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To Live is Christ
September 24, 2023
We all know intellectually that life can radically change in an instant. That point was dramatically underlined for me in late June when I was driving home from Dubuque and I suddenly either passed out or fell asleep while approaching a curve on Highway 20. The next thing I knew, I was driving through the weeds on the right side of the road at a highway speeds, heading for a rock-filled ditch.
Fortunately, things turned out well for me if not for my car. I attribute that to the good engineering of the car and to the surprising grace of God. If not for both of those things, the result could have been far, far worse.
But that got me thinking. What would it be like if you knew for sure or at least with near certainty that your life was about to end? What thoughts and emotions would race through your mind at a moment like that?
Many years ago, I was driving to presbytery, flipping through radio stations when I came across one that broadcast what I assume was a sermon. I started listening somewhere in the middle. The speaker was talking about a fatal airplane crash and the sounds recorded in the main cabin after investigators recovered the little black box.
As the reality of their impending crash dawned on the passengers, some of them expressed their shock through a torrent of swearing; others began praying for themselves and their fellow passengers.
As you might guess, the speaker discussed the contrast between those two reactions. Sadly, he pushed his point too far. Over and over, he hammered home the idea that it would be far better to meet your maker with words of praise on your dying lips instead of the alternative demonstrated by others of the passengers.
I can’t really disagree with that, but I also can’t believe that God would refuse to offer grace for harsh final words uttered in a moment of extreme anxiety. For the record, I said nothing at all as my car sped through the ditch during my little adventure in June.
In late January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off with the first civilian ever selected to go into space. Shortly after take off, the Challenger suddenly exploded and everyone aboard was killed.
But what NASA didn’t let the public know at the time was that the crew cabin was undamaged by the explosion. That meant all seven passengers were alive for their roughly two-and-a-half minute fall until they smashed into the ocean surface. Assuming they were conscious, they had to be aware that their deaths were imminent and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
We don’t know whatever they may have thought or felt or said in those final minutes, but we do know about the apostle Paul’s reaction to a similar situation, because he expresses it very clearly in our New Testament lesson today.
Paul was writing this letter while he was in prison in Rome. He is a captive of the Praetorian Guard, the most elite soldiers in ancient Rome. They were the ones charged with protecting the emperor’s life, along with other duties. Those elite soldiers were in charge of Paul’s imprisonment because Paul was waiting for his legal case to be heard directly by the emperor.
While in prison, the congregation he had founded in Philippi had sent him a gift. All these centuries later, we don’t know what that gift was. However, given the friendly nature of Paul’s thank you letter, I think we can be safe in assuming that it wasn’t a fruitcake. Maybe it was a cake with a file baked into it.
History tells us that this imprisonment would end with Paul being condemned to death, which would result in him being beheaded. But Paul doesn’t know that as he writes his letter to Philippi. That’s all in the future to him. Nonetheless, it was pretty clear that the end of his life was probably drawing near. That fact colors the way Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi.
Most of Paul’s letters that were later incorporated into the New Testament are rather formal in nature, including such things as discussions of theological issues and practical advice to help church members to live together in harmony, encouraging his readers to donate to the poor and sometimes even lashing out with rebukes and condemnations. For example, I sometimes think people should wear oven mitts on their hands when they read the letter to the Galatians. You can almost see the white-hot smoke of his anger pouring off the pages of that book!
The letter of Philemon is different from that in that Paul is writing a personal letter directly to a friend, but even there his writing is mostly focused on a specific request. Paul had converted a slave belonging to Philemon to Christianity and he then strongly hints that because Philemon and his slave are both Christians, Philemon should forgive his slave for running away. Even more, he should free him.
But Paul’s letter to the Philippians has none of that stiff formality or oh-so-subtle urging to do the right thing. Instead, it is filled with Paul expressing his sheer joy in the Philippians’ constant love and support. Even as Paul knows that he is probably facing an immanent death, he repeatedly uses the word “rejoice” throughout this letter.
That’s because, as he muses over his own death, he comes to what to most of us may be a surprise realization. He considers it to be a win-win situation regardless of whether he lives or dies. If he lives, he can glory in his ability to continue his ministry on behalf of Christ’s kingdom and he can continue to enjoy the love and support of his friends in Philippi. On the other hand, if he dies, he can rejoice in the knowledge that he will fall into the loving embrace of Jesus. As Paul himself puts it, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Let me clarify what Paul is saying there, using a pair of modern examples. As many of you will remember, revolutionary students in Iran seized the American embassy on November 4, 1979. That crisis infamously lasted 444 days before the hostages were finally released. One of those hostages was Moorehead Kennedy.
