I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea … Greet Priscilla and Aquila … Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus … Greet Mary … Greet Andronicus and Junia … (etc, etc)
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.
These verses give us an abbreviated photo album of the church in Rome, listing those individuals the Apostle Paul knows personally. Since this is a church Paul had not previously visited, he is re-affirming the connections he already has and preparing the way for a future visit.
In total, Paul greets twenty-seven individuals, two families, and three (or possibly five) house churches. This is quite a list.
There is an amazing diversity here, but one of the things that stands out is the foundational unity, a unity that is emphasized by one little word. “In.” Nine times in these sixteen verses, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord.” Take a look. Read the greetings again. Let the word “in” jump out at you.
As Paul reflects on these friends, wonderfully what springs to mind is that they are “in Christ.” It’s not so much an expression of how Christ-like they are, nor how godly they are in behaviour. Instead, it’s a simple, foundational spiritual perception. First and foremost, Paul sees all these friends through the lens of Christ. They are “in” him.
What if that were our foundational perspective when we dealt with our own brothers and sisters in Christ? Not focusing first on their foibles or areas of questionable thinking or character flaws or previous lapses in judgement or current level of commitment and spirituality. But rather, focusing first on the fact that they, like us, are “in Christ.” What an amazing basis for unity!
Indeed, Paul ends this section by inviting the church to express this unity tangibly. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (verse 16). We may choose to do it differently (JB Philips, with typical British reserve, translated this as, “Give each other a hearty handshake all round”!). But the point is clear. Don’t keep your distance. Don’t back away. Instead, warmly embrace sisters and brothers simply because they, too, are “in Christ.”
But, in the midst of unity, there is also incredible diversity in this list. Diversity, as it turns out, is something the Lord loves (see 1 Corinthians 12 for confirmation). Since names in the ancient world often communicated social and ethnic status, we can see there is a great mix in the church at Rome. There were slaves, former slaves, together with some wealthy and elite. There were both Jews and Gentiles, crossing the greatest divide of ethnicity at the time. There were both men and women – indeed of the twenty-seven individuals listed, ten of them are women, some explicitly mentioned in leadership positions, indicating new freedom in Christ. And there was a diversity of spiritual experience, some having been imprisoned alongside Paul (Andronicus and Junia), some having years of Christian commitment (Epenetus being one of the first converts in Asia), some with “Gospel” pedigree (Rufus was likely the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross), and others likely being relative newcomers.
Yet, even with such diversity, all were “in Christ,” all were “in the Lord.”
So, too, for us. At your next opportunity, look around your church congregation. See the rich mix. Revel in the diversity. Embrace each one as the Lord himself has embraced us. Each of us is “in” him.
And if you are not currently feet-on-the-ground involved with a local church, don’t hold back. Jump in. It won’t be perfect, but it’s Christ’s body nonetheless – diverse, but one.
Lord Jesus, I honour you as head of the church. Thank you for the wonderful mix of people, me included, that you have embraced. I choose to embrace them, too. Fill me with your grace and peace that I might extend it to all who are “in” you. Amen.
Reflect: Bring to mind three other believers who are very different than you. Think of them throughout the day, remembering that they, too, are “in Christ.” Give thanks for them. Greet them in some way (text, email, phone call).