I was teaching recently on friendship from Philippians 2. It struck me that part of our problem in reading the Biblical accounts of relationships is that we struggle to make them real enough. Oh, many of us believe they really happened. But the world of smart phones, cars, and airplanes is so different from what these people experienced two thousand years ago. Sometimes, it is worthwhile for us to put ourselves in the story, and to try to experience life as it might have been then. To imagine the real events from which the Spirit has formed the narrative. That is my hope today. To tell you a real New Testament story of friends.
It is important to know that the traveling distance from Philippi to Rome ranges from 800 to 1,300 miles, depending on the route one takes. In the first century, perhaps the shortest route would have been to take the Roman road called the Via Egnatia (which passed through Philippi) west 350 miles to Epidamnos on the coast of Macedonia. This was a stone road for some of the distance, but dirt sections were common. If one walked quickly each day, one could arrive at Epidamos in about two weeks. Then one could book passage on a sailing vessel, and make the 80 mile sea voyage across the Adriatic Sea to Brundisium. From there one could take the Via Appia some 350 miles to Rome. It is a very, very long trek.
To journey between Philippi and Rome, a person would pack up their belongings in a small pack, grab a water skin and a blanket, and begin to walk. It’s about the length of trip one of us would take if we were to walk from Denver to Atlanta. In the best conditions, such a trip could be made by foot in about six weeks. If one was wealthy enough to afford a horse, it might only take four or five weeks. In less favorable circumstances, it could take six months. That’s each way. Travel times varied significantly depending whether one traveled by sea or land and the weather at a given time of the year.
The sea crossing of 80 miles across the Mediterranean seems short to us, but then it was treacherous. In 60 AD, under Roman guard, the Apostle Paul makes the trip. It does not end well:
“Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.” (Acts 27:13-20)
Acts tells us that eventually the ship runs aground, and although the men live, the ship is completely destroyed. The journey is not for the weary of heart, it seems. And yet, Philippians 2 tells us, some did make the journey from Philippi to Rome. That is the fabric of our story today.
It seems that sometime in the year 60 or 61 AD, word makes its way to the Christians meeting in Philippi. Their founding Pastor, Paul, who they have been worrying about for a long time, has been taken to Rome in chains. He is under house arrest, in a rented house, chained to a guard, but visitors are allowed. He is, after all, a Roman citizen.
This is probably all they know. But someone at the church says, “We should send him a letter, letting him know he is not forgotten, and that we will be holding prayer meetings for his appearance before Caesar!” They quickly agree. There is no postal service in Bible times. All letters are hand-delivered in the first century. But their love for Paul makes them want to encourage him. “A care package! We can send a care package!” An old man speaks out, “I have an extra cloak that should fit him well,” and another, “ I have saved this vellum stationary and these pens for writing. Paul should have them. I even have ink!” A metal worker adds to the package: “I have this small fish statue I made of bronze – Paul always loved it when he visited my house.” A small collection is taken. Some of the women might even bake cookies or something. Who knows? The collection of gifts fills a small leather bag.
“Who will take our letter and package to Paul?” The question hangs in the air, perhaps. Everyone knows how hard the trip will be. It will take at least three months. It might be a full year before they will return. Wages will be lost. Families will be missed. Hardships and uncertainty lie ahead. Rome is at the edge of their world.
“I will go to Rome.” His name is Epaphroditus. We know little about him, except he is the one to go. Tradition has it that he was a young man with a family. We don’t know how long the trip takes for Epaphroditus. We are told he gets sick on the journey, and sends word back, perhaps by a caravan of travelers, asking for prayers of strength from his church at Philippi. I think about what he might have written in his letter home. Honestly, he is not sure he will make it to Rome, he tells them, but he will do all he can to finish, and to get their gifts to Paul. He tells his wife and young daughter that he loves them, and misses them every day. A coin sends the letter on its way back to Philippi. Maybe Epaphraditus even befriends a businessman or trader who is sailing with him toward Rome. He asks, in his sickness, that if he dies on the voyage, would the man get this package to Paul of Tarsus who is on trial in Rome? He tells him that Paul is a Roman citizen, and that he will be paid for his trouble.
The Bible tells us Epaphroditus almost dies. I imagine that it is the journey that almost kills him. Maybe it is the days walking in the sun, the nights spent alongside the road, the bouncing of the ship, the poor food and water. Perhaps a strange fever is spread through the ship. Whatever the cause, Epaphroditus gets ill, so ill that he almost dies.
