Psalm 103 : 13 – 22 Philippians 2 : 19 – 30 Luke 10 : 17 – 24
1. TIMOTHY AND EPAPHRODITUS. I begin with our series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians and our epistle from chapter 2: 19 – 30 which is the passage for our study today. The Bible Study Home Group to which Barbara and I belong spent a fascinating evening last Monday looking at the different character of these two men, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Basically, the group prepared this part of the sermon with me
Timothy, we know from various passages in the New Testament, was considerably younger than Paul, but was Paul’s most trusted second in command. Utterly loyal – indeed devoted – we learn from this passage that Paul had effectively adopted him as his son. We know that Timothy came from a Christian family on his mother’s side, going back to his grandmother, but his father was a Greek and not a believer.
We know, too, that Timothy was by nature diffident and reluctant to push himself forward. But Paul, who is in prison, is proposing to send him to the church in Philippi (and report back) because Timothy has the gift of pastoral care, and (v. 20) has a genuine concern for their welfare. Timothy had a special pastoral gift.
What a wonderful thing it is when the church leader has beside him a devoted, loyal team of people (as I have always had) who have this true pastoral concern for individuals – who can see, at a glance, who is in need, who is not there, who is troubled, and the spiritual tact to get alongside. It is both indispensable and invaluable. I thank God for all the ‘Timothys’ it has been my privilege to work with.
Epaphroditus comes across as an equally valuable, but very different character. The Philippian Church had chosen him, it seems clear, to take a considerable sum of money, plus personal gifts to help provide for Paul in prison. In those prisons you were reliant on family or friends to provide for you or you starved.
Rightly or wrongly, we imagine him as bigger and more forceful than Timothy, and well able to look after himself. But disaster nearly strikes, because either on the journey or when he arrives, he goes down with a serious illness and nearly dies. But his character is such that he doesn’t really want the Philippian Church even to know about it. ‘Oh, just a bad cold – I was soon right as rain!’ But Paul makes it clear that he did very nearly die, although he has now made a full recovery.
I imagine Epaphroditus as someone who liked to be active, and wasn’t going to let illness get in his way if at all possible. Paul describes him as a ‘brother, a fellow worker and a fellow soldier’. Did Paul need something? He would go and procure it. Did something need fixing? He was the fixer – the active DIY man. That’s my take anyway!
How blessed I have been over so many years to have teams around me with people in both those categories, and who have been on my spiritual wavelength. Pastoral care and practical action. Such Christians are gold-dust - indispensable. No Vicar could be successful without them and I have been enormously blessed, and I’m so grateful.
Now, such was the situation in Philippi, that Paul was proposing to send them both back to sort everything out in their different ways. Wow! – was Paul going to miss them! And it looks as if he is expecting to go on trial for his life, but hoping for release. Just the time, you would think, when he needed both spiritual, prayerful and practical support. In fact, we know that Paul has some years of fruitful ministry still ahead of him, so his worst foreboding did not materialise on this occasion. But he was going to be potentially very lonely without them. We will find out more about why Paul thought it necessary to send them both to Philippi as we progress through the letter.
2. ARCHANGEL MICHAEL. Now I want to move on to say something about Michaelmas – this Church’s Patronal festival. This church lives under the banner of the Archangel Michael, and this places our ministry and worship here in a much broader, bigger, greater context than we are perhaps normally aware of. In Revelation 12 verses 7-9, we read of the great battle between Michael and his angels with Satan, who leads the world astray and into darkness and evil. (Revelation 12: 7 – 9). (See Banner). We must never forget, let alone underestimate, the magnitude of the battle in which we, as Christians, are engaged.
St Paul tells us in Ephesians 6: 10f that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ We see its earthly manifestations in the world every time we turn on the radio or television or read a newspaper.
Now we know that – on the cross – Jesus defeated the powers of sin, evil and death once and for all. But we know also that the time when that victory will be fully manifested is not yet – it awaits God’s appointed day for which (as St Paul tells us in Romans 8: 18 - 25) the whole creation longs.
And so my own ministry, and the ministry of all God’s people and the church of God everywhere, has faced many kinds of opposition from the very beginning - and although (speaking personally), I have never experienced physical persecution of which there is so much in the world today, we are always surrounded by the attacks of secularism and the spiritual forces of darkness.
