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April 30th, 2018

Living vs. Death

Pastors Paul Cummings and Bob Thompson

Philippians 18b-26

 

Bob

The Scripture passage before us today offers a series of contrasts between living and death. Pastor Paul and I decided on Thursday of this week that we would share the sermon time by splitting those two topics. But who should take which one? 

If you were here last week in the 8:30 or Traditional service, you heard me say that the church is taking out a key man life insurance policy on each of us, and the premium for me is about six times the premium for Paul. I was a bit annoyed by that. Who’s really the greater risk here? As if to prove my point, this past Tuesday Paul posted a mountain-biking picture of himself on Facebook. Can you imagine me doing that? No. Risky behavior for me is not putting my seat belt on til the end of my driveway.

I looked up life expectancy on the Social Security Administration web page this week. Based only on our age and gender, the odds are I’ll be dead in 21 years and Paul still has 34 to go. So when we divvy up the topics of living and death, he probably has more “living” to do and I get “death.”

Paul

When the Apostle Paul says, “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” what he’s saying is “Christ is what makes me come alive.” Bob and I are very different. On a scale of 1 to 10 of what makes me come alive, meetings are a one; for Bob, meetings are a 10 for Bob. But no matter what we think makes us feel alive, we are never fully alive until we are born again and have true life, abundant life with Christ. Nowadays, a lot of people ask questions like, “What are you living for?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” Paul very firmly says that he lives exclusively for and by Jesus Christ.

Bob

The heart of the passage is verse 21, which is a sort of ancient bumper sticker or modern meme. It’s a one-liner meant to grab your attention and stick in your head. It’s hard to translate directly into English but in the original there’s no verb “to be.” Paul says, “For to me, to be living, Christ; to die, gain.” Pastor Paul’s going to talk about the parts of this passage that focus on “living,” and I’ll touch on “death.”

Paul

18b-19: And I will continue to rejoice. For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance. (NLT)

This is Paul’s invitation to real life. We had a birthday party for a friend of mine this weekend who turned 50. We set up for the party, she showed up and we surprised her, and we got to celebrate with her. But then there was a point where we began the task of taking all the decorations down again. Our celebration was short-lived. It’s like Christmas afternoon, when there are empty boxes and paper everywhere. That’s not what the Christian life is. Fulfillment and true life in Christ never has that let-down.

Specifically, Paul mentions that the Philippians are praying for him. Their prayers make them co-laborers with him in the work of the Gospel. I have a good friend who is a pastor at another church, and every Sunday he texts me and tells me he’s praying for me. That’s an incredible blessing, because on an average Sunday, I’m coming here after getting maybe 4 hours of sleep, feeling like my sermon is terrible, and having no energy. I don’t feel like I can do it. Then I get this text message that reminds me that it’s not about me, and no matter what, the Gospel can’t be stopped.

20:  For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have in the past.  And I trust that I will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. (NLT)

When Paul says that he wants to bring honor to Christ, that word actually means magnify. Sometimes we need to magnify things that are really tiny so that we can see them more easily; that’s what you do in science class under a microscope. What Paul’s talking about – what the life of a Christian is about – is a different kind of magnification. It’s about taking Someone that others see as far away, and bringing Him close, like a telescope. Paul is saying that his life and our lives are not about the things we do that will pass away, but it’s about bringing the Eternal One close so others can see Him.

21: But to me, living means living for Christ…. (NLT)

The beauty of the Christian life is that we get to experience the highest highs and the lowest lows, without trying to make it as comfortable for ourselves as possible. Jesus told his disciples that they would have troubles, but reassured them that he had overcome the world. My illustration for this is the movies. There’s a movie genre for every emotion you want to experience – fear, joy, sadness, excitement, love. As humans, we desire to feel in a safe way, in a safe place. As Christians, our invitation is to real life with Christ, which is so much better than any movie.

22:  But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. (NLT)

Parents understand what this verse is about. I’m sure every parent in the room has wondered at some point, “Why do I bother cleaning?” As soon as you finish cleaning one room, it’s like firecrackers and Oreos get together, and within five minutes, it looks like a bomb went off. For some of us, we know that frustration in other areas of life. Maybe you go to a job where it feels like you’re just stamping out widgets, and you wonder “what’s the point of this?”

The Gospel is always fruitful work. It’s like a freight train going down a hill. It cannot be stopped. Whatever work you do in the name of the Gospel, not to gain something for yourself but to work for the Lord, is fruitful work that cannot be stopped.

24-25:  But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.  Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. (NLT)

This is the essence of what Paul is inviting the Philippians into, which is called co-laboring for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re all on the same team, all co-laboring together for the same purpose. We’re not doing things to make much of our own names, or the name of our church, or our denomination. Together, we’re striving to make much of the name of Jesus Christ, by whom all are saved.

