Chapter 16 of Romans opens with a list of names that we may not appreciate until we consider that each one represents a real person, with a real story, and a real relationship. Collectively they show us a portrait of how God is bringing together His people to create a community that is supernaturally joined together as a new kind of family.
- Living out our Christian faith is done in community.
- Having Christ in common is more significant than anything that might divide us.
- Living in relationship with others is a choice.
- God has given us a supernatural ability to love even the "unlovable."
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Paul concludes this letter with a personal greeting to those he knew at the church in Rome. This was an introduction of Phoebe, who likely carried this letter to them, and an acknowledgment to those people to whom Paul felt an especially close connection.
I believe the Holy Spirit also gives us this portion of scripture as a picture of what Paul had just been writing about in chapters 14 and 15.
We see in the midst of this community a group of people that exemplify the ideals that Paul has addressed in the prior two chapters. That we as believers are to receive one another and forgive one another. That we are to put aside any trivial differences over style or tradition. That stronger believers are to help encourage and strengthen the weaker believers.
A Faith Community
Although Paul had never personally visited the Roman church, he knew many of these people very well, while others he may have known only by reputation. At the end of chapter 15, he said that he looked forward to being with them and "being refreshed in their company."
The author of Hebrews makes the same point that we should be in relationship and meeting together so that we can encourage one another and bring the best out of each other.
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Hebrews 10:24-25
When we are close to each other, however, sometimes there is friction, and sometimes there are collisions.
"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17
Being in community and being accountable to others is not always easy, but it's where God designed us to be sharpened and to grow.
This church was a collection of early ministry partners, fellow Jewish believers, wealthy Gentile converts, husbands and wives, influential and helpful women, members of the ruling family, former and current slaves. Some were among the original converts known even to the disciples, while others were relatively new believers. But none of that mattered.
"Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." Colossians 3:11
All that mattered was Christ. And he (by the Holy Spirit) was in each of them. It didn't matter who they were or from where they came. Having Christ in common is more significant than anything that might divide them.
We experience this today when we meet other believers and discover an immediate closeness and kinship. In Christ, we find more in common than with some we have known for years or even family members with whom we were raised.
"Put On" Your Best
Living in community is not always easy. In fact, it can be very difficult. But God has given us a new nature. A "super nature" that overcomes our old nature. Paul gives us more insight into this in his letter to the Colossians.
...Put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator...
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility meekness and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:10, 12-14
Exercising this new nature is a choice. This is not about emotions or sentimental feelings, but a call to obedience. In recognition of the new identity that we have in Christ, we are to put aside the old nature and unleash the new nature that is filled with the attributes that enable us to live in this kind of close, loving, encouraging and forgiving community. As we draw near to Christ, and move in obedience, we experience a heart change.
The Power of Love
This Paul, who once breathed out murderous threats against the believers (Acts 9), is now telling them how much he loves them. Could Paul have imagined himself in this position when he first was saved? Did Paul feel this kind of love naturally? Or was it something more?
Jesus Himself commanded this kind of love, and it was Jesus who transformed Paul into this loving minister we now see encouraging the believers and calling them his beloved.
As Jesus said:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
Jesus' command comes with His power. As Jesus spoke creation into existence (Genesis 1, John 1:3), and as He spoke life into the dead (John 11:43-44), and spoke healing into the lame (John 5:8-9), he speaks love into His followers.
Paul ends with a call to greet one another with a "holy kiss," a sign of warm affection in the culture. This greeting is not just from Paul, but also from the newly established churches. How powerful it is to know that there are others who you don't even know who are thinking warm thoughts and are praying for you. Not only do we need encouragement and refreshing from time to time just as Paul did, we need to be in community to have opportunity to refresh and encourage others when they need it.