I have always admired courage. The courage I admire doesnt have to be dramatic: a military hero outnumbered twenty-five to one, fighting off enemy commandos when the whole world would think he had no chance at all. The courage I admire can be so undramatic as scarcely to be noticeable: the woman with advanced arthritis who has struggled valiantly for decades to get herself up one flight of stairs, the elderly widower whose grown-up children scorn him yet who thrives amidst rejection and isolation, the psychiatrically wounded person who braves the day despite nameless terrors that no one else can be expected to understand.
Epaphroditus was never a hero in the sense that Paul was deemed a hero. Paul, we know, had been beaten several times, had been shipwrecked, had escaped pursuers on several occasions, and was even in prison when he wrote his brief letter to the congregation in Philippi. Epaphroditus, on the other hand, appeared to be a little-known fellow in a small congregation. Yet when the congregation wanted to support Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, and when the congregation wanted to get a gift to the apostle it loved, it sent Epaphroditus.
Make no mistake. Epaphroditus was exceedingly courageous. He was, after all, friend and personal attendant to a notorious fellow who was awaiting trial on a capital offense. Eddie Greenspan wasn't on hand to defend the apostle, and therefore when the full weight of the Roman empire fell on Paul it would surely crush as well the younger man now labelled an accomplice. Epaphroditus couldn't have been more courageous.
Then Epaphroditus fell ill, dreadfully ill. As he struggled back to health Paul thought the younger man should return to the congregation in Philippi. In the first place Paul didn't want to endanger the young man any more. In the second place he knew that the congregation in Philippi was aware of Epaphroditus's illness and wanted to see for themselves that he was well again. In the third place Epaphroditus had had his fill of Rome, the "Big Apple", and wanted to go back to the smaller city and the congregation which loved him. In the fourth place Paul wanted to get a letter (really, a short theological treatise) to the congregation in Philippi, and having Epaphroditus deliver it would guarantee its safe delivery. The decision was made: Epaphroditus would return to Philippi.
Now while the Christian fellowship in Philippi was rich and warm and without major problems Paul knew that nonetheless there would be two or three "snarky" people in it who were suspicious gossipers with curdled sentiments. The two or three snarky people would gossip that Epaphroditus was a coward and a quitter, and was returning to Philippi only because he had "chickened out" of supporting Paul. Paul knew he had to state unambiguously that Epaphroditus was neither a coward nor a quitter if only to silence the sour gossipers who are found in small numbers in any congregation. For this reason Paul underlines to the congregation that Epaphroditus has been a brother, a fellow-worker, a fellow-soldier, and a minister to his need.
[2(i)] Brother. The Greek word for "brother", adelphos, literally means "from the same womb". Brothers (sisters) come from the same womb, the same source, the same origin. "Think as highly of Epaphroditus as you think of me", Paul wrote the congregation, "because he and I are possessed of the same spiritual genes".
When people became Christians in the first century often their families turned on them and disowned them. The day he embraced Jesus Christ in faith the family of Epaphroditus wrote him off as a religious extremist now disloyal to the family and its traditions.
Throughout our Lord's earthly ministry his family hadnt understood him either. One day they came to take him home, hoping to end the embarrassment he was causing the family. "Your mother and your siblings are waiting outside for you" he was told as he spoke. "My mother?" Jesus had said, "my brothers? my sisters? Who are they? Here is my family. Whoever hears me and heeds me; whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother". Mark cherished this incident and included it in his written gospel just because he wanted to lend comfort to the readers of his gospel, thirty years later, who had been disowned by their families the day they announced their love of Jesus and their loyalty to him. These people had found a new family, a greater family, in the fellowship of Christians who now clung in faith to the elder brother of them all.
