Jesus promised his disciples three things: They would be absurdly happy, completely fearless, and in constant trouble.  F. B. Maltby

But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.  [Phil 2:17-18]

One of the dearest friends Barb and I have is Rev. Ed E. Eliason. We served with him for four years as his youth pastors back in the Stone Age. We have been blessed to be a part of Edwin and Margaret’s family for over forty years. We have shared vacations, birthdays, anniversaries and families. Right now, Ed is in the hospital after a life and death struggle.

That crisis has caused me reflect upon the influence of his godly life. We call him “Easy Ed”, because he has such a sweet and mellow spirit. His ministry is characterized by a love for people. I don’t think there is an ambitious bone in his body. He loves the Lord and he serves people. I guess I was so drawn to him because in that regard, he is just like my dad. Like my father, he would not be described as an executive, entrepreneur, or a C. E. O., but, no one can tell me he has not been faithful and successful. He has a way of making people feel loved. Everywhere we have traveled with him, whether in Tel Aviv or Detroit, Michigan, or Springfield, Missouri, people have called across the airport concourse, “Hey, Ed.” When we visited Israel, the mayor of Bethlehem sent two cars to our hotel to escort us back to the city. When attending denominational meetings with him, we would literally have to drag him out of the door. Everybody knew Ed and he seemed to know everybody. In the hospital, the family had to assign someone to handle the calls he was getting from well-wishers.    

The passage before us is a reminder of what it takes to lead like my friend. It describes a life that goes against what the world often portrays as the essence of successful leadership, where name, fame and game are the symbols of success. I was listening to a well-known author and conference speaker a few years ago. He recalled riding in a car with his wife and asking her this question: “Do you ever recall hearing the word “successful” being used to describe our pastor when we were growing up?” He went on to explain that in those days the Pastor was the shepherd. He fed, led, protected and gave his life for the sheep. Shepherds are not worried about being successful but about being faithful; not about having large flocks but about producing healthy sheep; not about having a big name but about having a big heart. The godly shepherd of old received his reward when the members of his flock were satisfied with the joy of the Lord.

Today, more often than not, our pastors are trained to be “professionals”- executives, entrepreneurs, and C. E. O.’s. The ultimate test of success is numbers. If you have a church of a 1000, God is blessing you. If you have a church of 5,000, God is really blessing you! And, if you have a church of 20,000, you are blessing God. The “gifted ones” know how to “make it happen” and are seen as the real “makers and shakers” of Christianity. Forgotten is the faithful shepherd of the small group, who day after day cares for his flock, regardless of the cost, welcoming anonymity for the privilege of loving the people God has entrusted to his care.     

The language Paul uses here doesn’t contain a hint of self-promotion. It is the language of self-sacrifice. Theologian Adam Clark suggests that the image Paul uses may come from the practice of sailors, who have just survived a harrowing trek across storm tossed waters. It was a common practice to offer a sacrifice [thusia] to God when they reached the safety of the harbor. The pouring forth [spendomai] refers to the wine that was spilled on the sacrifice before what remained was consumed by the worshipper.

In this case, the metaphor probably is a reference to the believers at Philippi who have reached the safety of God’s eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul, as an apostle of Jesus Christ and the founder of the church at Philippi, had to enter stormy waters in order to lead God’s children to the safety of the harbor. In fact, his whole life consisted of going from one crisis to another. He never knew from what direction the next blow would come. Pain was the price he paid for the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel to the people.

Suffering and the Gospel were woven together from the very beginning. In Acts 9, Luke records the Lord’s directions to Ananias concerning Paul: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”  [Acts 9:15-16] Later, writing to the believers at Ephesus, Paul penned, “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” [Eph. 3:13] So, for Paul, suffering was never an accident or a tragedy. It was essential for the manifesting of the glory of Christ. The Gospel would not spread, the church could not grow and the believers would not be blessed without the suffering of Christ’s messengers. The cross stands at the center of all that God would do in this world.

Paul had one focus in all that he did. It was not about his comfort or his name but it was about the welfare of the people that God has allowed him to serve. Here is how he expressed it: “If I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.” He anticipated that his future would include even more suffering, but he knew that it was divinely designed to strengthen their faith. He didn’t want his people to misunderstand: His suffering was for their glory. They were discovering the beauty of Jesus, Christ was being honored and he was glad. There was no self-pity, no discouragement and no doubts.

We discover the source of Paul’s generosity in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10. His ambition was to “put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry would not be discredited.” His calling, his ministry controlled everything he did. Then, after citing a litany of struggles his ministry led him through, he wrote, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” [2 Cor 6:10] Paul’s constant flow of riches toward others was supplied by the stream of rejoicing that bubbled up from deep within him. The joy of knowing and loving Jesus was a never ending fountain. The struggles of life could not block this stream of grace.

Thank God for servants who refuse to have their ministries shaped by the values of their culture. Like my father, Easy Ed had his share of critics who wanted a more “professional” and “sophisticated” leadership style coming from their shepherd. Some of their actions and criticism were unfair, ungodly and hurtful. But Ed kept loving and serving his sheep. He never lost sight of his calling. Like Paul, his task was simply to “work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.” [2 Cor 1:24]

Thank God for servants who still maintain a spirit of gentleness and hope even when going through stretched-out pain, never losing sight that they are called to lift others up through their struggles. They know that the One who called them is faithful and will take care of them. So, like my friend Ed, they are freed from self-focus to give their lives to lifting others up. What a privilege to have had this model of Christ-like service as a friend all these years! The Church of today needs more men and women like Easy Ed. May his numbers increase!