Please take a seat and pick up a Bible and find that reading we had earlier on from Philippians 2. To get you warmed up here's a question for you: if you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be? Some of you will know that before I became the minister here at St Joseph's church, I was a youth worker. And if I had a £1 for every time I've heard or used that kind of ice breaker question then I'd be a very rich man indeed. But this week I'm turning it on you! So here's what I want you to do:
- Turn to the person next to you or go grab a seat next to the nearest person to you.
- Introduce yourself.
- Then ask – if you could be any animal in the world on land or sea, what kind of animal would best describe you? And why?
Now I know this is slightly unusual, and that some of you are British so you're already breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of this, but I'm putting on the voice I use when I'm taking the kids to the doctors or the dentist and I'm telling you: "It's ok, it's not going to hurt that much and afterwards if you're good I'll give you a treat." So off you go! I'll give you one minute.
Now I don't know what you discovered there. It's great to meet and greet one another when we come to church, so do keep on chatting at the end of the service. But what I want to highlight to you is the Bible's answer to that question: 'what kind of animal best describes you?' Well, the Bible says that we are like sheep. Why? Well, despite the fact that we wish we were independent thinkers, original trendsetters, our own person – the fact of the matter is... we're not! We're just not! I don't want to insult you or anything, but the fact of the matter is we love to follow and fit in with other peoples examples. We are followers, we are sheep – and we copy other people and other stuff.
Isn't that the reason if you're a parent that you worry about what your kids watch on telly? Not only do you worry about what the heroes of their favourite TV programme will teach them to think and to do, but in between the programmes you've got the adverts! And in the adverts the coolest looking kids prance onto the screen playing with the cutest little plastic ponies you've ever seen, or having the time of their lives with the most enormous water pistol ever invented. And so it's only a matter of time before you feel that tug at your trouser leg: "If you love me you will buy me that, because that is what I must have to have life!"
And as we know all too well, this isn't just an issue for the young! The question isn't 'Will I copy?', rather it's 'What do I copy? Whose example will I follow?' Which person's example, motives, message and values are going to be shaping your life? Well, it's in answer to those kinds of questions that the Apostle Paul gives us two great examples to follow in this next bit of the book of Philippians. If you've not been here for the past few weeks we've been looking at this Bible book where this guy Paul went around telling people about Jesus, so that they turn to Jesus and start a church. He's writing to one of the churches he started in a place called Philippi, and over the last few weeks we've seen Paul encouraging the Philippian believers to…
"do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." (Phil 2.3)
Paul did that firstly by reminding them of the example of the Lord Jesus, but now he's doing it by showing us what it looks like for a couple of ordinary blokes to do just that. And as he does that Paul is reminding us that Christianity is caught as well as taught – and that we should follow the examples of worthy Christian leaders like Timothy and Epaphroditus. Let's take a look at Timothy first – and this is my first point this morning:
1. Follow the Example of those who are Interested in the Wellbeing of Others not their Own (v.19-24)
"I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." (Phil 2.19-21)
Isn't that a remarkable thing to be able to write? "I have no one like him." We can imagine Paul in his prison cell wondering to himself:
'Who can I send to encourage the Philippians?
- I could send John, but his mind is really on his own personal pleasure. He spends most of his life planning the next holiday or what he's going to get up to at the weekend.
- I could send Laura, but to be perfectly honest her mind is on her social plans. Even her so-called selfless service is only ever fitted around the other items on her agenda.
- I could send Davie, but his mind is really set on pleasing his boss and on his reputation. He is so desperate to be a success and achieve something that he works every second he can get.
- Or there's Timothy – well, hold on... there's the man to send! His mind is preoccupied with the interests of Jesus. Everybody who knows him recognises that he is genuinely concerned for the eternal wellbeing of others. I have no one like him.'
Do you see? When it comes to looking out for others and meeting their needs, Paul has never met anyone like Timothy. Timothy was genuinely interested in the Philippians, and it wasn't just a passing interest. That is so rare – not just in our day, but in Paul's too! But you know the difference, don't you? Between someone who asks you how you are in the interests of social convention or making small talk... and those who really want to know. And more than that, they want to help... if they can. They keep asking questions, they seek to understand, they empathise. They are not just looking at their watch or over your shoulder checking if there is someone more interesting to talk to. Talking to them makes you feel like the most interesting person in the whole world.