Epaphroditus was brother to Paul as Paul was brother to him. The bond that bound them together was stronger than any other tie anywhere else in life. Furthermore, the last thing Paul, the most widely-known of the apostles, wanted to do was suggest that because Epaphroditus had conveyed Paul's letter to Philippi, Epaphroditus was a mere errand-boy, mere flunkie, mere mule. He is brother to the apostle, from the same spiritual womb because born of the same Spirit of God. "Be sure to look upon him as you look upon me", Paul says to those who might be prone to look upon Epaphroditus as inferior.
Brother. My friend Reginald Miller, now retired in Chatham, N.B.; Miller spent six years as a common sailor on a British warship in World War II. You have to know the traditions of the Royal Navy to appreciate the unbreakable, unbendable line that divides officers from sailors. Yet there was one exception, Miller used to tell me; the exception was the fellowship of shipboard Christians -- officers and sailors -- when they were ashore. Naval rank meant nothing as ironfast traditions melted before the warmth of the gospel.
In the days of the early church, slaves were unalterably slaves as surely as free persons were free. There was nothing a microscopic church could do to overturn the empire's legislation. But within the Christian fellowship slaves who were mature Christians frequently taught free people (superior everywhere outside the church) the rudiments of the gospel-faith and encouraged them in it.
The highest wall, the insurmountable wall above all walls, was the wall between Jews and everyone else. Yet even this wall, Paul states in his letter to the congregation in Ephesus, Jesus Christ has crumbled. Therefore Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian reach out and embrace each other precisely where the insurmountable wall used to be. Non-Christians think the wall is still standing and therefore perpetuate the standoff! Let's not forget that Paul was a Jew whose moral rigour had been relentless; Epaphroditus was a Gentile whose family had trafficked in promiscuity. (Epaphroditus had been named after the goddess Aphrodite.) "He's my brother, you should all know", the apostle reminds those who need to be reminded. The apostle claims no superiority at all but rather insists on both an equality and a oneness with the younger man, since Epaphroditus is possessed of the same faith and loves the same Lord. Brother.
[2(ii)] Fellow-worker. What kind of fellow-worker? Fellow-tentmaker? (Paul, we know earned his living as a tentmaker.) No. We don't know what Epaphroditus did for a living. When Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as "fellow-worker" he is thinking of work as Jesus had used the word when he said, "My father is working still, and I am working." Here our Lord means energy, passion, action devoted to the kingdom of God. On one occasion Jesus came upon crowds who were spiritually clueless; they meandered, groped, stumbled, could only land themselves in spiritual disaster. Then the master turned to his disciples, "See? The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest." There are hordes who are hungry for the bread of life, even as there are too few who care to feed them. The crowds stumble blindly; therefore we need more who can take them by the hand and bring them to the sight-giver himself. In other words the work which Epaphroditus has done so well as to have Paul name him "fellow-worker" is the kingdom-work of introducing people to Jesus Christ, nurturing the growth of faith, instructing them in the way of faith, confirming them amidst the trials of faith.
This is not to say that the ministry of Epaphroditus was identical in all respects to that of Paul. Paul always wanted to announce the gospel where it had never been heard before. There is no evidence that Epaphroditus thought this to be his calling. We don't know what the young man did in his kingdom-work. He would certainly have prayed. He may have been like Barnabas, whose name, "Son of Comfort", tells us what he was about. Perhaps he had unusual discernment as to what God's plans were for this person or that or for one of the five house-churches in Rome. Perhaps he was so transparent to the light of the gospel that he shone like a lighthouse, telling life's storm-tossed that there is refuge in the risen one. One aspect of his kingdom-work, obviously, was the help he rendered Paul during the latter's imprisonment. He is never named an apostle; nevertheless the prince of apostles doesn't hesitate to call him "fellow-worker".
Every last person in every last congregation has a unique ministry. Theirs won't be ours and ours won't be theirs, but theirs and ours have the same weight and are essential to each other. We speak incorrectly when we say of someone, "Hes studying at seminary with a view to entering the ministry." With a view to entering the ministry? What do we think hes been about up until now? When we speak of someone "entering the ministry" we really mean not that he is now a Christian, not that he is finally rendering a service to the kingdom, but rather that he will shortly earn his living as a paid professional in the employment of the church-institution. Since this is what we mean, this is what we should say. According to scripture it simply isnt correct to say that the clergy are "in the ministry" while other Christians arent. To be a Christian and to have a ministry are one and the same. The particular service each of us renders the kingdom varies from person to be person, to be sure; still, we are all alike ministers and therefore fellow-workers.
