Sunday, August 2, 2020

Living, Dying, and What They're For: Sermon on Philippians 1:18-26

Waiting for the train. That's where the President of the United States of America was when, from behind, he felt a painful sensation against his shoulder. Throwing up his hands and shouting, “My God, what was that?”, the same burning bored into his back as the second bullet pierced his clothes, nicked his lumbar vertebrae, and came to an abrupt halt behind his pancreas. Amid the frenzy, surrounded by shocked spectators like Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (who couldn't help but feel something familiar about the scene), the President of the United States collapsed to the floor. It was about 9:30 on a Saturday morning. July 2, 1881.

What sort of a man was James Abram Garfield? An Ohio boy born in a log cabin, whose father died before he was two. Poor and sensitive, he worked on the canals and read all the books he could find. Leaving home in his teen years, he put himself through college, got hired to teach languages, wooed his wife Lucretia over pages of Greek classics, preached on a circuit in local churches, became a lawyer, got elected to state senate, led troops in the Civil War, got elected to Congress. When his toddler son Eddie died in October 1876, Garfield told his pastor how “the hope of the gospel... is so precious in this affliction.”

Nearly four years after Eddie's death, Garfield was nominated as a presidential candidate somewhat against his will and in spite of his protests. He stayed home and off the campaign trail, but won the election – and dreaded it! He wrote in his diary, “I must confront the problem of trying to survive the presidency,” and he'd later complain that being president didn't leave him enough time to study. The Sunday before his inauguration, he received communion in his Ohio church before setting off for Washington. Sworn in on a snowy March Friday, President Garfield could be found in a Washington church two days later. During his presidency, he missed church only when there was sickness in the family, like the month he nursed his wife through a nearly fatal bout with malaria, May 1881. He used to tell his pastor, “When I meet the duties of each day as best I can, I cheerfully await whatever result may come.” ...And then came a madman's bullets that July morning, not quite four months in office.

The shots were not immediately fatal. He had several months to attempt to convalesce under the medical care of the time. In spite of pain and embarrassment, confined to bed, Garfield stayed patient and gentle, and tried to promote good cheer. The president prayed often. Once transferred to a Jersey Shore beach house next to a chapel, he loved to listen to the hymns mingle with the crashing of the waves. When Sundays rolled around, he would remark that the day belonged to the Lord. Informed that his church in Washington was praying for him, 'besieging the mercy seat' for him, he got emotional and declared, “They have been carrying me as a great burden so long, but when I get up, they shall have no cause to regret it.” His pastor, though seldom allowed to visit by the doctors, heard enough of those weeks to be able to say of President Garfield, “His mind dwelt much upon Christ and his work during the terrible trial. … There is not the slightest question of his thorough preparation for death.” Oh yes, the President was fully conscious there was a live possibility of his soon being live no more. To those around him, he repeatedly said, “I know God and trust myself in his hands. I must be prepared for either life or death.” But privately to his wife one night, he added, “I wonder if all this fight against death is worth the little pinch of life I will get anyway.” Still, he fought to live because he knew how his departure would deprive those closest to his heart of his company. That fight did at last close with his departure from the flesh on Monday, September 19, 1881 – two months to the day short of his fiftieth birthday.

The President of the United States had died from his infected wounds nearly eighty days after he was shot. Eulogies, memorial services, and sermons cropped up all over the country. Here in Pennsylvania, one preacher celebrated Garfield's “combination of genuine statesmanship and genuine Christianity,” and said that when “in the prime of life, in the midst of usefulness, with all the materials of activity around him and honors fresh upon him, he was suddenly struck down by an assassin, and he calmly, meekly, almost joyfully submitted to his fate. … 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,' and come death how, come death when, come death where it may, this hope remains: 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.'” A preacher in Kansas, granting that Garfield was an imperfect man and made mistakes, insisted that “he was far above the average statesman, and that for him to live was Christ, to die was gain. … I would linger over the fact that he lived and died a Christian gentleman.” A preacher in Iowa declared that Garfield “endured as seeing Him who is invisible. … When reminded by his faithful wife that it was his duty to life, he agreed that it was, and said that he would make the best fight for life that he could. Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done. … His mental condition, in this dark hour, was that of Paul when he said..., 'Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death, for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'”

Three states. Three preachers. All three – and plenty of others – faced with a personal tragedy gone national, and turned for understanding to these same specific words of an ancient apostle of the Lord. Paul wrote those words late in his two years of house arrest, awaiting the resolution of his legal case in Rome. All indications suggest to Paul that the charges will be dropped, as his accusers need to come to Rome to press the case against him and, thus far, have never shown up. But so long as he's chained to the Praetorian Guard, Paul knows he's still a prisoner, and still has the prospect of the death penalty hanging over his head. He has to take seriously the notion that he could soon be killed.

