I like sports. I admit that sports are an outsized influence on our culture, but I do like sports. As I have aged, and become busier, I do not have the kind of time to watch or follow them as I did in high school or college. In those days, I watched most everything, including Australian Rules Football (which is similar to rugby). The two sports I never really watched was jai alia and underwater hockey (it is real, look it up).
People watch many different types of sports. And the type of sport being watched will influence the audience’s reaction. For instance, if a fantastic play happens in football, someone might jump off the couch to celebrate. But few will do the same for an ice skater who successfully lands a triple salchow in the Olympics.
And some sports have games that develop very differently. For instance, within one minute, a basketball game could have three or four different baskets. In baseball, it is possible to go several minutes without a ball being put into play (and that doesn’t even account for strikeouts or walks).
Therefore, it is safe to say that the type of sport and the action-factor of the sport influences the crowd at the event and those watching on television. But one thing remains consistent across most sports: the fans tend to think they are better than the players and/or coaches, and certainly the referees/umpires/judges.
It is easy to watch something from a particular angle (and especially with the addition of replay – and slow-motion replay beyond that) to see how a decision was botched by the player, a coach, or an official, each of whom had several other considerations to make at the same time. And it is easy to watch and observe and yell at others who are among the best in the world while eating potato chips and drinking a beverage of choice.
But it is harder to be in the game. That is why so few do it. Only a select few athletes are good enough to be best at what they do to be called Olympians, or professionals at whatever their sport. Sure, many fans have played sports at some organized level. But the reality is that anyone can be a fan. And that means anyone can criticize. But only the best players play the game at the highest of levels.
Why do I begin with this idea about sports? Because many see the church as the same idea. Just as fans will gather around the country on a Sunday like today to watch their favorite sport, many gather in pews and sit in their church buildings to watch others stand up front and talk, sing, etc. And, of course, many also sit on their couches and do the same thing.
And just as people watch to enjoy, but then complain and criticize the coaches, the players, the officials, and even the games, people watch and then complain and criticize those who plan, organize, serve, and lead the church.
I am not being bitter about that; I am simply stating facts. But that doesn’t mean it should be reality – especially within the church. Of course, the church is not about playing games, but we must remember, the church is not a place, it is a people, and thus, the equivalent of being in the game, is serving as the church. And that is something we are all invited to do.
That statement probably isn’t a surprise to anyone, but we must all consider our part in serving. You may recall from Romans 12, that Paul wrote about various types of service in verses 6-8. Of course, he wrote extensively about serving elsewhere, including about spiritual gifts. The idea of serving was not Paul’s idea, it was God’s. In fact, God planned for us to serve even before He created us. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2.10). Those good works in which we are to walk are works of service.
So, what does it mean to serve? And why is this our topic for today? For today, the answers are found in multiple ways in Romans 16.1-2. Let’s find each answer quickly, and then bring them all together at the end.
Commended as a Servant
Paul sent this letter to the Romans. It is a letter that has encouraged them as well as challenge them. But as we have seen over the past few messages, he had not been to Rome, and he was not ready to go yet. So, he sent this letter to them. And in Romans 16.1, we have the most likely letter carrier – a woman named Phoebe.
Phoebe is a Gentile name. It is actually the name of one of the Greek Titans, who was the grandmother of Apollo and Artemis, two of the more prominent cultural gods. But Phoebe was not known for worshipping the Greek (or Roman) gods; Paul calls her sister. That is, Phoebe was a sister in Christ, and more than that, she is a servant.
I will say more about letters of commendation in Monday’s Discipleship Video, but for now, realize these words were important for a group of people to trust those arriving, especially with a special message. Again, most people in the Romans church had never met Paul (next week, we will review a list of names in verses 3-15 that had), let alone Phoebe. But they trusted Paul, and his commendation of her, which should have provided her with the welcome she needed.
I will also discuss more about the nature of the word servant in the Discipleship Videos on Tuesday and Wednesday. But the word here is diakonos which is the word for deacon. Thus, Phoebe was not just a sister in Christ, or any type of servant, she was a deacon, which means she was an officer within her church at Cenchreae, which was located about eight miles from Corinth, where Paul was when he wrote this letter.
Commanded to Be Servants
We do not know the exact details of Phoebe’s service to Paul or to the church, but Paul is very clear Phoebe is a worthy servant. Therefore, he commands the church at Rome to care for her. Specifically, he says to welcome her. These words are important.
In the Middle East, the culture is much more welcoming than in many places. Certainly, exceptions exist, but the custom is to welcome people into your home. Here the idea was to welcome her into the church. Notice Paul’s instruction: welcome her in the Lord.
