Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Marks Of Healthy Ministry Team


Romans 16:1-16

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae (SEHN-kree-ay ). I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus (a-pen-nee-tus), who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia (dzhou-nih-uhs), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Greet Ampliatus (am-plee-AY-tuhs), my dear friend in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys (STAY-kihs).
10 Greet Apelles (uh - P el - les), whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
11 Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
12 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.
13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them.
15 Greet Philologus (phil O' log us), Julia, Nereus (NEE-roos) and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them.
16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ send greetings.
 ------------------------------------------------------
This is one of the most difficult Bible passages that I’ve ever had to read. There are just so many unfamiliar names that I had to spend an hour just trying to Google for the right pronunciations. And it makes you wonder (doesn’t it?): What is a list of names and greetings like this doing in the Holy Scriptures? And how in the world are we gonna do a sermon, much less a Church Anniversary sermon based on this text?

Truth be told, many of us reading this would be tempted to just skip all that and focus on something more interesting, isn’t it?

Unless of course, you are going to have a baby and would like to choose a biblical name for him or her… if that’s you, today’s passage is very relevant. It’s a treasure chest full of very original and exotic names you can choose from! Tryphosa Tan? Philologus a/l Victor? Sosipater bin Indra? How about that for a name?  

But I guess this is not the main reason why this passage is included in the Bible. Nor is its purpose in the canon just to fill up space. If other name lists in the Bible such as the genealogies of Jesus contain important precious nuggets of truth, I think this list of greetings at the end of Romans deserves our careful attention too.

But how are we going to do this?

Firstly we need to realize that when the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write this portion of Scripture, He inspired Paul to write an epistle. By the way, an epistle is not the wife of an apostle. An epistle is basically a letter. It is not just a private letter, so it is not as if we are not intruding into somebody else’ private email.

It is an open letter to be read out in public (perhaps in a congregation as people gather to worship like what we do this morning).

And it is usually at the end of his letters that Paul does something special, something very unique that he doesn’t usually do elsewhere and it’s simply this: Paul talks about himself.
He gets into some personal details.

Of course, he did mention about himself elsewhere but it is usually at the end of his letters that Paul takes time to really ponder and reflect openly about the relationships that matter to him, about his own personal feelings, his friendships, his aspirations and plans for ministry… of what God can do and might do through him… It’s usually here that we get an insider’s look (almost from the back door) into what drives Paul or makes him tick… What frames and shapes his ministry?

Here at the end of Romans, we have a personal insight into the relationships that mean a great deal in his life and ministry.

That’s what we desperately need to hear here at CDPC Puchong on our 5th anniversary.

And there’s a reason for this: All of us gathered here as God’s people this morning are gifted to serve and minister in some capacity as Christ calls us to. It’s hard to get rid of the old idea that pastors/elders are the ones actively doing ministry and the members are the ones receiving the ministry. But that’s not the model that the Bible expresses. The biblical model is for leaders to equip all of God’s people for the works of ministry. The various gifts and abilities Christ has blessed us with are not without purpose: they are meant for something, to make disciples and grow the Body of Christ.

If all of us are doing ministry, then do you know what we need? We need someone like Paul to sit down with us and help shape our ministry and grow our spiritual friendships.

So we are invited this morning to catch a glimpse of Paul’s life, relationships and ministry aspirations and see what we can learn for our own lives, to apply to our own relationships as a church and our ministry aspirations. We are invited this morning to hear him saying to us: “Follow me as I follow Christ”.

That means we need to read Romans not only for its theology. We need to read it for the autobiography as well. We have already read it for the profound truths of the gospel.  Now we need to read it for the life examples, for the personal stories, for the meaningful friendships that grow out of the gospel.

So, what are the relationships that mark and shape a fruitful and healthy ministry team? What kind of friendships grow on fields nourished by the gospel of grace?

In chapter 15, we know that Paul has big plans to preach the gospel in places where Christ is not named. He has a macro-strategy to launch out from Rome and plant churches in cities where no one has gone before. He is like a general who can’t sit still, always restless with the world map laid out before him. He has a huge vision of gospel ministry. Next stop: Spain.  

