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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

“Summer Saints XII – Our Sister Phoebe”


A Greek Woman from the Second Century AD

Today is the final chapter in my series about saints in the life of the church, and how they can teach, challenge, and encourage us in our journey with Jesus.


Although there are quite a few saints in the days between today and next Sunday – and among them no less than St. Augustine – however I thought that perhaps remembering our sister Phoebe may prove to be more suitable.


And you may wonder, “Why sideline no less than St Augustine just to mention an obscure woman about whom we know almost nothing?” Well, let me answer this way, “May be, just may be that without our sister Phoebe there may have never been a St. Augustine.”


How come? Well, to begin with, and I will say more later on, there is the strong belief that “Our Sister Phoebe” took the letter that St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome from her home in Cenchrea (Today’s Kechries), near Corinth.


Just think about the consequences of one of the most significant letters of all the New Testament being lost! And, let me remind you, in those days, there were no printers and no copiers! Had the letter been lost, I wonder if Paul would have had the time, opportunity, money, and strength to write it again!


In those days, letters were handwritten on papyrus paper – and there was not liquid eraser nor eraser tape. St Paul had to pay for the paper and the scribe – a certain Tertius (Romans 16:22). In today’s money, St Paul would have had to pay over two thousand dollars or even more. The kind of money he didn’t have – was the letter paid by Phoebe herself? More to come!


So, who was Phoebe?


About twenty years after the death of Jesus, the Church grew, beyond Jerusalem unto Syria and, eventually into Cyprus, the Mediterranean shores of today’s Turkey, and eventually into Central Turkey, where a number of churches were established.


During his second missionary trip, St Paul intended to continue northward but eventually the Spirit led them towards Macedonia and Greece. After some harrowing adventures, Paul reaches Athens and finally arrives in Corinth were he establishes the church.


There he meets Priscilla and Aquila, the first century Christian missionary married couple described in the New Testament. In the words of Paul, they were, “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” (Sermon for July 9, 2023).


As we know, at one point the Jewish community decided that they would have nothing to do with them anymore. And so, the new believers moved to the house of a Gentile convert, Titus Julius. It was there where St Paul spent one year and half preaching and teaching.


Among those new Christians there was a certain woman, Phoebe, whom ultimately St Paul would describe as a sister, a deacon, a benefactor, and someone who had his utmost trust.


St Paul not only spent his time ministering to the Corinthians but, as we know, word reached to him that a church in Rome had already been established. How did he hear about Rome? We don’t know, other than that his host in Corinth was a certain Titus Julius, quite a Roman name.


It appears that for one reason or other he could not go himself to Rome, so he did the best next thing – He wrote to them. And so, he begins his letter telling his fellow Christians that he thanks “God through Jesus Christ for all of them, because their faith in Jesus is being talked about all over the world.”


And so, he continues, “God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart. One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. For I long to visit you.” (Romans 1:8-11).


In the days without UPS or FedEx, the only way to send a letter was with a courier. And, naturally, the more important the message, the more trustworthy had to be the messenger.


In those days being a messenger was a risky proposition. The messenger could be robbed or just take the money and trash the letter – “Lost in the mail…”


Enter Phoebe. It is quite clear that the church in Corinth grew, and a local ministry developed. Why do we know that? First, we know that at least they had a deacon, Phoebe. And then there was Aquila and Priscila, and Apollos, and perhaps some others. In those days there were no “Lone-Ranger-priests!”


Leadership was like the way we make it happen here at St David’s. It was spread out “according to the diverse gifts” that God shares.


But let’s go back to Phoebe. Before closing his letter to the church in Rome, in 16:1-2, St Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Kechries. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.”


So, Phoebe was not just Paul’s sister. “Our sister” involved not only the people in Rome but all Christians through the ages, even us. What a wonderful truth! As St Paul taught in our second lesson, we are members of the Body of Christ and, as such, members of one another.


And in the days where women were discounted, he asks the church to respect her dignity, “she is worthy of honor,” writes St Paul. And so, “please take good care of her for whatever her needs. She is one of yours,” St Paul tells them. Indeed, she is one of us!


Second, she is a deacon. Early in the history of the church there were both men and women deacons. So far, according to archeological research there are about over one hundred and seventy gravestones mentioning women deacons such as,


“PAULA, DEACON MOST BLESSED OF CHRIST.

“Here lies ANASTASIA DEACON,

“Distinguished resting place of AGATHE DEACON and John treasurer and

linen-weaver (Philippi)


And then, let me suggest, the most significant, and most beautiful of all,


“Here lies the slave and bride of Christ SOPHIA, DEACON, THE SECOND PHOEBE, who slept in peace the twenty-first of the month of March … the Lord God”


How beautiful and long lasting example Phoebe left, that one church honored Sophia as someone who not only followed in the steps of Christ but followed “our” Phoebe’s example.


I wonder if one day it would be written of someone, John, or Jane, as being “A second Phoebe.” This is something to think about, and if you don’t get anything else from this sermon, just think about those words.


But “deacon” means being a servant. And serving is sacrificial. Yes, we serve out of the goodness of our hearts or for Christ’s sake. But here is the thing. Real serving is not optional. Being a servant means to be willing to be ordered about and to do stuff that otherwise one may not be willing to do.


As Paul was dictating his letter to Tertius, I cannot but think that Phoebe was very much in Paul’s mind when he said, “It is important that we exercise the gifts we have been given. If preaching is your gift, then speak according to your proportion of faith. If “deaconing” is your gift, then deacon well. If teaching is your gift, then teach well. If you have been given a voice of encouragement, then use it often.”


And, finally, St Paul describes Phoebe as someone very generous – she was a “patron,” meaning someone who invested herself. It was just not a couple of bucks, but she really went in with all, not expecting a tax deduction, a payback, or a name on top of a university building.


Here again is St Paul beginning in verse 8. However, there is an important change. While in the previous sentences there was a conditional “if” – as “íf’ preaching is your gift”—now the conditional disappears, and so he writes, “The giver not expecting anything in return; the boss in not being bossy, and the compassionate in not being annoying”, (although literally St Paul writes “hilarious” using a negative word perhaps stresses better what he may had in mind).


So, this is our sister Phoebe, a deacon, a person worthy of high esteem, a nurturing giver, and a model to be followed, and whom we celebrate today. In her own way, Phoebe, like Peter, was the kind of rock upon which Christ built his Church.


Our church is named in honor of St David. And I will not propose to change the name of the church. But let me say this – I believe that St Phoebe’s spirit is alive and well represented in you and in the spirit of this congregation.


Let me suggest that it would be extremely appropriate that if one day we were to spruce up or renovate our church hall, then that it should be named, “St. Phoebe’s Hall”. It would be a perfect fit to the spirit of this congregation and become an inspirations for generations to come.


And for the privilege of serving you, I give thanks to God from whom all blessings flow and who is due all honor and glory, through Jesus Christ, world without end. Amen.


Fr. Gustavo

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