7:10 PM Good evening, thoughtful bloggers of cyberdom! I want you to meet James. I thought of James while we were discussing Epaphroditus in Greek 3 class on Tuesday. James was my translator when I trekked among the Guji tribe in southern Ethiopia a couple of years ago. At the time he was a young and optimistic 24-year old, freshly graduated from the university. All who knew him loved him. His smile was infectious and so was his passion for the Gospel. Well, when Jason Evans (one of my elders at Bethel Hill) and I decided to minister among the Gujis, we needed a translator, but not just any translator.
He needed to speak excellent English as well as excellent Orominya (with a passable Guji accent). Not to mention the fact that he would need courage, in bucketsful. You see, the Gujis hate the Burjis. Not all the Gujis do, but certainly a good number of them. For centuries they have killed Burjis, often without any apparent cause. In fact, the last two evangelists to work among the Gujis were both murdered. So, the question of the hour: Who would translate for us? James stood up and volunteered. We told him, “Are you aware of the dangers?” “Yes,” he replied, “but the Lord Jesus has told me to go and be your translator.” And so for 7 days we trekked from Guji village to Guji village, living among the people, eating their food, sharing their life, and telling them of a Savior who loved them so much He sacrificed His best for their sake. After a week the fighting got so bad that the church elders told us to return to Burji, and thus our little expedition among the Gujis came to an end.
If you were to judge James by normal “American” standards of success, you would have to conclude that he was crazy or at least an absolute idiot. But kingdom people think differently. In the kingdom, “normal” just doesn’t cut it any longer. What matters is that we’re imitating Jesus and serving others sacrificially. That’s what James did. And that’s what Epaphroditus did. Paul writes, “He risked his life and nearly died for the sake of the work of Christ, in order to give me the help that you yourselves could not give” (Phil. 2:30). By these standards – living for Christ and helping others – both Epaphroditus and James were winners.
A few weeks after that mission trip was over, James wrote to us. His email was short and to the point. “They’re looking for me,” was all he said. He meant that the Gujis were hunting him down to kill him. He had fled to a larger city to try and lose himself in its anonymity. He failed. A week later we received the news that James had been suffocated in his sleep. He was the first martyr of our work in Ethiopia.
In the early church a group of brothers and sisters called themselves the Parabolani, a word taken from the Greek verb Paul uses to describe Epaphroditus in Phil. 2:30. They were Jesus-followers who were not afraid to get their hands mucked up, ministering to the sick and imprisoned of their day, sometimes even seeing that their enemies received an honorable burial. This point stands out in strong relief to an email I got yesterday from someone who was disgusted that two American Muslims had been appointed to the Department of Homeland Security. It is hard for us to see how deep-seated our ethnocentrism is. Muslims are our enemies, aren’t they? Yet in Ethiopia scores of them are coming to Christ because of the love shown to them by modern-day Parabolani. A caring church wins and holds coverts. Unless a deep, practical, loving care is shown, unless we are willing to give our lives for the sake of others, the mere proclaiming of Good News will be useless.
I’m proud and humbled to have known James. Though he would have detested the moniker, he is a modern-day Epaphroditus. Thank you, James! We love you, we miss you, and we will see you in glory!
Got time for another takeaway from Tuesday’s class? In Phil. 2:22, Paul writes about Timothy: “You yourselves know how he has proved his worth, how he and I, like a son and his father, have worked together for the sake of the Gospel.” My son and I had a fantastic time building several outbuildings at the farm as well as putting up miles of woven wire fencing together. (Check out the blog archives for tons of photos.) The camaraderie itself was worth all the blisters and sore feet. Willing, enthusiastic cooperation toward a common goal – that’s what Paul is talking about by using this analogy from the home.
If we apply this to the spiritual realm, things get even better. Paul and Timothy were interested in the same spiritual goal – the Cause of Causes! As someone pointed out in class on Tuesday, Paul always seemed to work in a team. He was willing to recede into the group to serve King Jesus. This is why, in Philippians, he pleads so strongly for Christian unity. Full of haughtiness and self-importance, we insist on doing things our way, of working only with other Christians who look and act just like us. How easy it is for us to exaggerate the weaknesses of other members of the Body! Paul says, NO! Stop it! With humble-mindedness, let’s count others as better than ourselves. Let’s outdo one another in showing honor to others (Rom. 12:10)! As fellow citizens of the kingdom of heaven (how’s that for is “Homeland Security”!), let’s all exercise our citizenship in a manner worthy of the Gospel, in one spirit, with one soul striving side by side for the sake of the Good News (Phil. 1:27). Think about it. A higher degree of unity and just plain old kindness on the Home Front might well do wonders on the Front Lines. Brothers attacking each other or belittling them is just plain ugly. No, it’s more than that. It’s sinful.
I don’t think this means we can’t have our differences of opinion when it comes to, say, ecclesiology. But it certainly means that we all have to take great care that we keep our personal convictions about the church distinct from our call to manifest the kingdom and, through our selfless acts of service and the Good News of Christ, to transform the world into a domain over which Jesus rules. Let’s be careful about “Divided Loyalties.” If our loyalty is to the King, and if we are all His subjects (despite our differences), then let’s be sure we work together, like a father-son team putting up a new barn, for the sake of God’s reign!