26:  And when I come to you again, you will have even more reason to take pride in Christ Jesus because of what he is doing through me. (NLT)

This is kind of wishful thinking, because we don’t think that Paul ever sees the Philippians again after he writes this. But eventually, they will celebrate together on account of Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of their faith.

Bob

This passage is full of living, but it also forces us to face the reality of death. We live in a culture that seems either death-obsessed or death-averse. We either focus too much on death or not enough, or not for the right reasons. Death is ubiquitous, inundating our TVs and computer screens. We furiously debate guns, perhaps because there are more guns than people in the U.S., all designed either for killing or keeping oneself from being killed. From zombies to films to dark songs, there is an aspect of our pop culture that I don’t delve into very much with an unhealthy interest in death.

When it comes to our own deaths, most people avoid the subject in any meaningful way. How many of you have a will? How many have written out your funeral plans? How many have a living will, or have discussed organ donation with your family? How many have burial insurance or have told your family to put your remains?

You would think that the older or sicker a person gets, the more he or she is willing to discuss death, but that’s not my experience. When someone faces a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease, my pastoral experience is they don’t want to talk about their funeral because that sounds like they’re giving up.

Paul is neither death-obsessed or death-averse in this passage. He’s modeling for the Philippians that it’s perfectly natural for the believer to discuss death without anxiety and still love life. He makes some intriguing and surprising statements.

19: what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed…. (NIV)

The word “deliverance” is “salvation” in Greek, but that can have a range of meanings. Perhaps the best translation is “vindication,” but by whom? I think Paul is deliberately vague. He knows that being in prison carries an assumption of guilt, then and now. He believes that he will either be vindicated by the earthly court or, if he is executed, in the heavenly court he’ll be declared “not guilty” because Jesus Christ died for his sins and rose again.

He adds, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed.” This is about more than whether he goes to heaven or hell. He also believes that will not be ashamed about the way he’s invested his life in the Gospel. I want to be able to say that as well. When I face Christ, I want to do so with the knowledge that I prioritized what he said mattered to him – glorifying God, discipling the nations, building the church. Our UCC President, John Dorhauer, will speak today at lunch about the “Three Great Loves” – love for neighbor, love for children, and love for creation. We know those three great loves matter to the Lord, and when I prioritize what matters to him, I will in no way be ashamed.

20: …now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (NIV)

“Exalted” means “magnified,” or enlarged. The older I get, the more I appreciate large print, because it’s more visible. Even in death, Paul wants his body to be the “large print” of Christ.

That’s not just about martyrdom. Every death should and can make Christ visible. I’ve tried to make sure that in every funeral I’ve ever preached, the focus is Christ. If I preach your funeral, we’ll magnify Christ. If you attend mine, I hope the combination of what I’ve planned in advance and what my family and pastors decide to do will magnify Christ. If I preach the funeral for a strong and faithful Christian, I’ll talk about the impact Christ has made. If it’s for someone not known for faithfulness or even known for blind spots and failures, I’m going to talk about salvation by grace through Christ. If the service is for someone who was not a believer, I’ll talk about how that person was created in the image of God and something of that life points to Christ.

I want to live my life so that it’s not a strain for whoever preaches my funeral to draw a direct line to making Jesus visible.

21: …and to die is gain. (NIV)

The word “gain” that Paul uses is an economic word: “profit.” Malcom Forbes is credited with saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Wins what? Paul says the win is death itself. I’m not sure most Christians think about that enough to embrace it. For example, the whole idea of a “bucket list” sounds like we really think the best things in life are in this life. I don’t want to die without climbing this mountain or bungee jumping or seeing the Grand Canyon. That’s kind of like saying, “I don’t want to go to the ice cream parlor for a banana split until I’ve had a bite of my cotton candy.” Why? To die is gain. It’s better than what any experience we can have here on earth.

23: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far. (NIV)

This is my favorite part of the passage. With apologies to English teachers, the translation from Greek is that being with Christ is “very much more better.”

Why is death “very much more better” than life here? You can only say that if you know Christ. The Bible is filled with reasons. We’ll be perfect (Hebrews 12:22-23) – no more struggle with sin. No pain, no tears, no crying, no mourning, no death (Revelation 21:4). We’ll be finally home (2 Corinthians 5:8), in the place Jesus has gone to prepare for us (John 14:2). We’ll no longer be confused with unanswered questions and will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

I know you want me to talk about our reunion with loved ones, and I do believe we will know one another in heaven. Paul says when the Lord comes for us we will be “caught up together” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and the image of heaven is always of perfect community. That means not only being together, but being together without all the conflict and wars and addictions and insecurities of this life.