[2(iii)] Fellow-soldier. Soldiering implies conflict. The gospel invariably collides with a fallen world. Jesus himself was immersed in conflict every day. When John Wesley was a spiritually inert clergyman he knew no conflict. Once he became "lit" (24th May, 1738) and thereafter exalted the truth of the gospel he was knee-deep in conflict for the next fifty-three years of his life: conflict with bishops, with magistrates, with mobs, with lazy ministers, with theological opponents, with distillers, with bankers who wouldn't lend his people money for small business start-up. The kingdom of God collides with the very world it is meant to redeem. The only way the Christian can avoid conflict is to cease to be a Christian. Surely no one here prefers Judas to Jesus!
It's plain that to be a fellow-worker is always to be a fellow-soldier, since kingdom-work will always entail kingdom-conflict. And like soldiering anywhere, kingdom-soldiering entails not only conflict but hardship, suffering, even sacrifice.
Think for a minute of the horrors of the twentieth century, beginning with the slaughter of the Armenians in the second decade, the executions of Lenin and Stalin, and so on right up to the ethnic cleansing in Croatia and the slaughter in Rwanda. These conflicts which are frighteningly visible -- conflicts of class, nation, race, economics, culture -- are but a partial manifestation of invisible spiritual conflict which seethes ceaselessly and courses ubiquitously. And then lest we distance ourselves cavalierly from all this we should recall the word of Solzhenitsyn, Russian thinker and writer: the spiritual conflict which bedevils nations finally passes through every last individual human heart.
A world whose distinguishing feature is conflict doesnt welcome the gospel. When the gospel is held up those who hold it up are immersed in conflict immediately. What do they do next? Capitulate? Compromise? Deny him whose gospel it is? Or do they take their share of the hardship, suffering and sacrifice which is the lot of any soldier, as Paul reminded another young man, Timothy?
Paul commended Epaphroditus to the Philippian congregation as his "fellow-soldier". Epaphroditus was anything but a shirker.
[2(iv)] Lastly the apostle insists that Epaphroditus has been a "minister to my need". What was Paul's particular need which the younger man met? We arent told. Perhaps he brought Paul food which was better than the wretched stuff fed to prisoners on death-row. Unquestionably Epaphroditus met Paul's need for companionship, alleviated his loneliness, brought news of the triumph of the gospel as the gospel flooded more widely among unbelievers and penetrated more deeply within believers.
I think too that one reason Paul doesn't tell us what his particular need is that he doesn't want us to know. We each have that need which we dont advertise not because we are ashamed of it but because it is so private, so personal, so deep in us, so close to our heart that only our soul-mates can meet it and therefore only our soul-mates are permitted to see it. I know whereof I speak. And in the providence of God I have been given those who know me so intimately and love me so dearly that they meet that need which others do not know of and never will. Paul didn't tell the Philippian congregation that every last Christian in Rome ministered to his need; he said that Epaphroditus did. You and I are ministers to the need of fellow-Christians. Then every day we must thank God for those who give us privileged access to them, as well as for those whom we give privileged access to us.
 How much weight do you attach to the "fellow" aspect of our "fellowship" here in Streetsville? From time-to-time some people tell me they are enormously disappointed. Others tell me they are startled how much we care for each other. Where we are deficient we should lose no time in intervening so as to re-value the word "fellowship". For myself, I have known myself cherished in this congregation, upheld, cared for, trusted and simply loved, as I have nowhere else. For here I have found dozens of people of whom I am glad to say, "brother (sister)", "fellow-worker", "fellow-soldier", "minister to my need."
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