“Giving is Everything”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Reading: Philippians 2:25-30; 4:10-20
Today I am privileged to introduce to you a very important person. His credentials are outstanding. He is known for his profound charity and his willingness to travel great distances, at great risk in inclement weather and difficult times to do God’s work. He has done what he has done out of love and joy. And no, that is not the resume of Santa Claus, although there are parallels. I introduce to you today, Epaphroditus. I’ve never forgotten the little ditty a youth leader I had when growing up sang: “I want to be like Epaphroditus, I want to be like Epaphroditus.” It was one of those tunes that became an earworm. You know, when you hear a song, and you can't get it out of your mind. Like one of the Christmas carols that you hear on the radio, that you just can't get rid of it. Well, “I Want to be Like Epaphroditus” was like that. So, there I was at school Monday morning, singing away to my heart’s content, “I want to be like Epaphroditus.” If you want to look like an idiot at school, just do that. Epaphroditus has stayed in my mind though, and that earworm is right there, right now, speaking to me.
When I introduced Zechariah to you last week, Zechariah had words, incredible words in the Benedictus. Epaphroditus is never quoted in the Bible. Epaphroditus is speaking to us by what he did – though his actions. As I look at the mission of Epaphroditus, I think there is much that causes us to say to ourselves this morning, “I want to be like Epaphroditus.” I say this, I realise that he was the embodiment of a gift. He was also somebody who was profoundly a giver. So, I want to look at Epaphroditus as the gift, as the very embodiment of something good.
When we look at this story from the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul is in dire straits. He finds himself in jail in Rome, and he’s lonely and isolated, and looking for help. He realises that the church he helped found in Philippi, has sent someone to him in his time of need. The Philippian church was known primarily for its charity, for its kindness, for reaching out to him in his time of his need. When he was in Macedonia, and when he was in Thessalonica, he was supported by the church in Philippi.
The church in Philippi wasn’t consumed with itself, it was interested in helping the mission of the church elsewhere, and Philippi and the Philippians stand as an example of what a church should be. A church should never be so consumed with its own welfare at the expense of the broader mission of Christ in the world. A true church is a church that is generous and reaches beyond itself to the world. Such was the church in Philippi, and you can tell it was dear to the Apostle Paul’s heart. They not only had this great gift of being full of charity, but they also had someone who was willing to go to great lengths to share their gifts, and that was the person of Epaphroditus.
It was a great source of joy for Paul when he arrived. Epaphroditus burst into Paul’s depressing world and released within him a spirit, a sense of joy and thanksgiving that pours out of this letter. The letter is, at the heart of it, a thank-you letter, expressing his joy and love for the Philippian church in sending Epaphroditus to him. But more than that, there’s a sense that he sees the Lord taking care of him. Epaphroditus was not there just on behalf of the Philippians, he uses the word ministry to describe this. For Paul, this was the ministry of the Lord to him, it reaffirmed to him that the Lord was encouraging him at the point of his need. Again, in Epaphroditus’ arrival, we see the nature of the church as it should be, a church that not only gives of itself, but a church that supports the ministry of people in need.
We have no idea what Epaphroditus said, and we don’t know what he brought; it could have been money, it could have been supplies, it could have been anything, but for Paul, it was his presence that mattered. I know in the church we often feel paralysed when people are in need, we think we must give them something physically, or have wise words to say to them, and those things often fail us. I'm sure you’ve experienced that. But Epaphroditus’ ministry to Paul was the ministry of presence, it was being there. Paul was also very conscious that Epaphroditus had travelled a long way to deliver this gift. He had travelled over thirteen hundred kilometres, all the way from Greece through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, and across into Italy. He had traversed terribly difficult terrain – and we are told he became horribly ill while doing so.
His ministry wasn’t just of presence, it was a costly ministry. It was a ministry where he had gone out on a limb, but it gave Paul great joy. It reaffirmed for Paul his own ministry, and he had lived in isolation. Lord knows, there are many of you today who know, over the last two years, what isolation means and how demoralising it is, how hard it is on your faith when you're not around people who love you, support and encourage you. For Paul, the presence of Epaphroditus helped him in his moments of loneliness. It also gave him a great sense of hope. He looked at Epaphroditus and sent him back to the people who sent him, but he did so knowing that the church was in good hands. That is the likes of Epaphroditus, who gave his heart and his soul for the work and the cause of Christ, did so in such a way, the church was okay.
We sometimes worry and become anxious about whether the church is going to be okay. We worry when there are changes, and I don’t just mean in leadership, I mean in all facets of the life of the church. We worry and we’re anxious. Well, Epaphroditus’ ministry reaffirmed hope, and the hope is that it is the church, not just the individual, who embodies the power of the Holy Spirit and who gives of itself for the sake of others. Epaphroditus was someone who really gave of himself, and he did it out of self-denial. Epaphroditus did not risk himself in going to Rome for himself; he did it because at the very heart of his ministry, his conviction was his faith.
As John Calvin, in commenting on this in his Institutes, as Dallas Willard points out, the very heart of the ministry of Epaphroditus was one of self-denial, and self-denial, not self-improvement, not self-aggrandisement, but self-denial was the very heart of the ministry to which he himself had been called. That is why in Chapter 2 of Philippians Jesus was described as someone who gave of himself, who did not claim power for himself, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Epaphroditus was doing his Lord’s will, and he was doing it under the power of Christ himself, but it was a self-denial that led to joy.
