I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Supporting the local church
‘Some are called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments’ and some to ‘the ministry of church related community work’. So says the URC’s Basis of Union (paras 21 and 22). The first of those roles helps the local church to shape its worship, its pastoral life and its outreach. The second role enables congregation and local community to work together for justice and the common good.
Phoebe might have done well in either of those roles. She had a key position in the local church as a ‘deacon’. That word suggests both humble service – someone who’s not afraid to roll their sleeves up – and also a position of trust and respect.
She appears to have been the carrier of the Letter to the Romans. So she might have been asked to talk about its message with Christians who received it. ‘What’s Paul getting at? Does he tell other churches about these things? What difference have these ideas made to your life?’ I wonder if Phoebe was an off-the-cuff theologian, who could talk with others about God in unrehearsed yet serious and searching ways. That’s quite a gift, but we continue to need people who can do it well.
She was generous too, as a ‘benefactor’. Phoebe found ways of supporting others, and providing for them, whether with her goods or with her deeds. She may have been one of those early Christians who opened their home for the church to meet, who shared food with those who had too little, who noticed the sick and struggling.
Phoebe could navigate the complex waters of human relationships and leave other people feeling encouraged and helped. She had the confidence of church members at Cenchreae (a port in Greece). She had the nerve to travel and connect with a different set of people in a new place. As she went, she carried a message, to make people think deeply and help them to trust in Jesus. I thank God for Phoebe – and for you, if you do any of these things today.
Generous God, help me to be like Phoebe: open and kind, when others are in need; practical, when there’s a task to be done; confident, in finding my feet somewhere new; respectful and helpful, among people of all kinds.
And help me to notice the Phoebes around me, to honour them, help them and learn from them.
In the name of Jesus Christ the servant King. Amen.
The Revd John Proctor is a member of Downing Place URC, Cambridge, and General Secretary of the URC.