Imagine with me the day Epaphroditus arrives in Rome. He has been on the road for months, and now—finally!—he is in Rome. Rome is the NYC or Hong Kong of the first century. Or both combined! His body is frail, and his head swims at all the people and buildings and commotion. The buildings! The soldiers! The crowds! Weak and nauseous, he stumbles into the city.
“I must get to Paul. I must get to Paul.” It is all he can think about. He begs someone with a wagon to take him to close to where he believes Paul is under house-arrest. Perhaps it takes a day of wandering to find the right house. He must rest often. He buys an orange from a street vendor, but cannot keep it down. He wretches in an alleyway. He cannot go any farther.
A tall slave on an errand notices him and bends to check on this sick man in the alley. Epaphroditus shares about his hunt, and the slave knowingly points out a street and gives him the look of the house he is seeking. White walls, red door, with no windows on the front. Just a few houses past the butcher. “You will find Rabbi Paul there.”
“How do you know Paul?” Epaphroditus asks. The slave answers, “We are—friends– it does not matter. Let me show you the way.” With help, Epaphroditus makes it to the house, and knocks on the red door. A Roman Guard, fully armed, answers. Epaphroditus gives his name, and says he is looking for a Jew named Paul of Tarsus. Perhaps the guard checks him over for a weapon when he arrives. When he is done, Epaphroditus collapses on a small couch in the entryway. He cannot take one more step.
Paul, hearing the commotion, drags his personal guard and chains toward the entrance. “Epaphroditus! Oh my!” He hugs him, falling on top of him, perhaps, an old man piled on a young one. The guard is tugged along. But there is no awkwardness for Paul. His friend has come all the way from Philippi to see him! From Philippi! He is overcome with emotion. His old arms, strong from making tents for many years, hold the young man tightly.
The Philippian man points at the leather-wrapped package laying on the floor. He can barely get the words out of his lips, “Rabbi, I brought you gifts and a letter.” He says this in a whisper, exhausted now that his task is done. His face is pale. His brow drips with fever.
“Forget them for now,” Paul says. “You are the greatest gift I could receive! And you are not well! Timothy, come quickly! Go and get the doctor!”
It is a week later when Epaphroditus awakes. He has lost several days swirling in sickness. Vague memories of a doctor, and medicines, and sponge baths, and prayer. He looks around, weak but strangely hungry. The care package he has carried remains unopened in a corner of the room.
Paul and his guard come in. Timothy follows behind. Hugs again. And more hugs.
Paul speaks, “You almost died, my brother, but the Lord spared you. And he spared me—I don’t know how I could have told your father of your death, or faced that young girl you married. What was her name? Oh yes, Miriam.”
Paul points at the guard who is chained to his wrist. “This is Marcius. He is stuck with me, as you can see, and yet has become a special friend of sorts. He and I have spent the night praying for you. Well, Timothy and I prayed, and Marcius listened. But I think Marcius is a good man. God has a purpose for him. Wait and see.”
Paul has been eager. “Tell me about Philippi!”
“Could I get a glass of water, please? A piece of bread?” Epaphroditus asks.
Soon a small mug of soup is brought in, with a course loaf of bread, and a bottle of water. As he eats, Epaphroditus talks of the church in Philippi, of its many blessings, of all that has happened since last Paul was with them. Of the miracles the Lord has done. Of the persecution they sometimes face. Of the Philippians’ fear—fear for what’s going to happen to the Christian movement because of Paul’s imprisonment. They are profoundly worried, about Paul and about the Gospel.
As Epaphroditus speaks, Paul can hear the longing in his voice. He has just arrived in Rome, but he misses his family and friends dearly. The sickness and the travels have taken the adventure out of Rome. It is clear that, already, Epaphroditus longs for home. He is afraid of what his family will think when the caravan delivers his note. They will worry greatly.
Sadly, Epaphroditus also shares about the arguments which are raging between a few of the leaders in the church of Philippi. Paul asks questions, and his brow furrows. They talk quietly for hours.
Epahroditus remembers the care package in the corner. He unwraps each gift slowly, and speaks to Paul of the one who gave it. Paul clutches the cloak, and smells it as if it might carry memories of the old man who shared it.
