Sermon - 12th February 2017
Scripture - Philippians 2:25-30
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
I am still experiencing the joy of welcoming five new members into our church as we did in our service last week, and my thoughts keep returning to the commitment each one of us makes when we respond to Jesus’s call to be one of his disciples in this place and among the communities we are called to serve.
For me, discipleship is something which builds on relationships within a community which I care about, and which cares about me. In those relationships we teach each other, we learn from each other, and we explore what it means to love each other within the meaning of what Jesus teaches us about God’s love in our lives.
Today's reading is concerned with the relationships between two people and a Christian community which cared about them both.
Paul founded the church in Philippi on one of his journeys around AD 50. Since the city lacked a Jewish synagogue, Paul began his preaching at a prayer place by the River Crenides.
From its earliest days, the Church in Philippi was one which gave Paul the fewest problems and the least cause for worry – they were the jewel in his crown. Perhaps significantly, women seemed to have played a leading role in the community from the start, and the personal names appearing in the letter suggest that the community came from mainly Gentile backgrounds.
The middle part of the name of the man featured in today's story almost certainly means that he came from a family which had traditionally followed the cult of the goddess Aphrodite. Epaphroditus would have been a convert to the Christian Judaism which Paul taught and, it seems, he was a very devout and devoted servant of his community.
At the time of writing, Paul was spending one of his many and varied sessions in prison somewhere in the ancient world. We don't know where Paul was! There is a major debate among scholars about whether Paul was in Ephesus or Rome when the story we heard today takes place.
Wherever he was, the church in Philippi heard that Paul was going through hard times and was in need of practical and financial support and needed someone to visit him in prison to offer much-needed encouragement. So, someone needed to go to him.
If Paul was in Ephesus, the journey from Philippi could have been almost a weekend round-trip. If Paul was in Rome that journey was a major undertaking with many dangers.
Wherever Paul was - and for the sake of argument let’s settle on Rome - the church in Philippi decided to send Epaphroditus as their messenger to provide financial support and also practical help to Paul.
Then something went wrong. We don't have the details; we only hear about it after the event. Something caused Epaphroditus to become so seriously ill that he nearly died.
Rome often suffered from an epidemic known as a ‘Rome Fever’. Today this is thought to be a kind of malaria. Could this be what brought Epaphroditus close to death?
Another view is that the sheer effort of the journey from Philippi to Rome caused Epaphroditus to fall ill during the journey, and that he nearly died because he insisted on completing his journey rather than turn back.
And yet another view is that Epaphroditus worked so hard to sustain Paul's mission while Paul was in prison that he simply burnt himself out.
There can be no doubt that Epaphroditus was certainly brave. Anyone acting as the personal attendant of a man waiting for trial on a capital charge in ancient Rome was at considerable risk of becoming implicated in the same charge. The stress and fear of such a task must have been tremendous.
So now, Paul has a problem with lots of different aspects to it:
- Epaphroditus’s health is broken and he needs to convalesce.
- Word has reached Paul and Epaphroditus that the church in Philippi is aware of Epaphroditus's illness and is worried about him.
- Epaphroditus is desperately homesick but feels guilty that he is causing so much worry at home and also believes that his community in Philippi will think he has failed in his mission and has let Paul down.
- And deep down Epaphroditus probably does feel that he has let Paul down - and Paul will surely be aware of Epaphroditus's feelings of failure.
- Equally, Paul realises he dare not risk keeping Epaphroditus as his helper in case his health fails him again with potentially fatal results.
Through nobody’s fault, the best intentions of the Philippian Christians have ended up in a tangled mess of random events and emotional turmoil. And Epaphroditus is now beset by those nagging doubts: “What must they think of me? Would it have been better if I had never come? When my church asked me to do this, should I have said ‘no’”
This, I think, is where the story becomes very contemporary and relevant to ourselves; because sometimes, through nobody’s fault, the plans and intentions of every Christian community – including this one here in Manchester - end up in a tangled mess of random events and emotional turmoil, and will do so again.
Some unforeseen event from daily life – such as a bout of illness, a bereavement, a redundancy, a conflict, or some other sudden lack of capacity and resources – will cut right across our plans and, as Paul did, we will have to say, ‘It’s time to stop; we can’t carry on down this path’.
The challenge to us is to recognise - just as Paul and Epaphroditus and the Philippians eventually recognised - that it’s alright, on those occasions, to step back from our workload in order to convalesce, to regain our health and energies and become whole again.
Our work as disciples does not call us to reach burn-out for Jesus: we are not expected to battle on until we stare death in the face. And if we do reach that stage, then there is probably something else going on which springs more from pride and stubbornness and the fear of ‘what they will think of me’, rather than the service and perseverance to which an effective disciple is called.
Perhaps we ought to be bold and say that if Epaphroditus drove himself to exhaustion, and ignored the other choices that were open to him to maintain his health and wellbeing, in the belief that this was the kind of sacrifice that was called for, he got it wrong. And if ever we follow the same destructive path, we also get it wrong.
Paul could be proud and stubborn, and we know he drove himself to extremes; but in his dealings with Epaphroditus, when he truly understood the situation, he was supportive, loving and deeply caring. Perhaps we all have a tendency to recognise when someone else is driving themselves too hard, but we don’t always notice the burn-out, exhaustion or risks to our own wellbeing which are staring us in the face.
We live in a world of random risk. We know from our own experience, as well as from today’s story, that sometimes things will go wrong, and it won’t be anybody’s fault. The wisdom from today’s reading is that our response to those situations is less about who we should blame, and more about how we can help.
And just as Epaphroditus listened to the wise words of Paul and accepted his guidance, so perhaps we need to listen more closely for the loving words of Jesus when he may be saying to us:
‘Stop now. Let’s have no talk of failure: I truly value the service you have given, and your community should honour what you have done; don’t be worried about what they may think of you. But you can do no more for the present. I am calling you to rest for a while to recover your wholeness of life once again - because I came that you should have life in all its abundance.’
Will you pray with me:
Living and loving God, it is hard sometimes to say ‘no’.
We do not want to let people down, especially when we think we are able to do what they ask.
We like to appear on top of things, capable of meeting every challenge, reluctant to admit our limitations.
Teach us that there are times when we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and our co-workers to say ‘no’.
Help us recognise when to call a halt to a plan which has become unworkable.
Help us to do what we can, both in your service and in the service of others, but to recognise also what we can’t do.
And grant us the wisdom and courage we need to follow your way of discipleship in wholeness of life and in the health of body, mind and spirit.