Stories – Romans 16:1-16

by Roger McCay
29 March 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:1-16
Link to Audio Version

He regularly risked his neck for my life. While deployed to Iraq, serving as a Battalion Chaplain, my chaplain assistant, (SPC) Swaringen (later, SGT Swaringen), was assigned to assist in the religious support of our unit. His duties were rather expansive. The Army Regulation on Chaplains at the time stated:

Chaplain assistants require skills in combat survival, religious support, human relations, counseling, administration, funds management, and staff level support for battalion and echelons above. [1]

Swaringen took his duties seriously. He was a Christian brother, and we worked alongside one another to take care of soldiers as best we could. He set up for worship services, ran the sound system, played in the band, and took care of all sorts of little details so that I didn’t have to worry with them and could focus specifically on the ministry of a Battalion Chaplain at war.

Often, heading out in sector to provide worship services or other religious support to the troops, Swaringen went with me. Since the Army does not allow chaplains to have weapons to defend themselves, Swaringen was my defense. He was very diligent about it. Whenever we were out of the vehicles in sector, he was alert looking for danger putting himself between me and anything that looked suspicious. I felt very comfortable with his abilities. Yet, every time we got in the vehicle we both knew we were risking our necks, for the next IED blast could be directed at us. Swaringen regularly risked his neck for my life and the ministry of the Lord.

We all have a story to tell, and, when we hear the stories of others, we pick up on similarities in their stories and ours. We instinctively find connections and ways to relate. This fits with a larger truth. Our stories are all interlinked—interlinked within the very plan and purpose of God in the master story that is history—History.

Sometimes, however, we get so caught up in our own stories that we become self-centered in our own little tale. As Christians, such a mindset causes us to lose sight of how our story interlinks with the larger narrative of the whole body of Christ. We lose a huge gift we have in one another. Our stories help unify us amid diversity, strengthen us, guide us, and show us that we are not alone in our journey. They lead us to take care of one another and honor one another.

When we look at Ch. 16 of Romans and see this list of greetings from Paul to his friends in Rome, it is important to take the time to look deeper at the stories of these people. Although their stories took place nearly 2 millennia ago, and the list includes all sorts of people from the powerful and wealthy to slaves, their story is our story.

How so? Well, let’s look and see. First, there is Phoebe—vv. 1-2:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 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.

Phoebe has long been held in high distinction in the church based on Paul’s words for her. He called her “our sister,” “a servant of the church,” one of the “saints,” and “a patron of many.” Phoebe was evidently a woman of means, since she was a patroness, and likely a widow. It is clear that she was a woman who ministered in the church of Cenchrea to Paul and others as a servant of the church, probably in the capacity of one of the widows on the “list” referred to in 1 Tim. 5:9-10. Her widow status is also consistent with the Greco-Roman culture at the time because, as one theologian explains, “She could not… have been mentioned as acting in the independent manner described…either if her husband had been living or if she had been unmarried.” [2]

What a story she must have had! She likely witnessed the churches start and grow in Cenchrea and Corinth, and she came directly under the apostle Paul’s teachings and many of the other early missionaries. Her home was at the seaport and her husband may very well have been a businessman of some sort there. She could have had a huge home in the Roman style along with all that went with that sort of household. And, at the time that Paul wrote this letter, she was leaving for Rome to take care of some business there—likely a legal matter.