This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Close". See series.
There's a famous speech in Shakespeare's play Henry V. It's the night before the battle of Agincourt. As a young king, Henry prepares to lead the knights of England in battle against the vastly superior forces of France. Henry's warriors are tired. They're outnumbered. They are far from home. The night before the battle, the king wanders through the camp in disguise mingling with his men. He's inspired by their courage and moved by their loyalty to king and country, even in the face of death. The next morning, St. Crispin's Day, he gathers his men together and rallies them with a speech. And a few of the more famous lines go like this:
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother …
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
Henry reminds the men of the greatness of their cause, the honor that will be theirs for having fought in a conflict of such consequence. He reminds them, too, of the special bond that is and will be theirs for having braved the battle together. He tells them that every time St. Crispin's Day comes around, people will remember the battle of Agincourt. "And those who fought will show their scars and stand tall, and those who slept safely in their beds will wish they had been there." "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …."
Those words live on these many centuries later, because they speak so eloquently of the bond that is formed between people when they are enlisted together in a common cause. It was that phrase "band of brothers" that inspired a World War II book and then mini-series. The story follows the soldiers of Easy Company from their jump training in Georgia to the landing at Normandy to the Battle of Bastogne and then to the defeat of Hitler's army. Those soldiers enjoy intensity in their relationships, an intimacy, a camaraderie, that civilians can never fully understand. Something happens when people serve together. When they struggle side by side, when they make some shared sacrifice in pursuit of some worthy goal, they form a special bond and are shaped forever by that experience. And what's true of soldiers on the field of battle is true of Christ followers in the service of our King.
So far in our series on spiritual friendships, we've followed Ruth and Naomi as they accompanied each other on their journey of faith. We met David and Jonathan, who helped each other find and follow God. Last week we meet a threesome, Paul the apostle, Philemon the slave owner, and Onesimus the runaway. We learned that friends help each other see the people they are capable of becoming in Christ.
This morning we're going to look at a particular kind of spiritual friendship. These are friendships formed in ministry, relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ who serve alongside each other. Something unique happens when we do that. So to do that this morning, we'll be considering Paul and his band of brothers and sisters in a place called Philippi. We're going to look at two passages in Philippians, starting in chapter one.
The New Testament gives us thirteen letters from the apostle Paul. What a collection! Of all the letters we have from him, Philippians is the friendliest. You sense it in the language right from the beginning. In verse 3 Paul writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy." Skipping down to verse 7, he writes: "It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart…." Verse 8: "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." "Have you in my heart," "Long for you with the affection of Christ"—is this the task-driven, Type-A, take-the-next-hill Paul we've always imagined? He sounds mushy in this warm and fuzzy letter. But he keeps going. In 2:12 he writes: "Therefore, my dear friends …." Then down in 4:1: "Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown …." These are extremely warm and affectionate words. But it's not just the words of this letter; it's the actual form of the letter that is friendly.
If you remember back in grade school or junior high, we all learned how to write different kinds of letters—personal letters, business letters, and so forth. Each one was formatted a bit differently. Well, the same thing was true in the ancient world. There were different types of letters. Scholars have found ancient manuals for letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. It turns out there were twenty-one different types of letters in the first century. One of those types of letters was called "the friendly letter." And Philippians follows the format of the friendly letter in the ancient world. The language and style of the letter suggests that Paul had a very close relationship with these believers in Philippi, a closer relationship than he had with other believers out of all the places he had been. In fact, in modern language you might say that the Philippians were Paul's "BFFs"—best friends forever, in text speak. You could "LOL" with that if you want.
Spiritual friends have commonality
What was it about the Philippians that made them so close to Paul's heart? What happened that drew them together? Well, he gives us a hint in verse 5: "Because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." Now that partnership word is an interesting one. In the original language, in the Greek language, the word is koinonia, which some of us are familiar with. It's the common word almost always translated "fellowship" in the Bible. Koinonia describes something in common. But scholars agree that Paul seems to be using that word in a more specialized way, in a stronger way, to suggest not just sharing something in common but active participation in something. In other words, the Philippians didn't just come to share Paul's faith; they came to share his mission, spreading this faith around the world. They weren't just recipients of his ministry. They were participants in his ministry. And they did that from the first day.
