Last week travel plans seemed to be a big topic of conversation. It was the school holidays and the big winter storm and its accompanying polar blast came sweeping up the country, affecting roads, ferry sailings and flights. Flights were grounded, Passes were unpassable, you couldn’t just slip down the road in many parts of the country because they were cut off by slips and landslides. The snow fields were open with the best snow in years, but you couldn’t get to them because snow had closed the roads to the ski fields.
We were down at a farm just outside of Waipukerau in the central Hawkes Bay for a weeks breaks. Another family staying on the farm had to postpone their journey back to Auckland as the Napier/Taupo road was closed by snow, as you can see the welcome to the sunny Hawkes bay sign was in near white out conditions. When the storm finally subsided, we went down to Blackhead beach to see the big swells coming in, and when we came back via another road we discovered the road we were staying on and had travelled down to the beach on was closed because of slips and flooding. We’d only crossed one bridge with the river flowing over it as well as under. By the time we came back up to Auckland on Monday all that was left from the storm was the occasional flooded field, and the remnants of snow on either side of the road up by Taupo. But travel plans dominated most conversations we had with other people that week.
The passage we are looking at today in the book of Philippians seems to be all about travel plans as well. Travel plans not affected by stormy weather but by ill health. They seem to be simply about why Timothy, whom we know from other parts of the New Testament, was delayed in coming to Philippi and why Epaphroditus, who is only mentioned in this letter, was returning sooner than expected.
This is part of our journey through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter where Paul thanks the church for their support for him in his imprisonment and encourages them to stand firm in their faith and to know the fullness of joy that comes from knowing Jesus Christ. The same encouragement it gives to us on our journey following Jesus.
So what are we to make of Paul’s talk of travel plans? It seems incongruous that a passage of scripture that starts by urging people to live in a manner worthy of the gospel and goes on to give such a theologically profound and deep reflection on the incarnation and the cross as the example for Christian relationships (in verses 4-11) should finish with two paragraphs about travel plans. It wasn’t unusual for Paul to finish his letters with such things but here they are right in the middle. You could easily just by pass them as a personal note, simply see them as an interesting side-track about who would have carried this letter from Paul to the Church at Philippi, why it was Epaphroditus not Timothy. You could see it as Paul having to turn people around from going down the wrong track, Paul is having to address people grumbling and arguing about changes to travel plans between Timothy and Epaphroditus, like the church had become an air terminal of passengers when all foreseeable flights are cancelled. But in these two paragraphs Paul keeps very much on track by giving the church at Philippi two examples who lived in the very manner he has been talking about. Two people they knew very well who were examples of being devoted to Christ and living that out in loving God’s people with the mind of Christ, putting others needs before their own. They show us that the ethical demands of the gospel do not ask more than God gives the power to obey.
Ok lets have a look at Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Timothy had been traveling with Paul, since half way through his second missionary trip. In Acts 16, Paul meets Timothy in Lystra and chooses him to join his team. Timothy is a second-generation believer, his mother was a Jewish believer. His father however was Greek and the inference is he wasn’t a believer. The church in Lystra thinks highly of Timothy, in a church made up of both Jews and gentiles he fitted right in. Paul was a aware that his mixed upbringing would be an issue in ministering to the Jews, so Paul has him circumcised. Timothy travels with Paul to Philippi and is with Paul on his missionary journeys and stays with him in all his difficulties and his imprisonment. We know that Paul sent Timothy to both Ephesus and Corinth on his behalf when those churches were experiencing difficulties, to act as his eyes and ears and also to speak in his place. Timothy is Paul’s protégé, who he is wanting to reproduce his ministry. In verse 20 the Greek could easily read I have no one else like me as much as I have no one else like him. Paul sees their relationship very much as Father and son.
Epaphroditus is a member of the church at Philippi sent on a journey to bring aid to, and be an aid to Paul. We don’t know much about him. He was obviously a trusted leader in the church at Philippi and Paul calls him a brother and a co-worker and a fellow soldier, someone who shares his suffering for the gospel. We know from this passage that his work for the gospel causes him to become seriously ill. We also know that he a profound sense of love and concern for the church at Philippi and they are concerned about him so Paul sends him back to them. His return is not to be seen as a failure but rather that he has shown himself to have the mind of Christ, preparing to take on the role of a servant even unto death. But in the mercy of God he has been restored to health. Epaphroditus is a common Greek name, and tradition tells us that the first bishop of Philippi was a Epaphroditus.
But this is not just a biographical journey, Paul’s emphasis in these two paragraphs is to commend Timothy and Epaphroditus for their faith.