But here in Chapter 16, we see Paul sending warm greetings to his dear friends in the Lord. He affectionately calls them his fellow workers in Christ. They are his family - notice how he calls these people: sister, brother, household, kinsmen, fellow prisoners, beloved, mother to me. And this is even more remarkable considering the fact that Paul has never been to Rome. Somebody else planted this church. But from these greetings, we get an insider’s look that actually he knew quite a lot of people here. And he knew them personally by name.

There’s a paradox here: Paul is not just a big picture kind of guy, he’s also a “people person” kind of guy. He has a global vision for mission yet he knows that you need to get involved in the personal lives of people in order for ministry to really work. He thinks global, but he acts local. He can see the forest and the trees at the same time.

And that is so rare but that is the mark of a healthy ministry. You need to commit yourself, invest time and energy in people. You dive into the messy details of each other’s lives. Gospel ministry is always enacted in the personal stories of people.  

It is not like signing up for a pyramid scheme. It is not about just downloading accurate information from a podcast. Gospel ministry is profoundly relational. Although it can be very inconvenient, our Lord Jesus did make a personal appearance and dwelt among us. He didn’t just Skype us from heaven.  

So relationships are not just the tools, not just the platform by which you get the real work of ministry done. Spiritual friendships are at the very heart of what ministry is all about.

You think fondly of your “dear friend in the Lord” (verse 7). You write long letters (or emails) to them when you are apart. You miss them. You remember what they have done for you. Look at verse 4: “Priscilla and Aquila: They risked their necks for me.”

And you show your affection to them. In those days and even today in the Middle East, you do that with a kiss (look at verse 16). In our Malaysian context, you might do that with a holy handshake. Never underestimate the significance of greeting each other with a smile and handshake.

Think for a moment  about the relationships you have formed in this church. For some of us, we are just getting to know people. Maybe for the first time, in fact... For others, we have probably known each other for many years. Maybe we have been coming to the same place for worship every Sunday for the past 5 years or perhaps even longer if you came from CDPC Subang. Maybe some of us have known each other for 10 years +.

Whether it is one month or one year or five years or more, when you look back on all the relationships you have built in and through this church, what do you find? What is significant? What is memorable? What is precious and meaningful?

I hope that when I look back, I don’t recall nothing but the quality of donuts, nasi lemak and coffee we shared (though that’s important). I hope it’s not the case that I don’t even know the names of my brothers and sisters whom I have met week in week out for 10 years. And it can easily happen if we don’t think about these things. I certainly hope that our relationships go deeper than “Hi and bye!”

Looking back on these years, I can be grateful for when Grace was hospitalized for high blood pressure, members of the church came and prayed for her. I hope I can recall having meaningful conversations and prayers over meals at each others’ homes. I can think back and remember all the ups and downs we share (especially the ministry leaders) as we stand shoulder to shoulder in laboring for God and His people. Yes, I wanna look back and remember the delicious food that many have prepared for Kopitiam too… but I see beyond the great food to the meticulous love that it represents.

Who can say what will happen to CDPC Puchong in another 5 years or 10 years?

But what I do hope is when we do look back at our relationships, we can say this together:

We are fellow workers in the gospel. We are not just friends, but friends in Christ.
You have been a sister to me. You are an elder brother to me. A mother to me.

That’s the first thing we see: Ministry is relational because God is interested in people.

He is working through his word and by his spirit to adopt sons and daughters into His family.

2) The second thing we need to realize from Paul’s greetings is this: Ministry is about doing things as a community, as a team.

If you remember, Paul is a trained and certified scholar from the Ivy League of his day. He studied law and theology from the best teachers. He can go toe to toe with the best philosophers out there. On top of that, he is authorized as an apostle of Christ. He heals the sick, casts out demons, performs signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. If anyone can pull off ministry all by himself, it’s got to be Paul.

But you can see here that Paul is not a one-man show. He’s not a lone ranger. He serves alongside a great company of friends and “fellow workers” in the Lord.

Who are these people? We begin with a sister Phoebe who was a deaconess of the church. Paul commended her to the church in Rome, asking them to receive her “in the Lord” in a way worthy of His people. Why? For she has been a benefactor, a patron to many people including Paul himself. She may have been a wealthy lady who supported the ministry.  

Then we find a husband and wife teaching team in Priscilla and Aquila. They worked as tent makers and servants of the gospel together with Paul in Ephesus. They even instructed Apollos a well known teacher in the early church (Acts 18).