That's what talking to Timothy would have been like. Don't you think that's what it would have been like to talk to the Lord Jesus too? Read through the gospels – what is Jesus most interested in? The temple restoration fund? The 'Mission Jerusalem' project? The Teachers of the Law School of Theology? No! What is striking about the gospels is that wherever Jesus went he took an interest in people, not projects. It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, sick or healthy, socially confident or a social outcast. Each person he encountered received his unconditional acceptance and undivided attention. And Timothy lives like his Master. He models that for us. Look at verse 21 again:
"For they all seek their own interests [that's what everyone else does!], not those of Jesus Christ."
Why was Timothy's interest in the Philippians' welfare so genuine? Because he put the interests of Jesus first, which meant putting others first. And Paul goes on to nail down what that means in verse 22:
"But you know Timothy's proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel."
That is how we show that we are other-person focused. Jesus' primary interest is in work of the gospel – which basically means to bring his good news to people, news that he has come to rescue sinners like us and see us established as his followers. That's why if you don't know what makes the gospel of Jesus such good news we want to encourage you to check it out. And that's why I want to encourage those of us who do know, to prioritise opportunities to help people do just that.
So if it's a choice between reading the Bible one-to-one with that lady you met at the women's coffee morning or doing the garden or getting your hair done – prioritise the interests of Jesus. If it's a choice between inviting some folks who are on the edge of church around for Sunday lunch or going for a pub lunch on your own – prioritise the interests of Jesus. If it's a choice between taking time to read the Bible and pray with your kids and answer their inevitable and sometimes interminable questions, or rushing downstairs to catch the start of the football – surely it's no contest. The Euros are not a once in a lifetime opportunity; gospel opportunities to shepherd a young life are! So be a man and care for the souls of your kids.
You see, as I've looked at these words I've had to ask myself: Am I serving the gospel? Am I serving Jesus? Or am I serving myself? And I've prayed: "Lord change me so that I do ministry for your glory and the benefit of others, not to meet my own needs." Because it is so easy even to be doing church work not in order to serve Christ or others, but to be serving ourselves, our ego, our needs, our insecurities, our pride or whatever it is! And as Paul looked around at everyone else, that's how they were living... everyone, that is, apart from Timothy. So let's follow his example! But let's also...
2. Follow the Example of those who have Proved Themselves in Hardship (v.25-30)
Here enters Epaphroditus. "Who?" I hear you cry! Well we may not be able to spell his name, but we know that Epaphroditus had been sent by the Philippians to help him in his ministry. Like Timothy he put others first and at quite some cost to himself. For the dominant issue in these verses is that Epaphroditus got ill when he was with Paul. And it wasn't just a man flu, where he got a touch of the sniffles and went to bed acting like he was going to die. No! Epaphroditus almost did die. Look at verses 27 and 30:
"Indeed he was ill, near to death."
"…for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me."
Here again is a little cameo of someone following Jesus' example. Working out their salvation – working out what it means to be a Christ follower, by putting others first. Jesus our supreme example gave his life for others. Epharoditus risked his life for others. He actually neglected his health – that's the idea in the Greek here. He took risks with his own health for the work of Christ. He was so keen to help Paul that rather than rest up, he pressed on and, well frankly... he overdid it. And here's the thing: Paul doesn't rebuke him for that! Quite the opposite, in fact! Look what Paul says in verse 29:
"So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men…"
I'm not sure that's what we'd do with Epaphroditus, would we? I've got a hunch that we wouldn't honour him, but send him to the GP so he could be encouraged to get a better work/life balance. 'You'd better slow down Epaphroditus, or you're going to kill yourself!' That's what we would say! And I've got to be honest: when you're involved in ministry, whether voluntarily or in a full-time paid capacity, it's tempting to think: 'What am I doing? Why am I always busy? Why am I out so many evenings? Why do I only really get one day off a week? Everyone else gets two days off a week! It's too much! I need to slow down and take it easy for a while.' But then I look at Epharoditus and I think: 'So what if I live to be a hundred and I tick off all the things on my bucket list, if I was too self-protecting to make the most of the opportunities God gave me to hold out His word of truth to as many people as I can.'
