If you have a bible handy, turn to Romans 16:1-15. I’m almost certain you’ve never heard it preached on. You may even have skipped over it in order to get to 1 Corinthians. But hold on, it’s a part of scripture so it’s there for a reason. Paul, dictating the letter to Tertius, is signing off. Before he does, he takes time to individually mention and affirm some of the people he knows in Rome. What catches my attention is what it is about these people that he affirms most often.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church…for she has been a great help to many people including me.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker.
Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord”
Now doubtless these people had other gifts. For instance we learn elsewhere that Priscilla and Aquila were teachers. Others on Paul’s list may have been prophets, apostles or evangelists. But what Paul is commending is their willingness to serve, to help, and to work hard.
Worker. It’s not a glamorous title is it? At least not to our ears. Maybe if we’d been on the list we’d have preferred to be recognised for our persuasive preaching or our wise leadership. But what Paul is grateful for, what he wants to commend and encourage is hard work. Remember that minister simply means servant and that to have a ministry is to be called to serve other people. In the radically different logic of the Kingdom, the last shall be first and the leader is a servant. And what do servants do? They work.
Without hard work, God given dreams and visions will remain unfulfilled. The rebuilding of Jerusalem described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is a good example of this. It was God who moved Cyrus King of Persia to support the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, and God’s hand was evident as the rebuilding progressed. But the exiles who returned had to provide the physical labour to turn vision into reality.
As in Romans 16, Chapter 3 of Nehemiah carefully records the names of the workers. Almost everyone – priests, Levites, goldsmiths, district rulers, temple servants and guards – joined in the work and the few who did not, who “would not put their shoulders to the work”, are mentioned dissaprovingly. The fact that scripture lists the names of the workers tells us something about what God sees and values. He recognises and remembers the efforts of people who would otherwise be forgotten as well as the kings and princes whose names find their way into the history books.
God is not impressed by celebrity or status. He sees our hearts and he knows how we have worked. It makes no difference whether or not our work is recognised by those around us, God sees.
The people rebuilding Jerusalem carried on their work in the face of threats and intimidation. At one stage they had to carry weapons as well as building materials. But they continued until the walls were rebuilt and dedicated to God with great celebration and rejoicing. They had all played a part, from the least to the greatest, and their names are still there for us to see and be inspired by.
Like the returning exiles, our task is to build. We’re building families, communities and churches that bring glory to God and a blessing to our neighbours. We need the impetus of visions and prophecies but we also need the day-by-day choosing to be faithful in prayer, to serve with joy and to use our time and energy wisely. And most of this choosing is unseen and away from public gaze. What we do on platforms and stages is important, but no more so than what we do in our homes, factories and offices.
Returning to Romans 16, Paul certainly did not undervalue the gifts of the Spirit. He tells the Corinthian church to “eagerly desire the greater gifts”. But he was also looking for what we often call character; to be helpful, to be ready to serve, to work hard. He valued the people who shared his devotion to mission and could be relied on whatever happened. Paul and his fellow workers also understood about grace and works. Paul’s letters celebrate God’s undeserved favour and warn the churches against slipping back into believing that we can in any way earn our salvation.
So Mary, Urbanus and their colleagues were not driven by guilt or trying to win salvation through their own efforts. Like Paul and the other apostles, they were compelled by love. Their lives had been transformed by the measureless goodness of God and the work Paul commends them for was their grateful response.
So let’s remember to honour character as well as gifting. The people who follow their calling in good times and bad, whether or not anyone is watching. The people who are always ready to help, to encourage and to share the load. The workers.