After the crisis was finally ended, Kennedy wrote, “You know when you are going through a bad moment in normal life, you usually say to yourself, ‘Well, it could be worse; at least I’m still alive.’ Well I was imprisoned in Iran, and all of a sudden I realized that may no longer be true.”
In other words, it wasn’t a source of hope for him to say, “it could be worse; I’m still alive,” because he knew in his heart in that extreme situation that he could die any day. “From that realization came the greater awareness that life is not just for now and here. There is a plan somewhere. You are part of a much larger thing, much larger than one’s own life. God’s plan, if you will,” he wrote.
Surely Paul saw very clearly that his life was irreparably bound up in God’s plan and his role in God’s plan was unchanged regardless of whether he lived or died.
Similarly, Scottish writer Thomas Keir tells about a woman who learned from her doctor that she had terminal cancer. As she left the doctor she said to her husband, “If I must die, then we shall make it an offering, not a sacrifice.”
I’m sure that Paul felt exactly the same way. At some point, he had come to understand that his life was a gift from God. So was the forgiveness he had been given for his initial persecution of the church. In eternal gratitude, Paul freely chose to offer his life back to God in this world and the next. Paul firmly believed that in life and in death, Jesus was with him, sharing his joys and triumphs as well as his sorrows and persecutions.
Sadly, not everyone understands that. For example, some years ago, the Reuters news agency reported that a starving woman in Kenya blamed God for sending a famine to her drought-ravaged Kangundo district in southern Kenya. She was so angry that she placed a death curse on God. It was the most powerful curse known to her tribe and therefore its use was all but prohibited.
Unfortunately, she herself died in her sleep that very night, so she wasn’t able to learn in this life that far from causing the famine, God was right there in Kangundo, suffering along with her and with all the other people who were starving with her. Sadly, she never met Paul or anyone who knew Paul’s theology.
In contrast to her, while Paul was writing the letter of Philippians, he could happily face whatever situation lay ahead of him. If he were released as a result of his trial, he would eagerly return to his loyal friends in Philippi and presumably celebrate with them.
Alternatively, if he were to meet his death after being condemned by the emperor, his assurance lay in Christ’s resurrection, which he knew would be granted to him as well. Not would not be a result of his strenuous efforts on behalf of God’s Kingdom, but simply as a result of the infinite love and grace of God.
As Fred Kane puts it, “The central focus of Paul’s life is the Resurrection. It has always been the Resurrection. He wrote about it to all his churches, especially to the Corinthians. First Corinthians 15 is where we get a lot of our language about resurrection. For us, the Resurrection is something we hope for at the end of life. For Paul, the Resurrection was something that guided him every day of his life. For Paul the Resurrection was like a horizon. Because he always had his eyes on the horizon, he was able to live meaningfully in any situation that life threw at him.
“If you look in the dictionary it says that the horizon, ‘is the boundary line at which earth and sky appear to meet.’ It was something like that for Paul, only a little different. The horizon for Paul was the boundary line where earth and heaven meet, and on the boundary, there is an empty tomb. So with his eyes on the horizon, he not only saw the limit of this life, he saw all the possibilities of another life. He knew that death was not the end.”
Meanwhile, as Paul came to terms with his impending fate, he spent his time in prison preaching to his guards. That leads him to tell the Philippians, “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
Nelson Mandela had an experience like that, too. He was imprisoned for 20 years in South Africa. Later, when he was inaugurated as president of that country, he invited a variety of friends and dignitaries to witness his swearing in. Two of the people he invited were his guards in prison. They were both white Afrikaaners, who had been won over by the witness of a man who remained faithful to the best that he knew, even in the worst circumstance of his life.
Isn’t that our calling as well — to live up to the best we know regardless of our circumstances? God will provide us with genuine hope in life and in death and in the life beyond death. Let’s pray that as we personally experience that hope, it will shine through us to enrich the lives of others around us, as was true of both Paul and Nelson Mandela. Amen.
by Jim McCrea