Sunday, 25 June 2017

Patronal Festival: Being an apostle

Today is a special day, as you know. It’s special for two reasons. First, because it is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and secondl, because we are all aware that today we are saying thank you and farewell to the Harvey family, sending them out on their journey to the distant shores of Hadlow. Well, it’s not all that distant, of course, but it will be a new start for them, after many years here, as Nicky prepares her ordination as a deacon and then a priest. 

And if you are sending people out, there’s no better day to do it than the feast day of two of the churches most important apostles, because that word, “apostle”, means someone who is sent out. In a sense, the Harvey family are apostles today – sent out from this congregation - and we pray that those who receive them will be nourished and enriched by their gifts as we have been.

They are following, as I’ve said, in illustrious footsteps. We heard a bit about the apostles Peter and Paul in our readings today. Peter is commissioned – sent out – by Jesus himself, given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. He will have authority in the new community of Jesus’ followers to open doors that seem closed, to set people free, and to bind things that need binding.  That’s an awesome power to have, though in some sense we all have it – we can make or mar the lives of others very easily, and it’s important that we know that, so that we can choose to be a force for good in the world.

Paul, the second saint to whom this church is dedicated, didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry. His “sending out” came in a very different way to Peter’s. He was on the road to Damascus, on a mission to destroy the followers of Jesus, because he was convinced that they had got it all wrong, and that Jesus had perverted God’s message. It was only when he heard Jesus’ voice calling to him from heaven, a place where he thought he could never be, that he realised his mistake. As he sat, blinded and confused, in a house in Damascus, a Christian called Ananias came to him there. He’d been sent by God to pray for his healing, and God had told Ananias that Paul would be “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…” And that’s why Paul claims to be an apostle at the beginning of our first reading today. He had been sent out by God too, just as Peter had.

Peter and Paul, two apostles, two men who are sent out and who become the most important leaders of the early church, and it’s easy to see how they exercised their apostolate, what they were “sent out” to do. Peter and Paul both travelled extensively, founded Christian communities, and both, according to Christian tradition, ended up being martyred in Rome because of the message they preached and lived.

But they aren’t the only apostles in the readings we’ve heard today, and thinking about the others in these readings might broaden our view on what it means to be sent by God and used by God. Who are these others who are “sent out”? They both feature in that first reading, the letter Paul wrote.

First there’s Timothy. Timothy, was a regular travelling companion of Paul’s. We don’t know much about him for sure, except that he came from Lystra and had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, but we do know that he was immensely important to Paul. He refers to him often, and always with great affection. Again and again, Paul talks about being glad of his company, or looking forward to seeing him. He’s described as a beloved child, as well as a brother. Paul obviously felt protective of him, but he also knew that he needed him. Timothy supported him practically, travelling on missions for Paul, and he supported him emotionally too, sticking with him when he was in trouble. That sort of supportive role is vital, often far more important than those who perform it realise. I know that many people here have supported Nicky through her training, first as a Pastoral Assistant and then in her ordination training, praying for her, giving her feedback on sermons, taking an interest in what she’s been doing, and many more will support her and Mike and their family in her future ministry, and they will also be vital. Ministry is not something you do alone. You rapidly realise that when you are ordained. It is something you do as part of a community, and without that community, you can’t do anything at all. The Timothys of this world have an apostolic job too, something they are sent by God to do. It’s to walk alongside others, and they are just as important as the Peters and Pauls. 

Peter and Paul are big Christian heroes, and you might have heard of Timothy before too, because there are letters to him in the New Testament. My guess is, though, that the fourth “apostle” I want to think about today is one most of us have never noticed at all. It is Epaphras. Who?  Epaphras. He’s mentioned in passing just twice in Colossians, and once more in the letter to Philemon. A bit of detective work, though, uncovers some interesting things about him. He seems to have been with Paul, who was in prison, when he wrote to the Colossians, but a bit later on in the letter Paul describes him as “one of you” . Epaphras is from Colossae, a leader, and possibly the founder, of the Christian community there. He’s come to Paul with news of the Colossians.  Some things are going well, “He has made known to us your love in the Spirit”, says Paul. Others aren’t – we hear of some of the struggles and arguments in the church later on in the letter. He wants Paul’s advice and help.

It seems likely that he originally met Paul in Ephesus, and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. But Paul never went to Colossae himself, so it must have been Epaphras who took the good news there. That’s why I want to call Epaphras an apostle. He was sent, just as much as Peter, Paul, and Timothy were. But he was sent home, sent to what is often the hardest place to minister, the place where everyone already knows you!  In every generation there are Peters and Pauls, people who travel with the gospel of Christ to new places, as Nicky and Mike will do, and as I have done in my ministry. But for many others throughout history, their calling is to stay put, to bloom where they are planted, to transform their own backyards, their own communities, their own workplaces, to stick at it even when the grass looks greener elsewhere. Epaphras was an apostle to his own people, in his own place, just as many – perhaps most – Christians are called to be. That might not always feel very exciting, but without those local apostles, the church will soon wither and die. So if that is your calling, then live it!

In a moment, the choir are going to sing a setting of the Magnificat in G Major by Sumsion, that song of Mary which reminds us that God, in Jesus, is transforming the world.  He is putting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty, challenged to change their lives. It’s a song that’s all about God’s mission, and Mary’s astonishment that it is happening through her.  At the end of this Eucharist, as we send Nicky, Mike and the family out with our love, our blessing and our prayer, we need also to remember that God sends us out too, into our own apostolate, wherever that is.

Each of us is called. Each of us is sent. God has a purpose for each of us, something that we, and only we can do. It might be far away, or it might be right here. We might be a Peter or Paul, a Timothy or an Epaphras, called to travel, or called to stay put, called to lead, or called to encourage, but each of us matters and can make a difference. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that each of them will bear fruit, grow in wisdom, build his kingdom. That’s my prayer for Nicky and Mike and their family, and I am sure that it is their prayer for us too as they leave us today.


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