The cookies are just crumbs, but they pick through them, nibbling at the pieces of dried dates which remain. A few coins tumble from a pouch. He cannot believe the fine pen and ink and parchment set he is gifted. He quizzes Epaphroditus about every person who pops into mind, perhaps hoping to write them a note with his new paper. And lastly, the bronze fish is unwrapped. Seeing it, Paul catches his breath—
He almost seems afraid to touch it for a moment, then he takes it from Epaphroditus gently, and sets it in his lap as if it is fragile as glass. His eyes close, but all those in the room notice the tears which roll down into his gray-white beard. Tears of joy. Paul is quiet for a long while. His eyes remain closed but his hands gently stroke the fish, as if by touch he can “see it better.” He seems a bit like an old man lost in his memories.
To have friends to whom you are connected beyond distance is an amazing thing. People who remember you. People who cannot, and will not forget you. People who will sacrifice for you. Who will give up something precious so that they might encourage a friend.
It is a quiet, powerful moment, I think. Even the Roman guard seems moved, as if he is thinking, “These Christians are strange but amazing. Look how they love each other.”
Finally Paul speaks. “Ah, what a gift. I have always loved this fish. It reminds me of the Fisherman we serve, and of the call the Lord gave Peter and the disciples to become fishers of men.” He pauses. “I love all of these things because they are from my friends.”
He looks up at Epaphroditus. “Oh, you look so tired, my brother.” And Paul begins to pray, without asking anyone or even bowing his head. He lifts one hands and one hand falls on Epaphroditus’ head, simply covering him with the blessings of God. The Apostle prays.
His words are in Latin, I think. He is in Rome, and most people spoke Latin. But it is a Jewish-sounding prayer, coming from lips which have prayed in Hebrew more than in Latin. He prays aloud, and sometimes Timothy joins in or adds a prayer, for he too loves the Christians in Philippi. Marcius listens but still frowns.
It is a prayer of thanksgiving. For the grace of the Lord. For the blood of the Lamb who was slain. For the life of Epaphroditus. For the people of the Philippian church. For Timothy, who traveled the same long journey as Epaphroditus a few months earlier so as to served his mentor.
Paul prays for his friends, his close friends, his teammates, and partners in the gospel. Paul lists them all. He asks that the Lord would help them stop arguing and being selfish. that they would follow Christ in his way of treating people. He gives thanks the cloak and pens and the cookies and the bronze fish. For the goodness and provision of God. He prays for Marcius, the Roman guard. He ends by asking the Lord to use them all for the spread of the Gospel. He ends in the name of Yeshua haMeshia. Amen.
When he finishes praying, he notices Epaphroditus has fallen asleep.
Paul smiles, and they all leave the room as quietly as possible. Timothy leaves to lead a Bible study with other Christians in a house nearby. Paul, dragging Marcius, moves to a small table in another room, and reads the letter the Philippians have sent. He then unwraps the new pens and vellum paper.
He is unsure what to write, but feels compelled. He says a silent prayer, turning over all his life again to the Father, and to the Spirit, and to his Lord, Jesus the Christ. He asks for guidance for the perfect words. Then, he begins to write a letter to his Philippians friends.
Paul wants to assure them that he’ll be all right. Friendship will endure. He also wants to remind them that the gospel will be all right—it will withstand the trial. Whether he is set free or not, Jesus is Lord. He wants them to know that the Gospel is not fragile.Pausing every so often to whisper a prayer or add ink to the pen, he writes from his heart. The words seem to flow forth as if pressurized, exhaled from his mind. He writes to the Philippians:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God.
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”
Paul pauses. He reflects, and writes of the sacrifice of Jesus, of his attitude of love and surrender. How Jesus emptied himself, even though he was God. He asks the brothers and sisters to have the same attitude, to act like Jesus. Then he talks of his Roman friends and partners, Timothy and Epaphroditus. The pen dances into large letters again.
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.”
This is the story of Epaphroditus for me, and it reminds me of the lengths Christian brothers and sisters are to go for one another. Paul receives a great gift: the time and attention and sacrifice of Epaphroditus. And the reminder that he is not alone. He is loved and remembered.
And Paul loves his friends in Philippi, too. He is willing to give them his greatest gift. Having nothing greater than love and friendship to offer in return, he determines to send his friend, Epaphroditus, back to Philippi as soon as he is healthy. No matter that Paul could use him in Rome. Epaphroditus needs to go home.
It is how the family of God is to work. We are to sacrifice for each other, as Jesus sacrificed for us. We are to care for each other, and bless each other, and protect each other. We are to go to great lengths to love one another. It is our Lord who declared, “They will know you are my disciples by how you love one another.” May it be so, Lord. May it be so here. Amen.