Now who are these people that Paul loved so much? And what happened in those very first days to draw them so closely together? Well, it's actually a pretty good story. You could find it in Acts 16. If you're familiar with the story you'll remember that Paul had no intention of going to Philippi. He was on his way to Asia, but the Spirit of God intervened, closed all those other doors, and directed him to Philippi. But when he got to Philippi he couldn't even find a synagogue to begin his ministry, which is how he always did it. The only sign of spiritual vitality he could find was a women's prayer group outside the city. So Paul started there, and the first person to come to faith in Philippi was a businesswoman named Lydia. She not only came to faith, she immediately invited Paul and his team to set up shop in her household. But she didn't just invite them; she insisted that they make her house a home base for the ministry in Philippi. So interestingly, the church in Philippi didn't start with a band of brothers but a circle of sisters. And Paul was fine with that.
Well, a couple of days later Paul and his team are ministering throughout Philippi, and they encounter a slave girl who's possessed by a demon. And so with a remarkable prayer, they cast the demon out. They deliver the girl from bondage and exploitation. But the girl's slave owners are upset about it because they lost their source of income. And so they stir up a riot in the city. They turn the mob against Paul and Silas and his team, and things get so out of control that the authorities have to come and break it up. And so they arrest Paul and Silas. They strip them, beat them, and throw them into jail. Well, that night there's an earthquake, and the doors of the cells blow open, and Paul and Silas could easily have just walked to freedom, but they stay. They stay in prison and they share the gospel with the jailer. And this grizzled, hardened jailer not only embraces the gospel of Christ, he takes Paul and Silas home with him, bathes and bandages their wounds, and then he and his whole family are baptized. Well, the next morning the authorities realize that Paul is a Roman citizen and that they have jailed him unjustly. So they tell him he can go free. He says: Not so fast. There's been a miscarriage of justice here. I want you guys to come down here and personally escort me out of prison.
And they do. But before Paul and Silas leave town they go back to Lydia's house one more time and visit with the believers there. And I have to believe that they laughed out loud at those magistrates sheepishly escorting Paul and Silas from prison. I have to believe they had a great worship service as they reflected on all that God had done in those early days. And I have to believe that they shed some tears, wondering if they would ever see each other again. Those were the first days in Philippi.
No wonder Paul had these people in his heart after all they'd been through together. Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer and his family, these people's lives had been changed for eternity. But Paul's life had been changed too. They had made a mark on him, and he writes about it in this letter. Together they had done something great for God. They not only planted the church in Philippi, they established a beachhead for the gospel on the continent of Europe. It would all spring from there. Paul and the Philippians weren't just friends; they were partners. They were friends in ministry and they never forgot each other.
Something happens when believers serve together, when they struggle together side by side. When they make shared sacrifice in the service of the King, they form a special bond and they are forever shaped by the experience.
So who are your BFFs? If you were to name the three or five or seven people who are your best friends in the world—the people you can count on, the people you could call at a moment's notice, the people who will drive you to the airport at rush hour, just your best friends—who would they be? My guess is that most of your best friends in the world are people with whom you shared a common cause or a common struggle. Maybe you played on a sports team together chasing a championship or trying to stay out of last place. Maybe you were in school together, suffering through biology in the back row, pulling all-nighters and cramming for exams. Maybe you raised your children together, keeping each other company during the toddler years, keeping each other sane during the teenage years. As I made my list of friends this week, three, five, seven, ten best friends in the world, I came to realize that every single one of them were friends I had made in ministry, people I'd served with somewhere along the way.
