There are a great number of otherwise unknown Christians who pass for a moment before our view in this chapter. Their characterisations are like the slight outlines in the background of some great artist's canvas: a touch of the brush is all that is spared for each, and yet, if we like to look sympathetically, they live before us. Now, this good woman, about whom we never hear again, and for whom these few words are all her epitaph -- was apparently, judging by her name, of Persian descent, and possibly had been brought to Rome as a slave. At all events, finding herself there, she had somehow or other become connected with the Church in that city, and had there distinguished herself by continuous and faithful Christian toil which had won the affection of the Apostle, though he had never seen her, and knew no more about her. That is all. She comes into the foreground for a moment, and then she vanishes. What does she say to us?
First of all, like the others named by Paul, she helps us to understand, by her living example, that wonderful, new, uniting process that was carried on by means of Christianity. The simple fact of a Persian woman getting a loving message from a Jew, the woman being in Rome and the Jew in Corinth, and the message being written in Greek, brings before us a whole group of nationalities all fused together. They had been hammered together, or, if you like it better, chained together, by Roman power, but they were melted together by Christ's Gospel. This Eastern woman and this Jewish man, and the many others whose names and different nationalities pass in a flash before us in this chapter, were all brought together in Jesus Christ.
If we run our eye over these salutations, what strikes one, even at the first sight, is the very small number of Jewish names; only one certain, and another doubtful. Four or five names are Latin, and then all the rest are Greek, but this woman seemingly came from further east than any of them. There they all were, forgetting the hostile nationalities to which they belonged, because they had found One who had brought them into one great community. We talk about the uniting influence of Christianity, but when we see the process going on before us, in a case like this, we begin to understand it better.
But another point may be noticed in regard to this uniting process -- how it brought into action the purest and truest love as a bond that linked men. There are four or five of the people commended in this chapter of whom the Apostle has nothing to say but that they are beloved. This is the only woman to whom he applies that term. And notice his instinctive delicacy: when he is speaking of men he says, 'My beloved'; when he is greeting Persis he says, 'the beloved,' that there may be no misunderstanding about the 'my' -- 'the beloved Persis which laboured much in the Lord' -- indicating, by one delicate touch, the loftiness, the purity, and truly Christian character of the bond that held them together. And that is no true Church, where anything but that is the bond -- the love that knits us to one another, because we believe that each is knit to the dear Lord and fountain of all love.
What more does this good woman say to us? She is an example living and breathing there before us, of what a woman may be in God's Church. Paul had never been in Rome; no Apostle, so far as we know, had had anything to do with the founding of the Church. The most important Church in the Roman Empire, and the Church which afterwards became the curse of Christendom, was founded by some anonymous Christians, with no commission, with no supervision, with no officials amongst them, but who just had the grace of God in their hearts, and found themselves in Rome, and could not help speaking about Jesus Christ. God helped them, and a little Church sprang into being. And the great abundance of salutations here, and the honourable titles which the Apostle gives to the Christians of whom he speaks, and many of whom he signalises as having done great service, are a kind of certificate on his part to the vigorous life which, without any apostolic supervision or official direction, had developed itself there in that Church.
Now, it is to be noticed that this striking form of eulogium which is attached to our Persis she shares in common with others in the group. And it is to be further noticed that all those who are, as it were, decorated with this medal -- on whom Paul bestows this honour of saying that they had 'laboured,' or 'laboured much in the Lord,' are women that stand alone in the list. There are several other women in it, but they are all coupled with men -- husbands or brothers, or some kind of relative. But there are three sets of women, I do not say single women, but three sets of women, standing singly in the list, and it is about them, and them only, that Paul says they 'laboured,' or 'laboured much.' There is a Mary who stands alone, and she 'bestowed much labour on' Paul and others. Then there are, in the same verse as my text, two sisters, Tryphena and Tryphosa, whose names mean 'the luxurious.' And the Apostle seems to think, as he writes the two names that spoke of self-indulgence: 'Perhaps these rightly described these two women once, but they do not now. In the bad old days, before they were Christians, they may have been rightly named luxurious-living. But here is their name now, the luxurious is turned into the self-sacrificing worker, and the two sisters "labour in the Lord."' Then comes our friend Persis, who also stands alone, and she shares in the honour that only these other two companies of women share with her. She 'laboured much in the Lord.' In that little community, without any direction from Apostles and authorised teachers, the brethren and sisters had every one found their tasks; and these solitary women, with nobody to say to them, 'Go and do this or that,' had found out for themselves, or rather had been taught by the Spirit of Jesus, what they had to do, and they worked at it with a will. There are many things that Christian women can do a great deal better than men, and we are not to forget that this modern talk about the emancipation of women has its roots here in the New Testament. We are not to forget either that prerogative means obligation, and that the elevation of woman means the laying upon her of solemn duties to perform. I wonder how many of the women members of our Churches and congregations deserve such a designation as that? We hear a great deal about 'women's rights' nowadays. I wish some of my friends would lay a little more to heart than they do, 'women's duties.'
And now, lastly, the final lesson that I draw from this eulogium of an otherwise altogether unknown woman is that she is a model of Christian service.
