“IT’S A TEAM GAME”

COLOSSIANS 4:2-18

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            For college basketball fans, the best part of the year quickly approaches.  It’s March Madness when the NCAA basketball tournament commences.  Marquette was the 1976 national champs of college basketball.  Marquette’s legendary coach, Al McGuire, retired after the season, and Marquette had one star player, Butch Lee from Puerto Rico.  Butch Lee had a reputation of being somewhat of a prima donna, and coach McGuire attempted to teach him about team basketball.  This is what McGuire said to him. 

 

            Now, Butch, the game is forty minutes long, and if you divide that between the two teams that means there is twenty minutes when one team will have the ball and there's twenty minutes when the other team will have the ball.  There are five players on each side.  That means each player will have the ball for about four minutes. Now, Butch, I know what you can do with a ball in four minutes.  What I want you to show me, is what you can do for the other thirty-six minutes.

 

            There is more than one lesson here and it goes beyond basketball to the whole of life.  We can’t do it on our own.  We need teammates to help us and today we look at the teammates in the life of the Apostle Paul.  

            Note the names:  Tych'icus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha and Archippus.  How many of those names do you recognize?  How many of those names can you pronounce?  Tychicus - ever hear of him?  How about Onesimus?  And what about Aristarchus? Does his name ring a bell?   We could go on.  Most of us here are only familiar with Luke and Mark, the gospel writers.

            This morning we draw our Colossian series to a close by celebrating Paul’s teammates, his supporting cast, and this morning I'd like to pick up on four of the names in the list, and look at what Paul said about them, and how important they were to Paul and to the church. 

            Look first at Paul's reference to Tychicus, verse 7: Tychicus will tell you all the  news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord.

            It's interesting to me that Tychicus is the first person mentioned in his list of traveling companions.  Is that a coincidence or did he put him first for a reason?  Was it because Tychicus was the one Paul was sending to Colossae to hand-deliver this letter, the one we are reading today, or could it be that Paul mentioned him first because Tychicus was the first person in his heart?

            Tychicus is mentioned a couple of other times in the New Testament.  He was the one who carried the “One Great Hour of Sharing” offering Paul had collected to the mother church in Jerusalem.  He had also hand-delivered Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, and  Paul uses three designations to describe him.  Paul refers to him as "a beloved brother," "a faithful minister," and "a fellow servant of the Lord."

            Speaking of beloved and faithful brothers, when John Powell was teaching at Loyola University, he was part of the Jesuit order of priests, and he developed a severe head cold and went to the infirmary to get some medicine.  While he was waiting in the corridor of the infirmary, he saw a fellow Jesuit brother saying goodnight to two elderly priests under his care.  As he tucked the blanket of the first man under his chin, the old priest snarled, "Get your face out of mine.  What do you think this is?"

            Then the brother went into the next room and did the same thing for a second priest.  The old man said, "Oh, brother, you are really good to us, and before I go to sleep tonight, I'm going to say a very special prayer of gratitude just for you."

            Suddenly, John said, "I thought someday I'm going to be one of those two priests. Which one?  The surly one or the gracious one?"

            Tychicus would no doubt be the gracious one.  He was a dear brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord.  And most importantly, he would be able to relay all the news about Paul to the Colossians.  Not some.  Not most.  No, he could relay all the news about Paul.  He may have been Paul’s closest friend.  He knew him intimately, and if you wanted to know anything about Paul, Tychicus could tell you. 

            We need people on the team who know all the news about us.  We need people who are dear brothers and sisters.  Hopefully, we are that to a person or two as well.

            Now let’s move on to another member of the team -  Onesimus.  Paul also refers to him as a faithful and dear brother, but we know much more about him than we do about Tychicus.  Onesimus is one of the two primary characters in the little book of Philemon.  I hope that you will read that book this week. You may have difficulty finding it in your Bible, because it's only one chapter long.  It's wedged between Titus and the book of Hebrews.  It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the Bible.  Onesimus, at the time Paul’s letter to Philemon was written, was a runaway slave belonging to Philemon - and Philemon was a member of the Colossian church.

            When Onesimus had run away from Philemon, and had reached Rome, and eventually got involved in the church in Rome, which likely met in the house where Paul was under house arrest.  And to make a long story short, Onesimus was accepted and loved by Paul and the other saints in the church in Rome, and at her best that's what the church has been - a forgiving fellowship.   But Paul knew that neither Onesimus nor Philemon could grow in Christ without being reconciled to one another.  So Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with a cover letter, encouraging Philemon to forgive Onesimus for what he had done, and if he could find it in his heart, to send Onesimus back to him because Onesimus had become a dear friend. 

            It’s great to have teammates who know us.  It’s also great to have teammates who facilitate reconciliation and forgive us.