A couple of weeks ago I told you about my friend Jim, my skiing buddy. We became friends back in college, but it wasn't skiing that brought us together. You don't do much of that in Chicago. It was ministry that brought us together. We were both part of a high school ministry called Campus Life, a Young Life type of ministry, working in a local high school. And so one night every week we would get as many high schoolers as we could in someone's basement and we'd lead them in games and discussion and try to introduce them gently to Christ. And on Friday nights and Saturday nights we'd go to their high school basketball games and their football games and their school plays. And then we'd take them out for deep dish pizza afterwards. And whenever those nights were over, we'd all go back to the dorm and we'd talk about everything that happened that evening. We'd laugh out loud at how goofy those kids could be. We'd complain about the fact that we got stuck paying for the pizza, again. And we'd grieve over how hurt and lost some of those kids were, and we'd strategize about how to do better next week. Our hearts were knit together in those days, in ways that skiing never could. Three, four, of my best friends in the world today were members of that team some thirty-plus years ago.
Do you have friends like that? Do you have people who have served alongside you in the work of Christ, people you have struggled and sacrificed with in order to do something great for God? If you don't have friends like that, you are missing out on some of the deepest, closest relationships available to you this side of heaven.
Friends serve each other
And so if you're looking for friends like that, don't sit around waiting for someone to call you. Find a ministry. Get involved somewhere. Join a team. Maybe what you need to do is come down front here when the service is over and pick up one of these placards here on the platform. These placards represent openings in ministry here at Grace Church. These are spots that are being left behind by the folks who are going off to serve in Wilmington. We're thrilled they're going, but they're leaving behind empty spaces, two hundred of them. Who's going to pick up these ministries?
That's how it works in the field of battle. Right? Someone's carrying a flag and he falls; someone else picks up the flag and carries it the rest of the way. If a gunner gets hit, someone else steps up and takes the position. Well, who's going to take up these spots—Kids' Town, worship, café, student ministries, Life Communities? Who's going to pick them up? I want you to see that these are not just opportunities for ministry. These are friendships waiting to be found. And there's something else that happens when you form friends in ministry. You not only get closer to each other, you get closer to God.
Let's skip ahead to chapter 2. Paul here is going to introduce us to two of his very best BFFs, to whom he wants to call special attention. If he had a camera phone, I'm sure he would have taken a picture and included it in the letter, but we're going to have to go with his description. We meet the first one in verse 19:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.
Timothy was a young believer that Paul had met earlier on this same journey, not long before. And Paul was so impressed with him that he invited Timothy to join him and become part of this team. And you can see how close they become. He says, "as a son with his father he has served with me."
But I want you to notice something else. I want you to you to notice how Timothy has grown in his faith. He doesn't look out for his own interests, but for the interests of Christ and others. How mature is that? Paul says, "I have no one else like him." He's the most valuable member of my team. How did this happen? How did this young believer get so strong so quickly? It's because he was serving together with Paul in ministry.
Then we meet a second friend, Epaphroditus, in verse 25:
But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life … for the help you could not give me.
Remember, Paul writes this as a prisoner. Now, in those days if you were a prisoner it was up to your family to take care of you while you were in prison. Since Paul has no family that we know of, his friends in Philippi took up the cause. They sent one of their own members, Epaphroditus, to Rome with gifts and messages to assist him and care for him in his ministry. And he was a great help and encouragement to Paul. But somewhere along the way Epaphroditus got sick. Maybe it was on the journey. Maybe it was city life in Rome. Somehow he became sick and nearly died, and so Paul decides as valuable as Epaphroditus is to him, he wants to send his friend back to his family and friends in Philippi so that he can get better. But notice again what he says about this young man in verse 29: "Honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me." What courage and commitment Epaphroditus has acquired. What Christ-like character. He was ready to lay down his life for a friend. How did that happen? By serving together with Paul. So like King Henry and his knights, Paul is honored to be serving among people like Timothy and Epaphroditus. He might have said, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
See, something happens when people serve together. When they struggle side by side, when they make a shared sacrifice in the cause of Christ, they form a unique bond and are forever shaped by the experience.