In chapter 1 verse 27 Paul had talked of living in a manner worthy of the gospel resulting in unity and the one spirit, striving together for the faith of the gospel. These two men both show their being loved by God through their love for God’s people. Paul commends Timothy for his genuine concern for the welfare of the church at Philippi. His relationship with Timothy is as father and son. While that may seem to imply a hierarchical relationship, Paul speaks of Timothy serving with, a fellow slave, not in terms of being in a lesser position, they are partners in the gospel. Epaphroditus shows his love for Paul by acting as a servant and taking care of Paul’s needs. At his heart is a love and concern for the Church at Philippi. Paul’s love for both these men comes though as well.
In chapter 2 5-11 Paul had talked of putting our needs above those of others. That we should have the mind of Christ who did not consider equality with God something to be held on to at all cost, but took on human form and became a servant, obedient even unto death, death on a cross, there fore god raised him up, and he is seated at the right hand of the father, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. Timothy shows this attitude…. Timothy is commended for being different than everyone else… For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. Timothy is prepared to stay with Paul and serve him in his difficult times. Going to Philippi could have been the right career move, maybe the start of his own ministry and exerting his own leadership, but he chooses to stay and serve, until the Lord Jesus says its time to Go. I was assistant minister at St John’s in Rotorua for six years and people used to ask me, isn’t time that you moved on and got ordained and got your own parish? Until I sensed the call of god to move on, you know I was happy being the assistant as part of a team. Jim Wallace was always quick to talk of ministering together. But it was the right thing to serve in that roll until God said to move. Likewise Epaphroditus was willing to serve and risk his own life for the work of the gospel. To give up his life for the gospel, and like Christ he was worthy of honour for that. We don’t know what this illness was and I’m not wanting to glorify reckless over work here. Who knows it may have been that part of that mercy of God was getting some healthy systems in place to ensure that his physical health didn’t suffer. In his letter to Timothy Paul uses the same illustration of a soldier and an athlete to encourage Timothy, part of those illustrations are of someone trained to compete and disciplined to fight. Both Timothy and Epaphroditus are seen as examples along with Paul of that servant attitude.
How do the example of Paul and Timothy and Epaphroditus’ travel plan speak to our journey following Jesus?
Really quickly two things.
The first is that in these travel plans we see how the rubber of our faith hits the road. Paul and his co-workers not only believed and taught the gospel they lived it as well. Karl Barth, possibly the most significant theologian of the twentieth century put it like this
‘”this is how it looks when a man (you could say person) does not only think these thoughts, but, because they are true and necessary thoughts, must live constantly in their shadow and can never get away from them in his concrete decisions.”
Paul puts his own teaching into effect in the difficult pastoral decisions he has to make. In this case travel plans for his co-workers. It dictates how we live. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was invited on a speaking tour in America in 1939, just before the second world war broke out, Christians in the west hoped to be able to save Bonhoeffer from being caught up in, and even called up to fight for, Hitler’s Nazi Reich. He was offered what could be a fruitful ministry with Germans who sort refuge in the US. But he finally chose to go back to Germany to encourage the Confessing Church, that had up until then been resisting Hitler’s ideology. Even though it meant significant risk to him, and in the end imprisonment and death.
Finally, We see again an example of how the love of Jesus is to be worked out in our love for one another. In a church that was struggling with unity, the unity it needed to witness to the gospel in the face of opposition that Paul and Timothy and Epaphroditus lived out their faith by loving each other and the church they were called to serve. This passage is full of the fact that whatever the physical destination or journey that way we should go is the way of Christ’s love. Can I say these travel arrangements almost tripped me up and bought me to a stop. I’ve been struggling with the day to day plod of ministry an almost despondency with ministry and they bought me back to the centrality of love. On my desk is a piece of the old Ahuriri wharf that was damaged in the Napier earthquake. I was given it as a gift at my ordination by a very intuitive minister. It’s old concrete with stones from the Hawkes Bay rivers embedded in it. He gave it to me just to remind me that Church is about people held together by the strong ties of Christian love and Christ like love. Just like that wharf that is where the journeys of mission start and end.This passage speaks to the travel plans of the western Church. It’s presented by Paul’s challenge “everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. That presents us with a crossroads we can go along the suburban streets around us like everybody else, with the same goals and visions and ambitions and destinations in mind. But the call of the gospel is the narrow way, the road less travelled where like Paul and Timothy and Epaphroditus those model examples of the Christian model we are prepared to loose our lives to find them again in Christ