Days of small things

 

Small-Things.jpg

 

I don’t know if you spend much time reading footnotes, or Acknowledgements, or Appendices?

Quite often, they form the Engine Room of the book,so to speak -the rather messy back area, hidden from public view where the main business goes on.

All those references need tying up, after all; all those friends need to be thanked properly; and those extra bits of discussion are surely important enough to merit a mention.

Somewhere at the back.

Something of this is going on at the tail end of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. He names names, sends greetings, adds bits of encouragement -even prophecy- and signs off in the chattiest way imaginable.

It’s all so natural and easy.

Here’s a section form the end of Colossians, by way of an example:

“My good friend Tychicus will tell you all about me. He’s a trusted minister and companion in the service of the Master. I’ve sent him to you so that you would know how things are with us, and so he could encourage you in your faith. And I’ve sent Onesimus with him. Onesimus is one of you, and has become such a trusted and dear brother! Together they’ll bring you up-to-date on everything that has been going on here.

Aristarchus, who is in jail here with me, sends greetings; also Mark, cousin of Barnabas (you received a letter regarding him; if he shows up, welcome him); and also Jesus, the one they call Justus. These are the only ones left from the old crowd who have stuck with me in working for God’s kingdom. Don’t think they haven’t been a big help!

12-13 Epaphras, who is one of you, says hello. What a trooper he has been! He’s been tireless in his prayers for you, praying that you’ll stand firm, mature and confident in everything God wants you to do. I’ve watched him closely, and can report on how hard he has worked for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.

14 Luke, good friend and physician, and Demas both send greetings.

15 Say hello to our friends in Laodicea; also to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.

16 After this letter has been read to you, make sure it gets read also in Laodicea. And get the letter that went to Laodicea and have it read to you.

17 And, oh, yes, tell Archippus, “Do your best in the job you received from the Master. Do your very best.”

Who are all these people? We don’t know much. Tychicus crops up in a couple of places, and is mentioned here as the bearer of the letter. He’s travelled hundreds of miles, walking or by horse or wagon across dangerous terrain, to bring a parchment scroll to a group of believers. The journey would have taken weeks.

But they don’t know him personally, so Onesimus (“who is one of you“) accompanies  him, by way of support, protection or validation. This is presumably the Onesimus who appears in the little letter of Philemon, which would make him a freed slave. In such a casual way, Paul bridges the social distinctions of the First Century Graeco-Roman world. That is to say, “He may be a slave in your eyes, but ‘he has become a trusted brother‘ to me.

Aristarchus and Jesus (“the one they call Justus” -an obvious name-switch in a Christian fellowship) both seem to be staying (or stuck?) with Paul in prison, but John Mark has a roving commission and may well turn up at Colosse at some point, (“you received a letter regarding him; if he shows up, welcome him…”).

John Mark. Heard of him?

In Acts 12:25 we learn that Barnabas and Paul brought a young man named John Mark back to Antioch with them from Jerusalem. Mark’s mother’s name was Mary, and she had a house in Jerusalem—the one where the disciples were praying when Peter escaped from prison (Acts 12:12). So Mark had experience in the thick of things in Jerusalem in the years just after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

And we learn here that Mark and Barnabas are cousins.

Now, when the Holy Spirit appoints Barnabas and Saul/ Paul to be missionaries from Antioch in Acts 13:2, Barnabas and Saul decide to take John Mark along as an assistant (Acts 13:5). But something happened after the team left Cyprus and headed on into Pamphylia. It is very serious, but Luke only mentions it in one sentence in Acts 13:13, “Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.”

Luke is very reserved here. He passes no judgement on John Mark. So what happens later?

Two or three years later, after the first missionary journey is over, and after Paul and Barnabas are back in Antioch teaching and preaching, Paul is convinced that the time is right for a return to that first missionary field to strengthen the saints. This is where Acts 15:36 picks up . . .

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return, and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.

Barnabas was always great with the encouragement and he wants to give John Mark another shot, but Paul says no.

