Who would choose to live without friends? Who could live without friends? We all need friends. This is an assumption that has shaped the lives and thoughts of so many throughout history. From the greatest philosophers to your so-called average Joe, the vast majority of people have believed that we need friends.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle makes precisely this point in his ethical writings. He points out that even if we had all other goods imaginable – wealth and honour and accomplishments of every kind – even then, no one would choose to live without friends. The philosopher asks: If we don’t have friends, to whom will we show generosity? If we don’t have friends, how will we guard our prosperity? Without friends, how will we survive misfortunes and poverty? Without friends, who will stir us to noble action?
There is a wide literature on friendship. Relationships between friends have been portrayed in so many different ways, and our need of friends has been re-iterated in so many contexts. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein gives us the shadow side of this assumption. Victor Frankenstein (the doctor who creates the great monster) writes these words to his confidant, Margaret Walton Saville: “I have no friend, Margaret. When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in my dejection.”
Who would choose to live without friends? Without friends, who would share our joy? Without friends, who would sustain us in our dejection?
Our passage for today from Philippians presents a portrait of friendship. And at the centre of that portrait is a man we have mentioned previously in this sermon series. His name is Epaphroditus.
Before getting to the question of friendship, let me very quickly say a word about this man’s name. The name Epaphroditus was in fact a common name in that ancient context – it comes from the name of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. So it’s safe to say that this man’s name reflects the religious and cultural traditions of his time in the Roman Empire. The name Epaphroditus reminds us that in his day people worshiped a whole a pantheon of god’s, including Aphrodite. But it’s also interesting that in a way, we might say that Epaphroditus doesn’t live up to his name – he doesn’t live up to his name because he’s not someone who worships that range of ancient gods. He doesn’t offer gifts at the shrine of Aphrodite or pray at the shrines of other local or household gods. Epaphroditus, rather, is a member of the small Christian church in Philippi – he is a friend in that Christian community of friends.
For our purposes, of course, it’s important that Epaphroditus isn’t only a member of the church in Philippi – he is also a friend to Paul. Epaphroditus was the one who was given the task of delivering to Paul the financial gift sent by Philippian church. We don’t know whether Epaphroditus and Paul became friends back when Paul was living in Philippi – or whether perhaps they only met for the first time when Epaphroditus arrived in town bear the church’s gift. But in either case, they are now fast friends. Using the language of Aristotle, Epaphroditus is a friend Paul can’t imagine living without.
At the beginning of our short passage, Paul uses five different words to describe Epaphroditus – and all five of those words express just how close and dynamic their relationships is. Paul says “Epaphroditus is my brother – he is my co-worker – he is my fellow-soldier.” In relation to the Philippian Christians, Paul also describes Epaphroditus as their messenger to him, and as the one who has ministered to his needs on their behalf.
In this short passage, even beyond these five words of description, we have evidence of a relationship that is as deep and meaningful and dynamic as the very best of our friendships. Paul and Epaphroditus have worked together – probably sharing ideas and thoughts and plans. Epaphroditus is one who has helped Paul – caring for him in his imprisonment and in his suffering.
Isn’t this what our very best friendships are like? There is something we share (football or philosophy or literature or film or knitting or children – and the list goes on) – there is something in common that excites and animates the friends. And beyond this sharing in something, there is love and affection – a willingness to encourage and help one another. We could paraphrase that quote from Frankenstein in a positive way: When we are glowing with the enthusiasm of success, a friend is there to participate in our joy. If we are assailed by disappointment, a friend will sustain us in our dejection.”
The church is in many ways a society of friends. Of course that formal name, Society of Friends has been used more specifically by the Quakers since as early as the 17th century. But there is a profound sense in which the church in general, and congregations specifically, are a society of friends. What we hold in common is Christ – his way and his resurrection life. That’s what animated and gave substance to the relationship between Paul and Epaphroditus. We don’t know all the dimensions of their working and living together in Christ, but it very likely involved worship and singing;
it very likely involved studying the history of Israel and the life of Christ;
it very likely involved encouragement of God’s people in love and generosity,
And we shouldn’t doubt that Paul and Epaphroditus also shared things that were much more mundane – laughter and conversation in the everyday. But at the same time, their friendship was about something – their friendship centred on something. Their friendship was about Christ – it was centred on him.
In the same way, our life at Kensington may deal with everyday things – conversation and laughter about so many mundane things. Yet it is and might be a friendship centered also on Jesus – his life, his word, his way.
