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Sister Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. Romans 16.1-2.

My random selection program presented me with chapter 16 of Romans this morning as the chapter from which to select my reading for the day. As with yesterday’s chapter from Leviticus, it at first seemed an unpromising chapter in which to find anything much to meditate upon or write about — it is simply a commendation and then a list of greetings at the end of this mighty outpouring of Christian doctrine from the hand of Paul. But as I read on … “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys, etc, etc,” I was suddenly struck by the fact that Romans was written to real people in a real place (not to learned theologians closeted in ancient universities); and that it was almost certainly carried to Rome in a lady’s handbag! The fact that Paul commends Phoebe to the Christians in Rome, means that the letter was being taken to Rome by Phoebe.

But who was Phoebe? We have no idea; but we can deduce quite a lot about her from what Paul does and doesn’t say. First, he doesn’t commend anyone other than Phoebe or refer to any of her travelling companions so it is almost certain that Phoebe was travelling with a retinue of servants. It would have been unheard of for a woman to travel from Cenchreae (which was the port of Corinth) to Rome entirely alone. But if she was travelling with servants, then she must have been a woman of means. And the very fact that she was making the journey from Corinth to Rome supports that. She must have had business there of some kind, which is why Paul has asked her to take the letter for him … and which is probably why he tells the Christians in Rome “help her in whatever she may need from you.” Perhaps she was there to sort out a question of inheritance or to negotiate some business arrangement.

Her name is intriguing too. Phoebe is the feminine version of Phoibos, meaning “Bright One,” and is the name of the god Apollo. It is the kind of name given to a slave, and slaves generally retained their names if and when they were set free. So Phoebe may well have been a former slave who, by the time she was carrying Paul’s letter to Rome, was a wealthy freedwoman. Almost certainly, it was financial support that she had given to Paul and others. “She has been a patron of many and of myself as well,” he says. A prostatis (which is the word used to describe Phoebe) is either a legal representative or a wealthy patron, but a woman could not be a legal representative at that time so “patron” is the correct translation.

But she did more than help out Paul and others with her wealth. She was a “servant of the church.” The word here is diakonos which as well as “servant” can mean “deacon.” Does this mean that Phoebe had some sort of official position of leadership in the church at Cenchreae? Long ago, Origen said that in this passage, “we learn that female ministers are recognised in the church,” and he may well have been right. Though there was not the distinction then between “ordained” and “lay” ministry that there is now, Phoebe was clearly engaged in some ministry in the church of Corinth that singled her out as a diakonos. Perhaps that is where Paul first encountered her? We know that he once went there for “at Cenchreae he had cut his hair,” (Acts 18.18).

But above all, she was a “sister.” To Paul, all believers — rich or poor, slave or free — were family, and were to be welcomed as such by other believers wherever they went. The Christians in Rome were to “welcome [Phoebe] in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints.” They were to welcome her as Jesus would welcome her.

Somehow, I feel I know Phoebe now. And it just gives me a wonderful sense this morning of this great family of Christ that I belong to … stretching backward and forward through time, and spread right across the world. You who read this are, of course, part of that family too — a family that will one day meet together, face to face, in the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. A family that most certainly includes our dear sister Phoebe!

PS. Thank goodness she didn’t lose her handbag!

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