The disagreement is so deep that it cannot be resolved, and these veterans whose friendship goes back at least 15 years, and who owe each other so much, part company. Neither will yield.

Which one of them was right? Well, Luke is remarkably objective here. He doesn’t seem to take sides or help us take sides either.  Paul is no  tyrant and Barnabas is no pushover. The impression you get is that two good men could not agree and an unpleasant split in their partnership happened.

These things happen. We’re only human, and sometimes things go wrong between Christians.

But this passage in Colossians shows us that this wasn’t the end of the story: John Mark is travelling in association with Paul, and Paul commends him.. In 1 Corinthians 9:6, some time after separating from Barnabas, Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow worker who shares his life and labour. The breach has been healed.

In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul says to Timothy, “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.” Do you see how God had brought victory out of contention? Mark not only became useful to Paul but also served as Peter’s interpreter and wrote our second gospel—the gospel according to Mark.

Epaphras also has a few mentions across the New Testament. According to this passage he’s another local, but Paul mentions him with great honour as a travelling missionary/ church planter or possibly area supervisor (of what we know as North West Turkey).

Luke is much more famous, of course, as the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, and the book of Acts. But here he is simply acknowledged as a “good friend,” and, intriguingly as a doctor. Many have written on this, pointing out the medical terms that he uses in describing the miracles of Jesus. Did he practice medicine en route with Paul, just as Paul used his tent-making skills to raise money for mission? It seems probable, but we just don’t know.

“And Demas” Demas crops up in three of these lists at the end of Paul’s letters, in a rather sad declining role. In one he is described as a “fellow labourer.” In the second, here, he is simply tacked on as “And Demas’” and in the third, Paul seems to shake his head, that Demas has quit the post because he is “in love with this present world.”

And three closing mini-references. The first is about the maintaining links with the nearby fellowship at Laodicea. It’s only ten miles distant. “Say hello to our friends in Laodicea… After this letter has been read to you, make sure it gets read also in Laodicea. And get the letter that went to Laodicea and have it read to you.”

The mention of Laodicea brings up the second of the mini-greetings “to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.”  There’s been lots of exploration of this little verse, but most scholars agree that Nympha hosted the church at Laodicea and was greeted here as its leader.

And a final reference to a member of the Colosse fellowship: “And, oh, yes, tell Archippus, “Do your best in the job you received from the Master. Do your very best.” ” This encouragement has the sense of being prophetic. Paul is passing on an empowering word to someone with a specific non-pastoral role. An evangelist, perhaps.

 

This stuff doesn’t usually get preached on much, and yet there’s some points of enormous significance right here.

First, it’s occasional. It arises out of a specific occasion  in the life of a local fellowship. This helps us anchor the letters in real history and not turn them into ponderous philosophical statements. It also helps us understand the Bible as “The word of God through the lives of real people” as someone put it.

Second, it’s authentic. It’s refreshingly real, and serves to authenticate and validate Paul’s life and work and ministry as a travelling church planter. It shows with great clarity the nuts and bolts of a life that otherwise we would only know by hearsay, through the book of Acts.

Third, God speaks and acts through the minutiae of everyday life. And God is interested. That’s why they form part of our Bible.

And God is part of the commendation of Epaphras, the restoration of John Mark, the friendship of Luke,the ministry of Nympha.

He is concerned about the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas; he grieves for the backsliding of Demas.

And through Paul, he speaks the strong word that nerves Archippus for some appointed task.

Sometimes we quote passages like “Never despise the day of small things” (Zech 4:10) as if we’re putting up with it  (while secretly waiting for the Break Into The Big Time). The truth is that all our lives are made up with days of small things.

Jesus “showed the full extent of his love” (according to John 13) not by some grand parade or miraculous event but by washing feet.

Go thou and do likewise.

Here in the nitty gritty of quarrels and concerns, fears, hopes and plans, squabbles and tantrums, crises and petty triumphs, I bring you my day of small things, my Lord.

I pray that through it I may show you the full extent of my love.

By loving those around me.

 

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