I talked to a couple of friends like this here at Grace this past week. Cynthia Park and Simone Arkinstohl serve together in Kids' Town. They are large group teachers, part of that team. Every week they present the story to the kids in costume and drama and music and with all kinds of creativity. They didn't know each other before they started serving in Kids' Town, but they struck up a friendship there and discovered they had some things in common: they are both mothers of many kids, as Cynthia put it—five in one family, three in another, teenagers most of them. And so they have found an opportunity to share the joys and struggles of that season of life with each other, to share war stories and words of counsel and advice, and to pray for each other. Now, they wanted me to be honest with you about their friendship. Right now it's pretty much limited to Kids' Town ministry. There's not a lot of margin in their lives to get together outside of ministry. They've never yet gotten their husbands together for dinner or anything. But serving together in Kids' Town, they have found a friendship that's brought deep joy and spiritual growth to their lives.
I also talked this week to a couple of high schoolers, Kelly Turk and Alison Quinn. Kelly and Alison met on a mission trip to Trinidad this past summer. They didn't know each other before that—Kelly is a junior in high school, and Alison a lowly freshman. We all know enough about high school to know that juniors don't typically hang out with incoming freshmen. But something happened between the two of them on that trip. Something about serving together, being on the road far from home in another culture, sweating under the hot sun, giving yourself away to children and people, and worshiping together that knit their hearts together in a unique way. This is how Alison describes it:
We bonded in Trinidad after an emotional night for the team. The group had been reflecting on what God was teaching us through the trip. So Kelly and I had a heart-to-heart conversation after the team gathering. We discussed everything from how we came to God to the current boy situations in our lives. On the trip, we became close by working together, keeping each other accountable, and writing encouragement notes to one another. We both now realize that God was working through us during this trip. Since then we have held each other accountable and feel comfortable discussing where we are in our faith today. We love serving together, and we are so thankful that we met on the trip to Trinidad. Our lives would be totally different if we didn't have each other.
Do you have friends like that in your life? Kelly and Alison, Cynthia and Simone, they've not just grown closer to each other; they have grown closer to God. They have forever been shaped by their friendship. Do you want that? Do you want to go deeper in your life? I mean, are you serious about getting deeper in your knowledge of God? Don't join another Bible study, all right? I know, that sounds crazy. If you're not in one, join one. But if you're in one, don't join another one until you get out and serve. Find a ministry to be part of. Do you want to get closer to the people around you, the members of your church? I mean, do you really want to get closer? Don't sit around. Don't just go out for coffee. Serve together. Find a ministry. Join a team. Something happens when believers serve together, when they struggle side-by-side. When they make a shared sacrifice in the service of the King, they form a special bond, and they are shaped spiritually by the experience.
And that's why I am excited for the two hundred folks we had up here on the platform a little while ago, those going off to Wilmington to serve. I know what they're in for. Now, they're in for some struggle. They're in for hardship and confusion and tests of faith. We all know that. But they are also in for a depth of relationship and an adventure in faith and experiences with God that can only be found when you are giving yourself away in ministry with other people.
Years ago I heard a Christian leader say, "There's nothing better in life than to find people you love and grow together in ministry." I've had that joy several times along the way in my life and I want everyone to have that experience. I am so excited for this group going off to Wilmington.
But you know what I'm also excited about? That same experience is available to every one of us here in Lexington. I know there's a lot of buzz right now about Wilmington, and rightfully so. What happens there in the next few months is important. But what happens here in Lexington is just as important. In fact, it is foundational, because if things aren't happening here, if God is not being praised here, if children and teenagers are not being discipled here, if hurting people are not being helped here, if lost people are not finding Christ here, if the gospel is not going out from here, then we have nothing to offer Wilmington, or any place else for that matter. So we have a great challenge facing us here in Lexington as we send off these folks to Wilmington. We need God to raise up two hundred new volunteers here in Lexington to take the spots being left behind. What do you want to do? How about joining this band of brothers, this circle of sisters, this company of friends in ministry?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.