gospel to my Irish ancestors. When the Church seemed to falter against the reintroduction of Aristotle’s works to the West, St. Thomas Aquinas brilliantly defended her and nullified the threat. Yesterday marked the 492nd anniversary of Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the castle door at Wittenberg, Germany and launched the Protestant Reformation, a process that brought badly needed reforms to the Western Church over the past 5 centuries. 

The lives of these people should also give us a healthy dose of humility. Far too many people today act as if the church in America in general — and our denomination in particular (perhaps especially) — carries the gospel with no input or assistance from believers in the continuous line from the time of the Apostles. Too many act as if the victories and defeats of the American Church will mean the existence or death of the Church of the living God. The Church consists of far more than the Southern Baptist Convention or any other American denomination; some parts of the Church precede us by centuries. While God has called us to serve in our particular denominations, we must serve in humility with believers from other traditions and denomination and accept their help and contributions to the faith. We must also contribute to their work with our prayers and support whenever possible.

This humility must extend to another major issue in the American Church. St. Paul wrote this letter in A.D. 57, more than 1,700 years before the founding of the United States. The Church has outlived the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, numerous European dynasties, and countless other leadership changes. The Church existed before the birth of every modern European nation, including England, France, Russia, Spain, and Germany. The Church has survived the onslaught of Islam and retaken lands from the Muslims. The Church has also outlived nations. While I wish for America’s continued success, I must remember that my life in the Church will extend eternally beyond the life of my nation.

How has the Church managed to survive so much death, destruction, and political turmoil? We survive because we serve a living Lord, Jesus, Christ the only-begotten Son of God. Our God preexisted the universe; our Lord has conquered death, the supposed end of every human. Every person who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, is born into a family whose existence will outlive all human institutions.

We owe it to our Christian predecessors to obey God’s calling to carry the gospel to the world, beginning with our families and community. We must build on the foundation laid by the Apostles and leave a better Church and congregation for those who will follow us in the faith. Each of us must work in our congregations as if our children will succeed us in the work, because they will.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” St. Paul’s letter to the Romans has transcended its original recipients and time to give hope to readers for over 19 centuries. The faith of St. Paul continues in God’s Holy Church, the Body of Christ on earth. The love of God, demonstrated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, continues to save everyone who believes, confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in His resurrection.