21 Give my greetings to each of God’s holy people – all who belong to Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send you their greetings. 22 And all the rest of God’s people send you greetings, too, especially those in Caesar’s household.

Philippians 4:21-22, New International Version.

1. The Distance of Love 

You have just read some of the closing lines from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, greetings from the many “brothers” who were with him in Rome; among them, “especially those in Caesar’s household.”  Paul wrote that letter from prison in the capital city of the Roman Empire.  At the time of writing that epistle in AD 62, Paul had already spent two years there. 

In that prison, as Paul acknowledged in his letter, he was supported by the very generous Philippian church some 800 miles (or 1,312 kilometers) away (Philippians 4:18).  That distance is about as far as from Lagos in southern Nigeria to Timbuktu in Mali, nearly as far as from the same point to Maiduguri in the north, about the distance from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa, roughly three times the distance from London in the UK to Brussels in Belgium, and approximately the space between New York City in the United States of America and Ontario in Canada, except that the Philippi-Rome journey was not so direct, and involved repeated stops by ships on the seas and by other means on land – for as long as about a whole month. 

At the time of writing that epistle, which was Paul’s last to the churches, Epaphroditus, a young man from the church in Philippi, had just risked the month-long transnational voyage across land and rough seas from Philippi in northern Greece to take supplies to Paul in the prison at Rome.  According to Paul, that gift was a very “sweet-smelling sacrifice … acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). It had to be.

Thank God, too, for useful young men in the house of God.  Paul acknowledged to the Philippians that the young man they sent had delivered all your gifts” (Philippians 4:18, Good News Translation); nothing missing from the list throughout the duration.  Epaphroditus lived his name – “lovely.”

From Philippi to Rome was a long way off, an arduous journey in those rough days.  With love and respect, however, that long and strenuous distance was just a short trip. There is a Yoruba proverb, I hear, which says in essence that it is the house of whom you don’t love enough that is usually far.  In other words, a lover’s house is never too far to visit.  Love shortens distances.

2. The Distance of Integrity 

Here is my next point: if Paul could receive such special personal salutations from the household of the ruler of the great Roman Empire, from the Imperial Palace, from the White House or Buckingham Palace of Rome; if he could be requested by such a powerful “household” to pass endearing greetings to his spiritual family and supporters in faraway Philippi, it would mean that the man had respected and personal connections with that noble household, whether “household” meant the family of the Emperor or merely his palace staff, as some translations would suggest.

The Greek word translated “household” in that passage is oikia, which, according to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, means residence, an abode, a family (especially domestic), a home, a house(-hold).  In other words, the word suggests a family: a man, his wife (or wives), children, servants, etc., all of whom share a personal and intimate relationship.

If Paul had such close connections with Emperor Caesar’s household, with the very throne room of the empire, how much did he exploit the privilege to his personal advantage?  If he had such powerful connections, why did he stay so long in prison?  How could he have been so close to palace privileges and apparently allowed the ethics of ministry and godliness to keep him far from abusing the proximity?  What revelation informed his posture, that we do not know?

With such privileged connections, why did Paul have to depend, as it were, for supplies from as far away as Philippi?  If he was so “especially” close to the household of the emperor of the most powerful government of his days, why did he need supplies from a poor church a month’s journey away?  Why did he seem to prefer mere wafers from the people of God to bounties from powerful politicians, or people ‘in government,’ as we would say?  After all, were the members of that household not part of the “God’s people” whose greetings he was also conveying?  What was so holy about receiving greetings from them but, maybe, just maybe, not other largesse also? What revelation informed his posture, that we do not know?  Perhaps this: 

11 … I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret [whoever his consecutive ‘teacher’ was] of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13, New International Version)

Not everybody would ‘waste’ the kind of rare chance of which Paul spoke so casually in his letter, not especially some preachers today in the craft of Gehazi the greedy servant of Elisha.  Gehazi was prone to damning the consequences and exploiting ‘opportunities’ with nobles, no matter the prophet that dared to dissuade him (2 Kings 5:1-27).  He probably believed and lived the Igbo proverb, I hear, that, after all, nobody spews out the sugar that is put to their tongue.

One respectable lovely young man was very far from giving help, but the constraints of love and value shortened the distance. Another elder was so close to exploiting help, but integrity kept him far.  Love and respect for leadership made a long distance short for one; the demands of decency made a very short distance far for another.  The paradox of godliness and self-respect.

3. The Needy Helper 

Why would Paul see such sugar lavished on his tongue and not simply swallow it?  What mysteries kept him so far from what was so close?  That takes me to the next story of Prophet Elisha and the Shunammite woman.  That woman had noticed the worrisome neediness of the itinerant prophet and, in consultations with her husband, had provided a simple furnished lodge along his missionary route.  Impressed, and wondering how to repay her spontaneous and copious kindness, the prophet offered, “You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13, NIV).  In other words, the prophet had free and easy access to the king and to the commander of the armed forces, to the two most powerful persons in the kingdom, and they could do his any bidding if he so much as asked, yet he remained the trudging ‘homeless’ “holy man” whose neediness was so apparent to seeing eyes that the Shunammite woman with her husband had to do something about it.

If Prophet Elisha had such powerful connections, and could get whatever he wanted from those powerful men in the land, why did he never solicit their charity to his advantage?  Why did he choose to trudge the streets on foot rather than request a chariot from the king to save him from the ‘embarrassment’?  Why did he never supplicate the king for a mansion, or at least a ‘decent’ apartment, until the Shunammite woman had to modestly meet that need with a bed and a study table?  How did Elisha manage his uncommon connections with power?  How come he was going to use it to meet the needs of others, but not his?  What moralities, what ethics, what disciplines kept him from using or abusing such available privileges? What did Elisha see, that Gehazi his servant could not, and so pursued the gifts of General Naaman to his everlasting leprous doom (2 Kings 5:1-27)?

Not every ‘sugar’ that tempts the tongue is sugar.  Some is leprosy in the elegant camouflage of royalty.  Not every ‘open door’ is one indeed; some are satanic snares and inexpedient weights (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).  Some access that God grants to the king and the commander of the army is not for one’s greedy self but a chance for helping deprived and voiceless others.  May the ethics of godliness keep speaking and grant discernment through the slippery streets of Babylon. Amen.

From The Preacher’s diary,
August 7, 2014. 

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