Now please don't mishear me! I am not saying that it is wise to work yourself into an early grave. I read this great book over Easter called "Zeal Without Burnout". It's written by a guy called Christopher Ash, and I'd recommend it to anyone who is struggling with finding themselves overcommitted in life, let alone to service in the church. He reminds us that sacrifice is not the same thing as burnout, and he does that by turning our attention to Romans 12.1 where Paul calls on us to:
"...present your bodies as a living sacrifice..."
Ash says this of that phrase:
"A living sacrifice is a strange expression. It means a sacrifice that goes on and on being offered, so long as it lasts."
So, we are not to work until we drop, but following Jesus will involve being a sustainable sacrifice – it will involve the sort of self-giving living that God enables us to go on giving day after day. So get enough sleep, make sure to have a day off each week, see friends who refresh you, prioritise your own spiritual life – you can't give out of an empty tank – but above all know that to follow Christ means to act like Christ. It will involve sacrifice! It will be inconvenient and costly. It will mean taking risks, even with our health. But it will be so, so worth it.
In 2000 years what do you think people will say about us as a church? I'm getting a little ahead of myself here writing our church history before it's even really begun, but wouldn't it be tragic if it said: 'Ken Matthews and the people at St Joseph's took no risks and they lived such a well-balanced life'? I hope that will never be the case , but rather that we would honour people like Epaphroditus and follow their example in taking risks for the gospel. He was ready to risk his life for others. And I'm sure he would have been willing to risk not just his health, but his reputation, his financial buffer zone, his time – we love to hold on to that as much as money too, don't we? But my guess is Epaphroditus wouldn't have, because he knew that to err on the side of risk is the right thing to do, if we follow Christ and seek others' good.
So, two men, then, who are worthy examples to follow. As we look at their lives we see in action what it means to "in humility count others as more significant than ourselves": Timothy serving others for Christ; Epaphroditus suffering for Christ. But there's actually one other example here… it's the example of Paul himself.
3. Follow the Example of those who Send Others for the Sake of Gospel Growth (v.19-30)
The thing I want to highlight briefly as we close is that Paul gave away gospel partners to build the church. Have a quick look back to verse 19:
"I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon…"
And do you remember what he said in verse 20?
"I have no one like him…"
Paul is in prison, so he needs all the help and encouragement he can get – and yet he sends Timothy – the best he has – to the Philippians to help them. And it's the same with Epaphroditus in verse 25, isn't it?
"I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier…"
See the tenderness, the affection, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus there. He has been such an encouragement to him. And yet he sends him back to the Philippians so that they will have the joy of seeing him again (verse 28). As I've read this, it's struck me that this must be the kind of church that we must aspire to be: sending our best people to other churches that they may be built up. I'm so thankful that this is what Jesmond Parish Church did in starting up St Joseph's. I look around our church and see that they sent some of their best folks, and I know from the grapevine that you are sadly missed over there. Who knows, in the years to come maybe God could use us in that way to start a church somewhere else that really needs Christ's good news?
And who knows who we might send out to start churches in other parts of the world, like Andy and Meling have been doing. Would you please join me in praying that God would raise up men and women like them, to go and take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Please put that in your prayer diary. And if you don't have a prayer diary and would like one, then let me know and I'll send you a template to get you started. It would be great if we could follow the Apostle Paul's example and pray and work to send out folks like Timothy and Epaphroditus for the sake of others. And it would be great if we could follow their example too! The first step on that road is to ask God for his help, so let's pray folks!
"Father God, there are so many examples out there who we could follow, who we are tempted to follow, but we know that they all seek their own interests and they encourage us to do likewise. We confess that there have been too many times that we have been too wrapped up in our own little concerns always thinking about ourselves. So give us a desire to know Christ and love Christ and serve like Christ. Work amongst us, Father, that we may be a church marked by our service and our love for others. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."