But Paul knows that the gospel is on trial just as much as he is. Paul has been tormented both inside the church and outside – inside, by the ill-willed evangelists trying to discourage him, as we heard last week; outside, by the persecution that was keeping him cooped up. So Paul turns to the words of another man who was tormented outside and inside – outside, by intense experiences of loss and poverty; inside, by so-called 'comforters' whose accusations tore at and bruised him. That man was Job. In one of Job's speeches, he tells his 'comforters' to “keep silent” (Job 13:5), and says that he'll keep hoping in God (Job 13:15). “This will turn out for my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. … Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right” (Job 13:16,18). And Paul quotes Job's words word-for-word, saying, “I will rejoice, for I know that – through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ – this will turn out for my salvation (Philippians 1:18b-19). Paul expects to be saved, to be delivered, to be vindicated. But it could look two ways.

On the one hand, Paul could be saved, vindicated, by being released. The Romans could set him free. And then Paul would keep living in this world a while longer. One way Paul could be saved is to live. What does Paul think of that option? He announces, “For me, to live is Christ!” (Philippians 1:21a). Jesus Christ is everything that need be said, everything that can be said, about Paul's life. By this point, having matured from his stellar start to this late point in his Christian walk, Paul has been conformed profoundly to the pattern of Jesus Christ. Now, every moment of his day is suffused with Christ's Lordship. Squeeze Paul, and the grace of Jesus leaks out. Hold Paul up to the light, all you'll see is Christ. When Paul wakes up, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul eats, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul talks, you can hear for yourself it's about Jesus. The very definition of life itself, in Paul's heart, has been redrawn. Christ equals Life! Life equals Christ! After all, as he writes in another letter, Christ is “the image of the invisible God … All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). Paul takes that thought so seriously that there's nothing you can show Paul, nothing you can tell Paul, and he won't see or hear Christ in it. There's nothing you can put on Paul's tongue that won't make him taste the goodness of Christ. There's nothing you can place within Paul's reach that he won't lift up to Christ as a thank-offering of praise. To Paul, Christ sums up everything that life means, everything that has value about the world.

And so to live, for Paul, just means to keep seeing Christ in every glance, keep hearing Christ in every sound, keep encountering Christ reflected in all things, since all things hold together in Christ. But more than that, if Paul is set free, if Paul is allowed to keep living, then it will mean more months or years of ministry. He will keep proclaiming Christ, will keep ministering Christ to others. Paul explains, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1:22a). And others will be able to taste that fruit and its sweetness – it will be beneficial for other people if Paul gets to live longer. In particular, it would be helpful for the Philippian church, which could really use his continued help. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account,” he tells them (Philippians 1:24). If the Romans release him from custody, he can run right over and build them up, make them a stronger church – he can “continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus because of my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:25-26). That's what it means to live, when to live is Christ. Nearly fifteen centuries after Paul, Martin Luther remarked, “We have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others.” That was true for Paul!

So if Paul is set free, that would be salvation or vindication for Paul. But what if Paul isn't set free? What if the trial goes on? And what if it ends with the judge sentencing him to lose his head? What if these experiences set in motion a chain of events that lead to Paul's heart no longer beating, Paul's lungs no longer drawing breath? Paul sees that, too, as an occasion of vindication or salvation. Because at the same time he'd be standing before Caesar's court on earth, tethered to the gospel, he'd also be standing before God's heavenly court. And an earth ruling against Paul on account of the gospel spells a heavenly ruling for Paul on account of the gospel – which means execution is just the prelude to being welcomed into the fellowship of angels and saints in heaven.

And so, Paul explains, just like for him “to live is Christ,” just the same, for him “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21b). It's not that death is gain because it ends a bad thing, as if this world were an awful place he can't wait to escape. That's not what Paul means. Death is gain, for him, because he expects it to mean getting something better. If Paul is to die, it'll be a martyr's death. But he expects that death to usher him into the personal presence of the Jesus he so wildly yearns for. Now, he sees Christ, hears Christ, touches Christ in things, in the reflections pervasively present throughout the created order. But then, on that day, he'll see Christ himself, not in a reflection but in reality. And he'll be crowned with the reward of Christ's love in a way Paul knows he still can't experience while here in the present world. Paul has been working for years, not for earthly treasures, but storing up treasure in heaven by investing in the gospel. To die means to finally reap the gains, the profits.

When Paul looks toward the ultimate future that he believes will begin at his death, Paul isn't merely guessing what lies beyond that leap into the darkness. No, Paul has certainty, Paul has assurance, Paul has a hope that can never disappoint him. When that train pulls out of the station, Paul knows the tracks continue beyond the rails he can see. Paul knows there's a place to go, and he knows which train he's boarded. Death, in Paul's case, whenever it comes, will mean “to depart” from the realm of flesh and earth “and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23b). At the moment of his death, Paul is certain that his consciousness, his personally aware inner self, will be ushered and transported into the presence of the Risen Lord, will behold the glory of the Father in the face of the Son, will lay the eyes of his soul on the beatific vision of Beauty itself, will be awash in immortal joy even as he yet awaits the pitching of the tent of a new creation. That is what will happen when Paul dies. And compared to the mixed-bag of experiences we get here, with aches and pains and sorrows mingled alongside pleasures and joys, the destination Paul has in mind “is far better” (Philippians 1:23b).

