The apostle Paul was blessed with the friendship of one Epaphroditus. This beloved brother is mentioned twice in Philippians (2:25 and 4:18). Many believe that the Epaphras of Colossians 1:7 and 4:12, and Philemon 23, are one and the same. Regardless, from what Paul writes of him in Philippians, we have sufficient information to conclude that he was one of the finest Christians in the early church. Though his name (which means “lovely”) was derived from the goddess of sensuality (Aphrodite), it is clear that he had been converted by and to Jesus Christ. He came to know what true love looks like.
When Paul was imprisoned, the church at Philippi sent material supplies at the hands of this messenger. But by sending Epaphroditus they were sending someone who went above and beyond the call of duty. Associating with a prisoner imperilled his life. Further, Epaphroditus fell ill and yet continued to minister to Paul. Paul informed the church at Philippi that Epaphroditus, in fact, was, at one point, “near to death” (Philippians 2:27). He “risked his life” to care for his brother in Christ (2:30).
Paul used a Greek term (paraboleuesthai) in both these verses, which meant “to gamble,” in the sense of hazarding one’s life. It became an identifying term for those in the early church who visited prisoners and who cared for those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases. They were designated the parabolani—“risk takers”—those willing to risk their lives to serve the Lord by serving others.
William Barclay records that, in 252 AD, a plague broke out in Carthage (modern day Tunisia). The unbelieving community threw out the bodies of the dead and fled in terror. Cyprian, the Christian Bishop, gathered his congregation together and set them to burying the dead and nursing the sick in that plague-stricken city. By doing so, they saved the city—at the risk of their own lives—from destruction and desolation.
This wouldn’t be the only time Christians would risk—and give—their lives in times of plague. During the Black Plague of the 1500s, when one third of Europe’s population died, Martin Luther and others exhorted Christians to live out their faith in such terrifying times. Many did so with the result that many souls and lives were saved, the dying were ministered to, and God was glorified. They “gambled” for God’ if I can be so crude. They did not know the outcome, but because they knew the Lord through the saving power of the gospel, they were willing to lay down their lives for others. Like Epaphroditus, they risked their lives. Because they loved God, they would not keep their distance from their neighbours.
Like them, and like Epaphroditus, we are currently in the position to experience something of what it means to be among the parabolani: those who are willing to hazard their lives to care for others. Yet if you read the recent correspondence from the elders, you might be a bit confused. After all, we have cancelled our corporate gatherings for an indefinite period due to the risk posed by COVID-19. We have called upon the church to keep distance. We are of the view that, in this case, loving one another and loving your neighbour means keeping your distance. Is this inconsistent? Fair question. So let me provide what I believe is a biblical answer.
Jesus calls Christians to give their lives for others. This is both explicitly stated (“Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34]) and implicitly deduced. The commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31) implies a commitment to preserving the life of another, even at the risk of losing your own. The parable of the good Samaritan illustrates this (Luke 10:25–37). Further, Jesus said, “No greater love has a man than this, that he lays down his life for his friend” (John 15:13). We who know our future destiny are the ones most suited to risk getting there sooner than later.
But risking my life is one thing; unnecessarily risking the life of another is something different altogether. All things considered, love for others means that I should strive to avoid putting others in harm’s way. Let me give you an example.
I live with two people in my home who are immune compromised. They are more prone to infection than I am. I therefore need to be careful that I live in such a way that I protect them. Risking my life to serve is one thing, but I also have the responsibility to care for the wellbeing of my family. As a Christian, my faith in God, and therefore my faith in the gospel, should empower me to be courageous. But it should also restrain me from being reckless. Risk-taking courage is one thing; reckless courage is another.
Now, I understand that we don’t live in a perfect world. Therefore our actions will at some point put others at risk. But we need to do all we can to reduce that risk. It is for this reason that the elders have made some rather drastic decisions about our corporate gatherings. We want to practically do what we can to reduce the risks of the spread of the coronavirus in our community. Though, on an individual level, we all may be called upon to take risks in faithfulness to serving the Lord, at the same time, we should be aware of irresponsibly exposing others to risks that can be avoided. In other words, while not selfishly hibernating in a self-preserving bubble of protection, neither should we run around heedlessly bursting the bubbles that protect our neighbours.
We are facing a situation that is entirely new for us. It could last for a short time, or it may be long-lasting. We may be called upon to serve others in a risk-taking way. We may be called upon to follow the example of Epaphroditus and the parabolani of the early church. But for now we are being called upon to do what we can to reduce the risk of infection by keeping our distance.
However, while keeping our distance, we who are healthy and who are at a lower risk of exposure, must be willing to serve those who are more vulnerable. We must not keep relational distance while we keep our physical distance.
Many in our church will be hesitant to go to the shops due to their age and/or health. What an opportunity to go the distance to serve our brothers and sisters in need! Offer to go in their place. Further, in our self-imposed social distancing, let us be mindful of those who live alone. They don’t have to be alone. Invite them into your lives. Again, if you are healthy and risk averse when it comes to the virus, consider inviting yourself into their homes and visiting with them.
Along this line, the elders are here for the flock. Even if we cannot always be physically be with you, we are only a phone call away.
We are all on this learning curve together. Let us be patient, let us be kind, let us be sensitive, and let us be wise. Some of us will be called upon to take some risks while others will not. That’s okay. Epaphroditus was and he was blessed. Most of the Philippian church was not and they too were blessed. But together, a fellow Christian was encouraged, the gospel went forth, the church was blessed, and God received the glory. That is a wonderful outcome. May it be ours as well.