First, in regard to its measure. She 'laboured much in the Lord.' Now, both these two words, 'laboured' and 'much,' are extremely emphatic. The word rightly translated 'laboured' will appear in its full force if I recall to you a couple of other places in which it is employed in the New Testament. You remember that touching incident about our Lord when, being 'wearied with His journey, He sat thus on the well.' 'Wearied' is the same word as is here used. Then, you remember how the Apostle, after he had been hauling empty nets all night in the little, wet, dirty fishing-boat, said, perhaps with a yawn, 'Master, we have toiled all the night and caught nothing.' He uses the same word as is employed here. Such is the sort of work that these women had done -- work carried to the point of exhaustion, work up to the very edge of their powers, work unsparing and continuous, and not done once in some flash of evanescent enthusiasm, but all through a dreary night, in spite of apparent failures.
There is the measure of service. Many of us seem to think that if we say 'I am tired,' that is a reason for not doing anything. Sometimes it is, no doubt; and no man has a right so to labour as to impair his capacity for future labour, but subject to that condition I do not know that the plea of fatigue is a sufficient reason for idleness. And I am quite sure that the true example for us is the example of Him who, when He was most wearied, sitting on the well, was so invigorated and refreshed by the opportunity of winning another soul that, when His disciples came back to Him, they looked at His fresh strength with astonishment, and said to themselves, 'Has any man brought Him anything to eat?' Ay, what He had to eat was work that He finished for the Father, and some of us know that the truest refreshment in toil is a change of toil. It is almost as good to shift the load on to the other shoulder, or to take a stick into the other hand, as it is to put away the load altogether. Oh, the careful limits which Christian people nowadays set to their work for Jesus! They are not afraid of being tired in their pursuit of business or pleasure, but in regard to Christ's work they will let anything go to wrack and ruin rather than that they should turn a hair, by persevering efforts to prevent it. Work to the limit of power if you live in the light of blessedness.
She 'laboured much in the Lord,' or, as Jesus Christ said about the other woman who was blamed by the people that did not love enough to understand the blessedness of self-sacrifice, 'she had done what she could.' It was an apology for the form of Mary's service, but it was a stringent demand as to its amount. 'What she could' -- not half of what she could; not what she conveniently could. That is the measure of acceptable service.
Then, still further, may we not learn from Persis the spring of all true Christian work? She 'laboured much in the Lord,' because she was 'in Him,' and in union with Him there came to her power and desire to do things which, without that close fellowship, she neither would have desired nor been able to do. It is vain to try to whip up Christian people to forms of service by appealing to lower motives. There is only one motive that will last, and bring out from us all that is in us to do, and that is the appeal to our sense of union and communion with Jesus Christ, and the exhortation to live in Him, and then we shall work in Him. If you link the spindles in your mill, or the looms in your weaving-shed, with the engine, they will go. It is of no use to try to turn them by hand. You will only spoil the machinery, and it will be poor work that you will get off them.
So, dear brethren, be 'in the Lord.' That is the secret of service, and the closer we come to Him, and the more continuously, moment by moment, we realise our individual dependence upon Him, and our union with Him, the more will our lives effloresce and blossom into all manner of excellence and joyful service, and nothing else that Christian people are whipped up to do, from lower and more vulgar motives than that, will. It may be of a certain kind of inferior value, but it is far beneath the highest beauty of Christian service, nor will its issues reach the loftiest point of usefulness to which even our poor service may attain.
Persis seems to me to suggest, too, the safeguard of work. Ah, if she had not 'laboured in the Lord,' and been 'in the Lord' whilst she was labouring, she would very soon have stopped work. Our Christian work, however pure its motive when we begin it, has in itself the tendency to become mechanical, and to be done from lower motives than those from which it was begun. That is true about a man in my position. It is true about all of us, in our several ways of trying to serve our dear Lord and Master. Unless we make a conscience of continually renewing our communion with Him, and getting our feet once more firmly upon the rock, we shall certainly in our Christian work, having begun in the spirit, continue in the flesh, and before we know where we are, we shall be doing work from habit, because we did it yesterday at this hour, because people expect it of us, because A, B, or C does it, or for a hundred other reasons, all of which are but too familiar to us by experience. They are sure to slip in; they change the whole character of the work, and they harm the workers. The only way by which we can keep the garland fresh is by continually dipping it in the fountain. The only way by which we can keep our Christian work pure, useful, worthy of the Master, is by seeing to it that our work itself does not draw us away from our fellowship with Him. And the more we have to do, the more needful is it that we should listen to Christ's voice when He says to us, 'Come ye yourselves apart with Me into a solitary place, and there renew your communion with Me.'
The last lesson about our work which I draw from Persis is the unexpected immortality of true Christian service. How Persis would have opened her eyes if anybody had told her that nearly 1900 years after she lived, people in a far-away barbarous island would be sitting thinking about her, as you and I are doing now! How astonished she would have been if it had been said to her, 'Now, Persis, wheresoever in the whole world the Gospel is preached, your name and your work and your epitaph will go with it, and as long as men know about Jesus Christ, your and their Master, they will know about you, His humble servant.' Well, we shall not have our names in that fashion in men's memories, but Jesus will have your name and mine, if we do His work as this woman did it, in His memory. 'I will never forget any of their works.' And if we -- self-forgetful to the limit of our power, and as the joyful result of our personal union with that Saviour who has done everything for us -- try to live for His praise and glory in any fashion, then be sure of this, that our poor deeds are as immortal as Him for whom they are done, and that we may take to ourselves the great word which He has spoken, when He has declared that at the last He will confess His confessors' names before the angels in heaven. Blessed are the living that 'live in the Lord'; blessed are the workers that work 'in the Lord,' for when they come to be the dead that 'die in the Lord' and rest from their labours, their works shall follow them.