Listening to Tim and Terry this morning talk about the pageant –we know it will be unlike pageants from before, it will be different and more muted – I was reminded about a pageant that I attended many years ago, in the little town of Athlone, a suburb of Cape Town, which was then known and designated – I hate the phrase – as a Coloured community. Isn’t that just dreadful? In Athlone they had a wonderful children’s choir, and you would go to their church just, believe it or not, for the children’s choir. Not the preacher – you went for the children’s choir, just like why you came here this morning, right? See, you shouldn’t laugh when I say that, you should say, “No, Andrew, that’s not right, we….” I'm just kidding. They sang a song in Afrikaans at the end, and I’ve never forgotten it. It said, “My God smiles at Christmas” and you could just feel the joy. The pageant was awful, dreadful, but as soon as they sang, “My God smiles at Christmas,” you could just sense this overwhelming sense of joy.
Our God smiles at Christmas when we are willing to give of ourselves, when we are willing to serve him as the Lord, as he really is, that’s when our God smiles. I've been thinking of all those people, all those believers, all those influencers over the past who have demonstrated that self-giving love that has manifested itself in great ways. People who, in my own life, have become my heroes, and some of whom you’ve heard me quote many times over.
I'm thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who even when he was in prison under the Nazis, still wrote his incredible work, Letters and Papers from Prison, pouring out his heart, his soul, his faith, knowing that he was going to die.
I think of Nelson Mandela, and his suffering. I might not have agreed with his way of doing things at the beginning, but his incarceration and having seen the jail where he lived all those years on Robben Island, those four walls to which he was confined, and to think he came out in a forgiving spirit, I have to say, “My gosh, that is suffering for the sake of something greater.”
I think of Saint Anastasia of Sirmium, who in the fourth century defied the persecution of Diocletian to preserve her faith, and was executed according to tradition, on December 25th. No wonder both the Eastern and the Western church honour her and respect her.
I think of Solzhenitsyn who suffered immensely in the Gulag for his convictions and beliefs, but nevertheless throughout it all, kept his faith. I think of Philip Russell, an Anglican priest I respect immensely, who, when the bulldozers in Cape Town were coming to plow down the shacks and the people that were in them, lay down in front of the bulldozer.
I could go on with the people who I know have been like Epaphroditus and have given themselves for the sake of the Lord’s mission. It is a beautiful thing to give not something, but self, in the service of the Lord. It is to that kind of sacrificial giving that we are called this day.
Epaphroditus also gave a gift. He brought something from the Philippians. We’re not told what it was, but whatever it was he brought with him, it was like an aroma, something sweet and beautiful. It was an incredible gift.
When you think about it, we never really own anything. I mean, one of the great privileges in ministry – and it is a privilege – is to be there very soon after a child is born, to see the family and congratulate them. That child, on their own, has nothing. I have been privileged, honoured, amazed to be at the bedside when people have died. They go with nothing. What we have in between is something that is a gift from God. We don’t actually own anything.
I was made very much aware of this a couple of weeks ago, when someone gave me a Barbour jacket, you know, those lovely, waxed jackets. He did so, having worn it just a couple of times, but he so wanted me to have it. I put it on and man, I'd wear that to bed, I like it so much. I was standing in a garage, wearing this, and a gentleman came up to me and he actually touched it, and said, “Is that a Barbour jacket?”
I said, “Yes, it is.”
He said, “You know, that will outlast you – you’ll be buried in that.” My, that was encouraging, I must say, but I got what he meant; it’s going to last.
There’s nothing we have that is really ours. Our lives are built, not around the getting of things, but the giving. What did Winston Churchill say? Something like – “If you want to make a living, you will get things. If you want to make a life, you will give things.” What we have, we have from the Lord, and for that we should be grateful. It is right to have things, but to recognise who the giver is, and how those things should be used.
Aren’t we all, with the things that we have in this life, regifting? Aren’t we giving back that which we have ourselves at some point received? Some of you might remember that incredible Seinfeld episode about regifting, and the three rules to follow if you regift: make sure you rewrap it; make sure you don’t use it; and make sure you don’t send it to the people who gave it to you in the first place.
The fact is, everything is regifting, and when it has been given to us, it is good for us to give it to others. The Philippian church and Epaphroditus were precisely instruments of that true spirit because they loved their Lord and wanted to emulate him. Epaphroditus had a ministry to serve him. Paul was in prison still, promoting the cause of Christ, and together, through their giving, and in Paul’s case, returning the gift of Epaphroditus to the Philippians, they were doing the Lord’s will.
The great hymnwriter, John Greenleaf Whittier, has some very good words for us this Advent and Christmas to emulate Epaphroditus. In a hymn, he wrote this:
Somehow not only for Christmas,
but all the long year through,
the joy that you give to others,
is the joy that comes back to you.
And the more you spend in blessing
the poor and lonely and sad,
the more of your heart’s possessing
returns to make you glad.
We should all be like Epaphroditus. Amen.