My name is Hermes. I am a freedman of the household of Aristobulus in the city of Rome, in the neighbourhood of Subura. I want to tell you about something that happened.
A letter came from Paul from back east. Can anything good from back east? It was carried and read by Phoebe, a deacon from Cenchreae. It was a long letter, and it took over an hour to read. Phoebe is a good reader, though, and she was coached by Paul in how to read it. She has been reading it to all of the gatherings of Christians here in Rome.
We had long wondered about this Paul. We had heard that he persecuted the followers of Jesus. We had heard that he now proclaimed the one whom he had despised. We had also heard that he had argued with Peter in Antioch, and with people who came from the church in Jerusalem. So many of us were not inclined to welcome his words.
But his letter came to us with much power and wisdom, breathed in by the spirit of God. I have been told that Paul is not an impressive speaker, but he knows how to write. He knows the Torah and the Prophets, and he also knows the conventions of Greek rhetoric. He claims to be one of those sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, and after hearing Phoebe read it I do believe it is so.
It is an elegant letter, carefully structured. In it Paul leads us in one direction and then surprises us by going in a completely unexpected one. I did not understand all of it at once, and I want to hear it again. But this is what I heard.
First, Paul is planning to come to Rome, and then on to Spain. He has not been here before, although he knows some dozen or so of us Christians. I think he wrote the letter to prepare the way for him to come here, and to get support for his mission in Spain. But first he is going to Jerusalem to deliver a collection to the poor there.
Second, he knows a lot about us – who we are, who the leaders are, and in whose homes the churches gather. I think he heard about us from Prisca and Aquila. They have a house church here in Rome now, and they were amongst the first to receive the good news when it came to us so many years ago. Just as now, people would gather in their home for a meal on the day of Resurrection, Sunday. Over bread and wine Prisca or Aquila would remind us of how Jesus died on the cross for us. Then we would have a psalm, a prophecy, someone might speak in tongues and another would translate, and we would pray over one another. Because they were leaders they were forced to flee to Corinth during the persecution of Nero. But they have been back now for some months. As you know, there are some 200 of us here in Rome, virtually all Greek speaking, all rather poor, living cheek by jowl in the tenement. The first of us were Jews who had moved here from elsewhere in the Empire, and brought the good news with them, but now many of us are non-Jews.
Paul also knows that we have divisions between those who are Jewish and those of us who are Gentiles. He repeatedly tells us Gentiles not to be too proud and to feel so strong in comparison to the Jews who follow Christ. He tells us that if they continue to follow the commands of Moses we should not judge them for having feast days and eating only certain kinds of food, but withhold judgment and love them.
I said that the letter was well written. Phoebe even did voices, taking on the character of Paul before he became a Christian, when he was a zealot persecuting the followers of Jesus. I almost laughed, because in the zeal of his words I could hear an echo of some of our more enthusiastic brothers and sisters. And in taking on this character, I think he was trying to cool down some of our hottest members.
Here’s what he said:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
That is, his zeal led to unfortunate consequences. He persecuted the Messiah! Of course, he thought Jesus was a false Messiah, but nevertheless he was doing evil. His religious zeal led to violence! He goes on,
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
He attacked the followers of the Way. He did not know he was doing evil, but he was.
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So he is saying that if the consequences are violence and conflict, although it might look like someone is religious, in fact they are possessed by demonic sin.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind,making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Well, thanks indeed, eh? For we do have some divisions among our little house churches. Some do think they are better than others. But this can become a body of death instead of the body of Christ. God will rescue us!
He says later on in his letter this:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you
not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,
but to think with sober judgment,
each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
For as in one body we have many members,
and not all the members have the same function,
so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
and individually we are members one of another.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:
prophecy, in proportion to faith;
ministry, in ministering;
the teacher, in teaching;
the exhorter, in exhortation;
the giver, in generosity;
the leader, in diligence;
the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
This is good stuff. I can hear myself and our community described in this letter. It’s so good I think we should keep the letter, copy it, and share it with other churches in other cities, and keep on listening to it.
May God bless Paul in his journey to Jerusalem, and may he be brought safely to us to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.