Do you like the Marx Brothers? I love the Marx Brothers. The humour is so clever, chaotic, and subversive. Duck Soup is undoubtedly their best film, but At the Circus gives you a wonderful vaudevillian show, including Groucho singing about “the most glorious creature under the sun”:
Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?Well, you get the, er, “picture” of this illustrious illustrated lady.
Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
and a torso even more so.
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia,
Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo …
I don’t suppose the Lydia of Acts 16 had any tattoos – Leviticus bans body art – but she was certainly a lady who knew how to make an entrance and leave an impression. An affluent Greek living in the Roman colony of Philippi, Lydia was a business woman, a seller of posh purple textiles. She encounters Paul and his missionary companions, has a conversation with them, and, moved to faith, she is baptised. Then to wet the lady’s head, she invites the boys back to her home for a meal. How I would like to have been a fly on those walls! The first convert to Christianity in Europe, Lydia is recognised by the Church as a saint, and the Orthodox Church has even given her the title “Equal of the Apostles”. Wow!
Of course, Lydia (“Oh Lydia!”) was not the only woman who left her mark on the early Church, as the passage we’ve just heard from Romans 16 demonstrates.
Let’s start with a critical principle for reading: always pay attention to beginnings and endings. So, too, in letters, with salutations and valedictions. The way we sign on and off may be mere boilerplate – “Dear So-and-So” and “Etcetera, etcetera”. On the other hand, they may have a significance disclosed to close and attentive reading. Perhaps that may be the case with Romans?
Another fundamental principle in approaching any text is to note its genre. Romans is, er – a letter! But for much of its history, readers have ignored this fact and treated it as a kind of mini-systematic theology. And it’s true that in Romans, after two decades of ministry, Paul is bringing it all together and writing it all down – about Jesus, I mean. Still, Romans is a letter. It’s what scholars call “occasional”, that is, it’s written to particular recipients in a specific context. Whatever the theology of the letter – well, theology is made for people, not people for theology.
But who are these people, people Paul knows by name? That in itself is interesting. For Paul had never visited the church in Rome, yet he is acquainted with quite a few of its members. How so? Presumably he has met them on his toing-and-froing around the Roman Empire – and in the early church, there was a lot of such to-and-froing. So you can understand why Paul begins the “Personal Greetings” section at the end of his letter by commending to the Roman church one Phoebe, who is acting as a postwoman between Corinth, where Paul wrote the letter, and its destination in the imperial capital. But Phoebe isn’t just a gopher, she’s a valued church-worker, indeed church leader, who has been of immense assistance to Paul.
Nor is Phoebe the only woman mentioned by Paul. There’s Prisca, or Priscilla (as she is called in the book of Acts). She and her husband Aquila were outstanding missionaries who risked their lives for Paul. Jewish Christians banished from Rome by an edict of the emperor Claudius, they worked abroad in Ephesus and Corinth, but Claudius is now dead and they have returned to their home church. The astonishing thing, however, is that Prisca is mentioned at all, since normally only the husband was named in greetings to a married couple. But Paul not only calls Prisca by name, he names her first, indicating that she is the more important of the two.
And the list of women continues. There’s Mary, and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (probably sisters), and Persis and Julia, as well the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus. And then there’s the peculiar case of Junias – or is it Junia? The manuscripts vary, but what may have happened is that, as women became more marginalised in the church during the following centuries, certain scribes replaced a woman’s name with a man’s, thus airbrushing Junia out of history. But in the original text, women account for fully a third of the people Paul greets, which is an astonishing statistic about leadership in the early church, and a shaming indictment of even the 21st century church whose members are mainly women but whose leaders are – still – mostly men. We have yet to get our heads around Paul’s revolutionary manifesto that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
And, for that matter, neither Jew nor Gentile. That’s another thing about the people Paul greets: many of them are Jews. Like Paul himself, they are Jews who have become Christians. In the Roman church there are also Gentiles who have become Christians. And it turns out that the two parties have been quarrelling. The Jewish Christians think the Gentile Christians are too liberal and treat them judgementally. The Gentile Christians think the Jewish Christians are too conservative and treat them with contempt. Sound familiar? Interest groups, lines drawn, exclusions, walk-outs – what else is new? But my opponents, Paul insists, are they not also my siblings whom the Father has given me to love, and who therefore have a non-negotiable claim on my consideration and care?
“We are,” observes Rowan Williams, “regularly undone by a form of inattention – the failure to see what other people really are – which in turn gives rise to inappropriate forms of harshness.” And the more power we have, the greater the temptation to treat fellow believers with intolerance and discourtesy. In Rome, power was shifting to the Gentile Christians, who unsurprisingly were getting what Pauls calls “boastful”. Is that why the apostle forefronts so many Jewish Christians in his greetings, even though, with his own theology of freedom, he is closer to their critics? Is he reminding the Gentiles of the debt they owe to their Jewish brothers and sisters, of how Gentiles are but honorary Jews who must use their freedom with sensitivity and respect? Is not Paul here subtly brokering the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile – of traditionalist and progressive – that is at the heart his gospel?
Male and female, Jew and Gentile – sexual and religious divisions – Paul also seeks to overcome the social divide of slave and free: all are one in Christ. And what do you know: we find that a few of the people Paul greets have names commonly used for bonded and freedmen. So we can be sure that that the church in Rome included not only men and women, Jew and Gentile, but also the wealthy and the poor, the educated and uneducated. Which leads me, finally, to make a rather astonishing observation, and to pose a quite urgent question.
In his famous commentary on Romans, Karl Barth wrote this: “The possibility that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and other ordinary people would not have been able to understand the letter does not seem to have been considered [by Paul]. That is, there was once a body of men and women to whom the letter … could be sent in the confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions; that somehow or another it would be understood and valued. [That for these people] … theology – theology! – was THE living theme.” Ordinary folk who just could not get enough of thinking and talking about God. Wow!
Think about it. We can all read and write. We’ve all got some education, some of us a lot of education. Yet we find Paul’s theology demanding and difficult. Why is that? It’s not because we’re stupid. So why? It’s because Paul’s theology is difficult and demanding! It was difficult and demanding for the Roman Christians too: to the uneducated because it was learned; to the Gentiles because it was steeped in the Jewish scriptures; to the Jews because it subverted their cherished traditions. But they wrestled with the letter because of that “confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions”. The BIG questions: the meaning of life, the purpose of history, creation and redemption, how to live creatively with conflict, how to make a difference as public witnesses to truth, compassion, and peace in a world of mendacity, self-interest, and violence.
Can we say the same? Are these BIG questions – and not the “Can Christians wear tattoos?” kinds of questions! – are they still the themes that draw us to faith and fellowship, that challenge and inspire us, that we can’t stop thinking and talking about? In Emily Dickinson’s striking image, is God “still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul”? In Philip Larkin’s famous phrase, is the church still “A serious house on serious earth …, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet”? May it be so – for each of us and all of us – A, B, C, D, … and all the saints at Uniting Church Sketty!
Paul concludes his greetings (the translation is mine): “Cwtches all around!” Not a bad way to conclude a sermon – and head towards the sacrament!