            You likely have never heard of a guy named Lance Rentzel.  He was a member of the Dallas Cowboys football team.  While a member of that team he was arrested for indecent exposure.   After the incident, and after being released on bail, Rentzel stood before his teammates and tried to explain his problems, his embarrassment, and how he feared he would smear the good name of his team.  He stood before the entire team, apologized, and then began to weep.  No one in the room spoke.  Finally, the lights were dimmed as the team began to study the film of the previous week's game.  But while the lights were out, an incredible thing happened.  Rentzel tells about it in his own words.

 

            A hand grabbed my shoulder, a huge hand, and it held on, firmly, supportively, and then, from the other side, a tap on the arm, then again.  The room was dark and the coach was talking, but there was a shuffling and a sound of scraping chairs as one after another they moved to make contact with me.  They wanted to convey the unspoken message: “We're with you.”  I wondered how I could have doubted them.  I knew one thing.  I'd never forget that moment.

 

            Have you ever felt that hand on your shoulder?  That tap on your arm?  Have you ever experienced that supportive touch to let you know that in spite of your weaknesses and your screw-ups you are loved? 

            Onesimus reminds us that we need teammates who forgive us, that we can make mistakes and they will still love us.

            The next person at whom I want to look is Justus.  This is the only time his name appears in the New Testament, but there he is along with the famous Luke and Mark.  Let's call him the unknown disciple because we know absolutely nothing about him.

            We wonder how he became one of Paul’s teammates.  Maybe he had been of some special help to Paul.  Maybe his faithfulness to Christ, in spite of the rejection of the hostile Jews in Rome, inspired Paul.  He was certainly taking a risk because if the Jews learned that he was involved with this Roman prisoner, they certainly could have arrested him for that kind of complicity.  Maybe it was his courage and his devotion that earned him a place in Paul's heart.  Whatever it was his name is engraved in scripture.

            The point is this - we never know what obedience to Christ might mean to others, and the truth is that more than shining heroes, the church is made up of "unknown disciples".  For every Mark and Luke within the church, there are 10,000 Justus's.

            Justus reminds us that the unsung and unknown heroes of the faith need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

            I love stained glass windows, and I like the stories behind them, particularly why a church went with a particular style of window.  One of my favorite stained glass windows is in a Methodist chapel in Nashville, Tennessee.  The window was an anonymous gift.  The pastor knew who gave it, but no one else in the church did.  Originally the donor thought about honoring a long-time beloved member of the church whose family did not have the resources for such a memorial; but then the donor thought that would be inappropriate.

            Finally the donor said to the pastor, "What we really want is to honor and memorialize all those who deserve it, but whose families may not have the resources to do so, and to honor all those who give and give to the limit of their capacity, but may feel left out and unrecognized."

            So the church dedicated the window to "The Unknown Workers in the Vineyard,” to the Justus’s in their midst. 

            We need teammates who know us.  We need teammates who forgive us, and we need teammates like Justus, who labor in the trenches for us and the church without much fanfare, but do it faithfully and joyfully.

            Then one final, name, and our series is done.  Epaphras.  Listen to Paul’s description of him one more time,

 

            Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you.  He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills.  For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you ...

 

            You might remember if you were here for the beginning of this message, that it was Epaphras who founded the church in Colossae, and not Paul.  Paul, to the best of our knowledge, never made it to Colossae, and Paul commends Epaphras for two things: Epaphras prays earnestly and works tirelessly.  I want to say something about the first part of that: praying earnestly.  We need people on the team who not only know all the news about us, and who forgive us, and who work anonymously for us, but also we need people on the team who pray for us.

            Whitney Houston, has had her share of troubles in her life, not the least of which was drug abuse, and something has helped get her through.  You might recall she starred in the movie, The Preacher's Wife.  In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" while promoting the movie, she talked about her religious roots. She said, "In the home where I grew up, God was the first place we went with a need, not the last.  My mother taught me to get on my knees and share my problems with the Lord."

            That was Epaphras.  He was always wrestling in prayer for the people in Colossae.  We need teammates who do that for us.  We need people who pray earnestly for us.

            I love this story.  Let me close with it. 

            An oil-rich king of a Middle-Eastern country developed a passion for golf.  The king contracted with an American golf pro to come to the Middle East for a month and teach him to play golf.  He did so and the king became quite proficient by the end of the month.  At that point the king said to the pro, "You have been a splendid teacher.  I want to give you a gift.  What do you want?" 

            "Oh no," said the pro. "Your contract with me for this month was quite generous, and I have had a good time. No gift is needed."

            "But I insist," said the king.  "Just tell me something you want."

            "Well," said the pro, "if you insist, just give me a nice golf club."

            On the following day, the pro was amazed to receive the deed to an 18-hole golf course with a pro shop.  The moral of that story is this: When asking for a gift from a king, ask for and expect something big!

            Epaphras no doubt did.