Paul & Epaphroditus – brothers, co-workers, comrades in arms

Mary Magdala Community

Paul & Epaphroditus – brothers, co-workers, comrades in arms ©

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  —

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time —  October 11, 2020


The Letter to the Philippians has been the second reading in the Sunday lectionary for the past four weeks.  I have enjoyed this because it allows me to acknowledge Paul’s direct and oh so personal relationships with those he loves.  Beneath and below all the high dogma, authoritative pronouncements and declarations of leadership – beneath all this lies the person who dearly loves the people who formed perhaps the first community that gathered and stayed together as a result of his gift of ministry to them.

So, let’s set a little context.  On his 2nd Missionary Journey Paul travelled considerably farther on his own than he did on the 1st journey.  One would think that he had taken the time between Journey #1 and Journey #2 to seek widely and grow deeply in his own relationship to the Risen Christ, this Jesus who had been crucified and came back to life.  One would also think that he instilled in himself the understanding of and the belief in this path he had been on since his “falling off the horse” conversion.  So, he set off deeply equipped with the confidence to not only preach but to organize the gatherings who listened into communities of sisters and brothers in faith.

Apparently he became close to those who would also accept the call to ministry – women and men who opened their homes and built up by signs, symbols, and rituals a recognizable collective of those who followed the New Way.  For example, I don’t remember reading anywhere that Paul baptized anyone.  One would have to think his new found co-workers in ministry performed those rituals and tasks.

Paul received a very positive response from this gathering at Philippi.  Let’s remember that most scholars agree that, at the time of writing this letter, Paul was confined either at Rome or at Ephesus, either in prison or under house arrest.  This means that the letter was written earlier (if Ephesus) or later (if Rome) depending upon the location of this imprisonment to which he refers in the letter itself.  The important point is Paul was reflecting back on the support he had received from his beloved community since the time of its founding to the time of his imprisonment.

And what had the Philippians done for him besides being a community that stayed together, a community certainly marked with its difficulties (Phil. 4:2), since he was in first contact with them.  What he remembers is that as he continued his Journey they supported him.  When he was also establishing the community at Thessalonica, not all that long after he left Philippi, he received support (certainly financial) not once but twice from them.  This community believed in Paul in the mutual connection of love and support.  Paul writes, “you whom I so love and long for, you who are my joy and my crown, continue, my dear ones, to stand firm in the Lord.”

Then there’s Epaphroditus.  If speaking his name rolled off the tongue as easily as Titus and Timothy, we may have heard more of him.  As it is we hear of him only twice in the New Testament and only in this one letter.  Epaphroditus was as Paul says, “my brother, co-worker, and comrade in arms.”  The community sent him to Paul ,  as he said “to take care of my needs.” (Phil. 2:25)  This co-worker must have been one with Paul as minister of the community and a comrade in arms in fighting the good fight on the path from death to resurrection.  Paul says Epaphroditus became sick almost to death “for the sake of Christ’s work.”

This is the bond of love sealed in service strengthened by sharing the same struggle in the battle of Light penetrating the Dark.  Here we have two men who loved each other and found their way to serving and leading on the path of this New Way.  As I said earlier, I have enjoyed these 4 weeks of reading, hearing, and studying the Letter to the Philippians.  It has given me a rewarding recall of how Paul personally engaged in ministry by becoming one with the people who gathered in Jesus’ Name.  In preparing for today’s sharing I was satisfied to focus on this one relationship as a small message about men who have figured out how to be lifegivers and caretakers, men who have the strength and the depth of purpose to truly understand what it means to be “brother, co-worker, comrade in arms.”  All for the sake of gathering as the family of Christ.

This would have been preparation enough and, I would have hoped, message enough.  But then I get the gift by contrast of the Boogaloo boys, decked out in their Hawaiian shirts, who planned to kidnap the Governor of Michigan.  Now, I mean no slightness of the serious implications and revelations of their plans, but these guys give new meaning to a Volkswagen Beetle full of Clowns.  There is no doubt that these bad boys, these manly men are engaging in a history here.  Let’s remember their context of white supremacist, male chauvinist, bile-spewing notions about freedom – in that, freedom is anything these types say it is.

When I was at the Parish in Detroit in the mid-70s –yep, almost 50 years ago – these forest crawlers surfaced in northern Michigan.  In 1992 the Ruby Ridge incident involved the murder of a US Marshall by a white supremacist family militia connected to wider militia groups that periodically ooze out from under their rocks in Idaho.  The list goes on and on….

Let’s be clear about the misdirection, misguidance, and intentionally deranged education that has been passed from generation to generation, to young people, way too often to young men, in this violent society.  It is also clear that over the past few years these individuals and groups have been encouraged in their hate.  This latest crew in Michigan seems to particularly detest being told what to do by a woman.  I apologize, but as I recognize the severity of this mayhem, I really do have images of clown cars.

This is, indeed, a gift by contrast.  Today in a very real, especially poignant, and absolutely timely way we are given the gift of men who model life and light.  Clearly Paul had passed along to the Philippians the message of Jesus that he had received on the way to Damascus.  Within 30 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection those who lived by this message had shown that along with understanding it they had put it into song.  Remember the Hymn that Paul shared with his beloved ones.  It goes:

“Jesus humbled himself obediently accepting even death, death on a cross!

Because of this God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name

above every other name.

So that at Jesus’ name knees bend in the heavens, on earth, and under earth,

And tongues proclaim to the glory of God – Jesus Christ is Messiah.”  (Phil. 2:9-11)

Paul & Epaphroditus – brothers, co-workers, comrades in arms.  I invite us men to embrace this bond.  How we wish young men who feel humiliated, deprived, and disrespected could embrace this bond that leads to life.  Yes, to have this kind of mutual and supportive love enables us to recognize the final gift of Paul to the Philippians.  As much as he loved and needed Epaphroditus who actually risked his life for him, Paul sent him back to the community he loved.  Real men learn the lesson that to love is to give love away.

He did that, as we all know – man, woman, gender specific or not –, because the message of Love, this life-giving Way of Jesus makes it possible to overcome and to struggle as comrades in arms for this victory of Love.

A Prayer   (JR)

Remember us, O God, as we care for one another in these times.  We neither anticipated nor prepared ourselves for such a time as this.  We are separated even as we long to be together.  We live now as did the first communities of Jesus’ followers, seeing you present in our prayer and loving actions – yes, from afar.  Renew us in your love; you are the Ruler who lays out this feast of your love, this gift of Christ Jesus and your Holy Spirit, today, every day, now and forever.   Amen.


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