When we worship, we are friends in the praise of Christ.
When we forgive one another, we are friends in Christ’s reconciling love.
When we serve our neighbours, we are friends in Christ’s mission.
When we pray together, we are friends in the Spirit Christ has sent.
A society of friends.
Gordon Fee is a New Testament scholar who has written a commentary on the book of Philippians. I had the privilege to take a class with him come years ago at Regent College – on the UBC campus in Vancouver. He has this to say about our passage: “Without being maudlin or saccharine one may rightly note that Paul lived as a believer in a world surrounded by friends, that those friends brought him joy, and that the untimely death of such friends would have been for him immeasurable grief”
To have friends, of course, also means the prospect of losing friends – not only losing them in the sense that we might drift apart or have a falling out – but the prospect of losing them through their death. Many of us – I’d venture nearly all of us – know what it is to lose a friend. To lose someone with whom we had a shared history and shared interests – with whom we lived in mutual love and concern. It is a painful thing to lose a friend.
Paul also faced the prospect of losing a friend – he has faced the prospect of losing Epaphroditus. The Philippian church, some 1500 kilometers away, has heard that Epaphroditus was sick, and Paul sends confirmation in his letter. In chapter 2, verse 27 he puts it bluntly: “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died.”
It goes without saying that the world of Epaphroditus and Paul was a world without emergency rooms, and without emergency surgery, and without antibiotics. Theirs was a world in which people who were near death’s door had little to no hope of recovery. And that’s how sick Epaphroditus seems to have been. He was close to death’s door. He nearly died.
Paul gives expression, once again, to the depth of their friendship, when he writes about the fact that his friend made an astonishing recover. “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.”
Already Paul has been suffering and struggling – experiencing real pain through his imprisonment and his displacement from home. And the last thing he needed or wanted was the sorrow of losing a dear co-worker, brother, and friend – another sorrow on top of all his sorrows. To lose one who had cared for him, who had worked with him, who had encouraged him – it would almost have been too much for Paul in that moment. Sorrow on top of sorrow.
Paul’s gratitude comes through so clearly – and it’s interesting to focus just for a moment on those simple few words that he writes: “God had mercy.” What does Paul mean with those words – “God had mercy.”
Gordon Fee, again, suggests that Paul probably means that God had a direct hand in this healing. Now we can’t know for sure how Paul meant these words, but it’s important for us to remember: Paul is one who believes in God’s power to heal, as is witnessed in one of his letters to the Corinthian Church. When Paul declares, “God had mercy,” it is not a flippant or superficial ‘thank God’ that he offers. Rather, it is a declaration that the God and Father of Jesus Christ remains engaged with our world – at work in our lives. God is the one who has given the gift of this friend – and in this situation, God who has brought healing so that Epaphroditus receives his life back, and Paul receives him back again as a friend.
In the modern west we have taken the mystery and miracle out of life and out of friendships. We have bought into a reductionist, naturalistic account of the world that refuses to countenance the possibility of a miracle. But Paul won’t have it that way. Paul simply couldn’t imagine our modern disenchanted world where everything is mere happenstance, or mere probability, or mere biology. “God had mercy” – God gave Epaphroditus back his life, and gave Epaphroditus back as a friend.
God has mercy – God gives us the gift of friends. God may act for the healing of our lives, the healing of our friends, and the healing of our world. Why would we insist on imagining the world otherwise?
In the end, Epaphroditus is healed – and so he is on his way back to his beloved friends in Philippi. Paul sends him back with these words to the Philippian Church: “I am more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honour such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.”
It turns out that Eaphroditus wasn’t only sick – somehow his sickness was a direct result of the work he was doing in the service of Christ – a service made concrete in his service to his friend Paul. For the sake of their friendship, and for the sake of his calling as a follower of the risen Jesus, Epaphroditus has put himself in harms way. We don’t know the details of what happened, or how his illness related to his service to Paul. But in these words of the Apostle we hear an echo of Jesus’ own words from the gospel of Mark: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” In these words of we also an echo of the Christ hymn that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians: “Christ was obedient unto death.” And Epaphroditus “came near to death.” Epaphroditus is one who embodies the way and love and humility of the rise Jesus.
Paul concludes: “Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honour such people.”
It’s a simple word: May we embrace with joy those friends who show us what is to walk with Christ in service and humility. May we honour, above all, those friends who love Christ, and who teach us how to love him a little more.
Who would choose to live without such friends?