Christ in Epaphroditus

One of my all-time favourite bed-time stories is ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.

We’re going on a bear hunt; we’re going to catch a big one.

What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.

Uh-uh! Grass! Long wavy grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!

The book is exciting because it is so risky. They get through the grass, but then face the scary river, mud, forest and even a snowstorm until they actually do get to the bear! Facing the bear they are scared to the core so they run all the way through the scary terrain they have crossed until they:-

Get to our front door; Open the door; Up the stairs; Oh no!

We forgot to shut the door; Back downstairs; Shut the door; Back upstairs; into the bedroom; into bed; under the covers.

We’re not going on a bear hunt again.

Some people will not want to come out from under the covers today. I understand that. Perhaps they are grieving and maybe staying there is right for now. But some won’t want to face their day because they are afraid of what is ahead. It’s not a bear hunt they are on but the risk is ever before them.

These next verses in Paul’s letter he reveals an extraordinary man.

“But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-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. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.” (Philippians 2: 25-30)

In the year 252AD a plague started in modern-day Tunisia which spread across the Roman Empire. The description of that plague was a horrid, destructive virus which man was powerless to defeat. Many thought it was the end of the world. At one point there were 5,000 people dying every day just in Rome alone. It lasted for 20 years. The Bishop of Tunis as it is known today (Carthage originally) wrote about the plague and that is why we know so much about it. In a rallying cry to God’s people he called for them to rise as front-line workers:

He wrote; “What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!”

The Christians stayed in the city to tend to the sick, care for the abandoned and bury the dead. They risked their own lives and many did die for their sacrifice. Their work cut the death rate with estimates saying by half. They became known as the gamblers.

There is one interesting detail to the story. Two years previously a persecution had broken out and the Bishop had fled the city which he was accused of cowardice. It was perhaps that learned experience which caused him to begin to risk his life for others.

The ‘parabolani’ (meaning gamblers) caused the gospel to spread even further during that plague. Their name is very interesting.

The Apostle who enjoyed playing with words as we found in Philemon with the name of Onesimus now does the same with a loved man, Epaphroditus. The name is taken from the goddess of gambling, Aphrodite. Paul knew well that when the gambler won the game they would shout ‘Epaphrodite!’ which means ‘Aphrodite has favoured me!’
And so Paul invents a new Greek word to describe how Epaphroditus “gambled” with his own life – parabouleusamenos.

We have seen every day this year our frontline workers leave their homes and risk their lives in helping those in dire need. They will do it again next year and even when we are through this pandemic.

Our prayer is that the Church will also rise to risk their lives with the gospel. To get out from underneath the covers and to knock on someone’s door and ask if they are okay; to share their faith; to give generously; to be bothered about the challenges of their city and town; to reach out to those who are unreachable. It is happening and there are great stories emerging but we need to encourage all of us to do more.

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