They were to welcome her as the Lord would welcome her. And, just in case they might not know what that meant, Paul included a direct statement a bit earlier. Romans 15.7 says, they were to welcome one another as Christ had welcomed them. Paul was saying that they were to welcome her (the outsider) and any possible companions, which are actually probable as a woman would not likely travel alone.
The next words, ‘in a way worthy of the saints’ could mean two different ideas, but I suggest that Paul may have meant both. They were to welcome Phoebe because she is worthy as a saint. And they were to welcome her as saints should be welcoming of others.
Serve Her Because She Has Served Others
Finally, Paul says that Phoebe was deserving of care because she had provided assistance for others. Now, our motives should be pure, and in no way does Paul give any indication that Phoebe provided assistance for others so that she would get something back in return. However, Paul does state plainly that Phoebe had been of great assistance to others, including Paul, and therefore was worthy of any help she may need. Likewise, we may have need to be served, but our service should not be with an attitude of having people owe us any kind of service.
The word Paul uses here is translated in many bibles as patron. From an historical perspective, a patron is someone who protected and cared for someone, or otherwise provided financial assistance. Again, we do not know precisely who Phoebe was, or how she served, but Paul explicitly wrote that she had been an asset to him and to his ministry. And he trusted her enough to send this letter with her, which not only had benefit for the Romans then, but to millions (billions?) of people since.
And upon her arrival, the church at Rome would realize Paul sent her, and as a result were to care for whatever needs she had.
So, Paul commended Phoebe to the Roman church. He commanded the church to serve her, and said she deserved that service because of how she had served him and others.
Likewise, Jesus has served us. And we have been commanded to serve Him because of what He has done. In the text that was read for our reading today, Jesus said that He, the One who was and is, and is to come, and the one who is Creator, Lord, and King of all kings, did not come to be served. He came to serve. He came to give His life. For you. For me. For many. And, like the church at Rome, we have a choice in our response.
Will we serve? If so, how?
I am a firm believer that God gives us a type of fuel to serve. It is G-A-S. God has given us spiritual gifts. We saw this in Romans 12.6-8. A longer list of gifts can be found in 1 Corinthians 12. Ephesians 4 is another type of list. God knows what He needs from His Church, so He gives us gifts so we can function.
God has given us certain abilities. We all have things we can do. Some of those are because of a spiritual gift, but some are simply a skill. But I like the word aptitude better. Because an ability is what we can do. But we not only can do some things, we have an aptitude to do others as well. Maybe we don’t know it yet, or maybe we haven’t learned how, but with time we can learn to do other things, and thus, those things are aptitudes. Over time, our abilities and aptitudes allow us to effectively serve the Lord as He created us (Eph 2.10).
Finally, God has given us storms. Each of us has encountered various challenges in our lives. These challenges are a type of storm we must learn from and work our way through, in order to be stronger on the other side. Some people have more difficult storms than others, but it only takes a small amount of rain to cause flooding in the right circumstances. So, we need not compare our storm to others; we need to ask God to help us grow through the storm. As Paul wrote in 2 Cor 1, God comforts us in our trials, so we can comfort others in theirs (2 Corinthians 1.3-7).
So, gifts, aptitudes, and storms help us to be better and more effective servants for God. Another way to say that is, our gifts, aptitudes, and storms are our fuel for ministry.
And certainly, Jesus wants us involved in ministry. Remember, Paul said that Phoebe was deserving of having her needs met because she had met the needs of others. Jesus has certainly met the needs of humanity – especially meeting the biggest need we have, salvation from our sin.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus gave others an opportunity to serve. Two did well, one did not. Two received rewards. The other had what had been given to him taken away and given to one of the others. But the reward was not in what was gained in other talents. And as helpful as what Paul wrote was for Phoebe, and may be nice to hear today, the reward was not what any mortal man might say about us. The real reward for the service of the two servants in Matthew 25 was the commendation, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant…’ and an invitation to ‘Enter into the joy of your master.’
At the beginning of the message today, I talked about how spectators participate. They watch, they critique, and they complain – often complaining even when the team wins. Now, I realize that even the best teams need to improve because we are human and we all make mistakes. But just like sporting spectators, many in our churches today are only spectators as well. Maybe you can’t do what I do, and I know I can’t do what many of you do, but God has given each of His children the fuel – the G.A.S. – to serve Him in some way in part to thank Him for all that He has done for us.
The question is will we do it? And if so, how?
What’s Next?: As a church, we observed the Lord’s Supper this week. As we did, the idea was to serve Him remembering how Jesus served us. We partake, but then we must serve.
How will you serve Him this week? As you hold the bread and cup, think of how Jesus served you…and what you will do to serve Him in return.