There is possibility of another man and woman team in Andronicus and Junia, who had suffered alongside Paul in prison. We can’t be 100% sure whether the name Junia was male or female though. And the text could either be understood as “they were esteemed outstanding by the apostles” or “they were outstanding amongst the apostles”. In any case, if the second meaning is correct, that probably means that they were outstanding frontier missionaries or church planters in the early church.

We also see a number of women that Paul singled out for praise. He thinks highly of these hard workers in service of the Lord: Mary (v6), Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (in verse 12). Far from being a male chauvinist, Paul’s ministry team is actually very gender inclusive. That’s quite counter cultural in a male-dominated society.

Apart from gender, we can see that the Roman church is also racially inclusive. Paul mentioned some of the names as fellow Jewish Christians (see verse 7 and 11). And many others on his list were Gentile Christians. That’s why the church in Rome had to deal with the issue of eating ‘halal’ food, observing festivals and things like that.

Last but not least, you notice in verse 5, 14 and 15 that there are groups of people that meet in different homes. Greet so-and-so and the saints who were with them. Greet so and so and the church that meets at their house. So the church in Rome was really several churches that meet in various homes. See verse 23: Paul himself was enjoying the hospitality of Gaius who opened up his home not only for him, but the whole church.

Do you see a beautiful picture of saints working in networks, in partnerships, in collaboration? This list of seemingly mundane greetings actually give us a clue into what makes Paul’s ministry tick: He works in diverse, inclusive teams. He journeys with the fellowship of the King.   

What can we learn from that?

From Day 1 (March 21, 2010), CDPC Puchong is a collaboration of males and females of different ethnicities centered on Christ.

Like the Roman church, we can be thankful for all the women here who work very hard in the Lord – you know who you are, behind the scenes, teaching the children, decorating the church premises, running the library, English program or cleaning up after kopitiam. I can easily identify a dozen ladies who invested the lion’s share of creativity, energy, time and passion in these areas. But I’ve also learnt the ladies here prefer to remain low key: in fact I’d get scolded if I single them out for praise. Because they would say: Why didn’t you also mention so-and-so? If you mention me, you should mention everybody-lar. Anyway, ladies… we know who you are and thank you for your labor of love.  

Like the Roman church, CDPC Puchong has a great opportunity to be welcoming so that Malaysians of all ethnic groups can worship and work together with brothers and sisters from Egypt, Korea, Indonesia, the United States and beyond. We work at being racially inclusive and gender inclusive because of the gospel. There are practical reasons for that but fundamentally, the reason is theological.

In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentiles. In Christ, there is neither bumiputra or non-bumiputra. By our love, by serving and suffering together, we show what it means to be the only community in the world in which Christ has broken down all dividing walls.

We can also be thankful for risk-taking patrons, benefactors and partners who contributed generously to the founding of this church and the children’s library.

Let’s consider how doing ministry as a community looks like. Our priorities in CDPC are: Reach out, making disciples, growing leaders who in turn make disciples. I was like Frodo: I know I must be on this mission, to go to Mordor, but I don’t know the way. And this husband and wife team was among the first to say to me: We will help you! We believe in this vision.

They have been such an encouragement to many young disciples, reaching out to students. We would put a high level idea on the board, and every one just jumps on it, adds to it or subtracts from it. And the final result ends up so beautiful that none of us working alone would have done it.

Sure, we don’t always see eye to eye on all issues but we share a common vision to see gospel growth in people. We have come to trust in their wisdom, commitment and love for the church. So we are free to speak openly and frankly to sharpen each other or give push backs or fine tune our decisions.  It’s so beautiful. If you are available, come and sit in and observe one of these meetings. I often leave afterwards feeling so energized and hopeful because we reflect and act in community.

So a special thank you, Tom and Janet. You are our very own version of “Priscilla and Aquila”.

On behalf of all the ministry leaders, I want to say to this: We can’t do this alone. We need help to build this community. We need you in the game. Come talk to me. Talk to any of the leaders – “David, I may not be the best player, but I want to be in the game. Where can I plug in?”

If you think greetings and name lists at the end of Paul’s letters are boring, think twice. They actually reveal lots about what matters most in his ministry, about the character of the church that speaks powerfully to our own ministry, and the ethos of our church today. We need to follow him as he follows Christ as we celebrate the 5th anniversary of CDPC Puchong.


Let us pray. 

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