Human reunion is actually not the emphasis of the New Testament. Suppose you’re a huge Cam Newton and Carolina Panthers fan. In January 2019 the Panthers win the NFC Championship and you win the lottery for tickets to the Super Bowl! Who would respond, “Can I take my Kindergarten graduating class with me?” No one! You’d be focused on what was ahead of you – seeing the Panthers and Cam Newton playing in the biggest game of the year.

Paul says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ” (emphasis added). He is the One for whom I was created! I will be and enjoy all I was created for. If that next life is going to be “very much more better,” then, why do we cling to this life?

Christians, however, can also become so death-obsessed that they forget the reason we talk about death is to make life more meaningful. Perhaps the only line I still remember from a sermon I heard in my teen years was when the preacher said, “You’re not ready to live until you know what you want on your tombstone.” Thinking about death crystallizes my purpose in life.

Following Paul’s example, let me be personal. I don’t fear death. I don’t mind talking about death. I’m not obsessed with it, but I allow myself to think about it. I preach a lot of funerals, which forces me to remember on a regular basis that will be me someday. I remind myself that I can’t control how I will die. Do I have my preferences?  Would I rather die instantly in a car accident or with an aneurysm rather than a long struggle with cancer or Alzheimer’s? Of course. But I won’t have that choice.

It comes down to whether I am confident I belong to Christ and then how deeply I trust the goodness and sovereignty of God. If I will be with Jesus, then the struggles of this life are nothing compared to being with Christ. Do I really believe there will be no disappointment or pain or any meaningful questions that will be unanswered? Have I allowed myself to be gripped deep in my soul that to be with Christ will be “very much more better”? Or is my obsession with this life? Like Paul, I believe he’s going to leave me here longer – for your sake, for my family’s sake. I think I still have work to do in this world. But if it all ends for me this week in some unforeseen event, no regrets!

That funeral planning sheet I have in my file has a place to name favorite Scriptures. We’ll come in a couple of weeks to one of those I listed, Philippians 2:15-16. It asks for favorite songs – the ones I listed were Great Is Thy Faithfulness and A Mighty Fortress. Other suggestions for the service: I wrote Heidelberg Catechism Question 1 – “That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Then there’s a space to fill in “the most significant things about my life.” I wrote, “I belong to Jesus Christ,” “my family”, and “my calling as an evangelical pastor in the mainline church.”

I asked my children this week how they would answer, “What does Bob Thompson live for?” Only one of them answered, and she said, “Relationship with Jesus, serving God, loving mom, family/kids, humility, goofy jokes, being healthy, doing yard projects.” Not bad, but she forgot ice cream. Thinking about death helps me have a sense of having been placed on this earth by God for a reason or reasons, and that’s what I want to keep doing as long as he gives me breath.

But that leaves us with the question someone asked me in a Bible study group this week. “OK, but you’re cheating. Of course people say you live for Christ. You’re a pastor. What about the rest of us? How do we live a Christ-centered life?” That’s a “living question,” so I’ll turn it back over to Pastor Paul.

Paul

The question about living really comes down to the question of whether how I’m living and who I’m living for matters. I’m middle aged now, so this is something I’ve experienced. When we get to the middle of our lives, we start looking back and wondering if the things we’ve done have really mattered. There are basically three ways we can live:  for ourselves, for others, or for Christ.

Living for ourselves doesn’t work out well. If you look at the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll see the words of Solomon, who had amassed the most wealth, fame, and wisdom in the world. He looks at all of that, and says that all of life is nothing but vanity, chasing after the wind. The man who had the most for self came to the conclusion that living for self is not the way to go. Living for self also tends to make us do the most self-medicating, trying to make it through to the end with the most stuff as possible as comfortably as possible. I don’t see that in the Gospels.

You might think the noble option then is living for others. It’s very possible to live for others and not be fully alive. Parents, that’s the first year that you had a child. When our oldest daughter was born, I was totally asleep for the whole year. My wife and I were living for our daughter, but we were not fully alive ourselves. Living our lives to please others is impossible. Where are you going to get the strength to serve and to live and to love when yours runs out? You’ll either become an enabler or a complete failure.

The only option that works is living for, in and by Christ. If death could not hold Jesus down, how can a life lived for the Gospel ever be held back? I know there are challenges to this. Sometimes we cannot see the fruit of our lives and we get discouraged. But consider a fruit tree. Sometimes, standing under the tree, you don’t see the fruit; from above, it’s easy to see all the fruit on the tree. No life lived for the name of Jesus Christ is in vain. That’s not because of our work, but because of Jesus Christ. No matter what work you do, when you do it for the glory of Jesus, through the power of Jesus, and in the name of Jesus, it matters and it produces fruit. Amen.

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