Now, from different perspectives, both living and dying can be good outcomes! “Which I shall choose, I can't tell! I am hard pressed between the two,” Paul says (Philippians 1:22b-23a). It's a tough choice! Paul is just glad that Christ is magnified, Christ is glorified, Christ is honored and made much of, in either scenario – “now as always, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20b). It's much like the Iowa preacher said of President Garfield: “Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done.” Just like Garfield had a church praying for him, Paul's got one praying for him, too. “I know that through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my salvation” (Philippians 1:19). Because the Philippians are praying, Paul believes God will give them what they ask for, the version of events that helps them, even if it isn't quite what Paul would like, since Paul's burning “desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23b). Paul is convinced that, with the gospel vindicated as having a place in Roman society, he'll be released: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain” (Philippians 1:25a). Paul was right. Set free for a couple more years of fruitful labor, only then would he be again arrested – this time not in house arrest but in Rome's worst prison, and would finally be beheaded for the sake of Christ. A man who knew him recalled the day Paul was “removed from the world and went into the holy place, having proven himself a striking example of endurance” (1 Clement 5.7).

But Paul writes openly these reflections on life and death – what each of them means to him – because Paul's aim is for his mature way of thinking to become contagious. He wants the Philippians to catch it. And the church, in her wisdom, has preserved this letter for nearly two thousand years in hopes that we might catch it too. So what about us? How do we look at life? What does it mean to live? And how do we look at death? What does it mean to die?

During the past year, indeed the past several years, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who've died, who've taken their departure from the flesh. For some of the younger among us, that might be a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent. For some of the elder among us, that might be a spouse or a sibling, a child or a cousin, a nephew or niece or neighbor. Many of those who have departed our company that way have died, hopefully, in Christ. So, to the extent they were like Paul, they can expect the same things he can. If for Paul 'to die is gain,' then for them to die was also gain. And in that we can rejoice, even amidst the sorrow of parting here. The same will be true for us as we face the prospect of death. We may not be standing on trial for our lives in a Roman court, and we may not be bedridden with an assassin's bullet in our guts, but – whether time or virus or ailment or accident – all of us must face the question. For us, will death mean gain? And if death will mean gain, are we willing to look at it as a gain? Not that we should be careless, for our bodies are a stewardship, but what if we learned to look at the prospect of death through Paul's eyes, and see the gain in it?

Likewise, during the past year, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who have not died, who are remaining here in the flesh. Look around you, and you might just spot one! And you'll see yet another one in the mirror! You are still here in the flesh. You are still alive. Your lungs draw breath. Your heart beats. Maybe your body needs a little help to keep rolling on, but roll on it does. For Paul, 'to live is Christ.' What about for you? Does life mean Christ to you? Sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, laughing and loving – are these day-to-day actions made living parables that preach Christ to your heart? Are you awake to how it's in Christ that everything in life holds together? You can be – and then you can shout, “To live is Christ! To live is Christ!” He's got you here for a reason. Like Luther said, there's no other reason to get another day here than to help others in it. To remain in the flesh means an opportunity for fruitful labor. Now, maybe you wonder how that can be – maybe some of you are practically housebound right now. But there's fruitful labor you can do! You can listen to a neighbor's hurts and joys. You can spend an extra ten minutes praying for your world. You can call a friend. You can write a letter. In all these ways, you can minister Christ to at least one small slice of the world – what more does God ask? So what if we learned to look at life through Paul's eyes, and see the Christ of it all – to love and serve others and, as President Garfield put it, to then “cheerfully await whatever results may come”? Perhaps such fruit, served here and there to the hungry, can bring with it healing for nations like ours.

Of course, none of these grand views of life or death can hold up without a real, living, risen Son of God. Paul told the Corinthians, “if Christ be not raised..., your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Without Christ, things don't hold together. Without Christ, to live can't be Christ: the basic stuff of life can't be wrapped up in him. Without Christ, to die can't be gain: there's nothing profitable about the vain, bleak destiny that knows no Jesus. Without Christ, no labor is fruitful, for Jesus is the life in the root. Without Christ, departure has no blessed destination, no glory shining forth at the other end of these darkened halls.

But, thanks be to God, 'without Christ' is never the name of the game! With Christ, living can be wrapped up in him! With Christ, labor can be fruitful in abundance! With Christ, dying can be a profitable venture and a welcome at the end of a journey, be it long or short. With Christ, we have an “eager expectation and hope” of vindication, if we but cling to him. So I urge you, brothers and sisters, this very day, to get deeper into Christ, that life and death might be Christ and gain to you! “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:7-9). So in life or in death, let Christ be magnified in your body, amen!

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