But we walk into a sadly spiritual dark and secular world with the Gospel of the glory of Christ held in our open hands, and when someone turns to Christ and that darkness turns to wonderful light and faith, the walls that separate the realm of darkness from the glory of God come crashing down and (like Jesus) we see Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Moments of glory, great thanksgiving and truth. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6 : ‘God who said, let light shine out of darkness, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. My own manifesto for my ministry has been the same since that first day I was ordained, and it has undergirded everything I have said and done. It is Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: verses 1 – 5 (groups can read as time allows).
3. ANGELS. Now thirdly, Michael is surrounded by God’s heavenly host, and this service is full of references to the angels. The word ‘angel’ simply means a messenger – someone who is sent from God to deliver a message – usually to an individual. The example which immediately comes to most people’s minds is the angel Gabriel visiting Mary at Nazareth to tell her the news (both shocking and wonderful - how often, when God speaks to you, it comes with this double effect), that she was to give birth to Jesus, the one who brings us all together this morning and whose life, death and resurrection would change the whole nature and destiny of the world forever.
Angels and Archangels are invariably pictured with wings. But when three messengers from God visited Abraham in Genesis 18, they appeared in totally human form. And this leads the writer to the Hebrews (13:2) to advise us to give hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares. You never quite know when an angel will knock on your door and ask for a cup of tea – or something stronger! I have had many such visitations over the years, and – like Abraham and Sarah – I have only been conscious of a human presence (often someone I have known), and it was only later (if at all) have I realised that what I was hearing from that visitor was a message from God.
So if there is one lesson I have tried to learn over 50 years, it is to listen. To listen – to weigh what people say in my own mind and prayers, and to ask God for the gift of discernment. What is simply a point of view? What is something that God really wants me to hear from one of his many ‘messengers’ or angels? And what comes from a darker source which needs to be recognised for what it is, although the speaker will usually be entirely unaware of it?
And the walls that separate the secular from the spiritual dimension are, I find, actually very thin. God is so near – so involved – and his love so accessible – that I find it sad that so many have either never tried to tune in to his wavelength, or have drowned it out with so much extraneous noise, or in some cases, made themselves deliberately spiritually blind and deaf.
What a privilege it has been – and continues to be – to spend a lifetime helping people to find that God dimension, that wavelength, which transcends our ordinary experience of time and space, and come to a personal encounter with their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ – risen, alive and present with us today, ready to meet each and every one of us at our particular point of need; our particular glimmer of faith, however weak, and show himself through the mist of our confusion, doubt and sin. What a wonderful way to celebrate this anniversary for me it would be, if someone today were to respond to God’s voice, and turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour, and begin a new life of adventure with the risen Christ.
God is much nearer than we imagine, and his messengers pass to and fro. Are we tuned in? Are we listening? It is certain that God has something He wants to say to you today.
So – in summary – how can we better exercise our ministry the church? Whether it be a ministry of pastoral care or of practical action? Are we listening to the voice of God, breaking through the boundaries of time and space either directly or indirectly through people who speak as angels unawares? There are many angels in this world – don’t miss them! And - Yes there is a battle between the worldly and the spiritual, good and evil, light and darkness – no-one can deny it. But the good news is that – through the cross and resurrection – Jesus has won the victory over evil, sin, and death, and as we come to Holy Communion this morning, we take to ourselves the love, and the power, and the life-giving victory of the one who – for us – died and rose again. Praise be to him!
1. The New Testament makes it clear that the Christian and the Christian Church are up against spiritual evil forces, and not just people who are evil, anti-Christian, secular or uninterested in spiritual matters. Do you agree with St Paul that we wrestle against “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6: 12).
Discuss how these forces manifest themselves, and how we should counter them?
2. Do you believe in angels? How do they convey their messages to us? Do you believe you have ever seen or received a word from God through an angel? What do you understand by ‘entertaining angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13:2)?
3. Discuss the differences in the characters of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Find the other passages in the New Testament which refer to Timothy to help you make an assessment.
4. Are you enjoying and benefiting from a sermon series on a book of the Bible? What are the pros and cons? Should we do this more often?