Death Wish

Death Wish

Philippians 1:20-26

by Daniel Harrell

2890431437_0552e5b5b0_zIf to live is Christ and to die is gain, then hopefully to be in Minnesota during this snowy April is some sort of gain since I’m dying to for spring to get here. In last Wednesday’s newspaper, Katie V from Minneapolis fingered a culprit for warm weather’s tardiness. She wrote, “Winter still has us at its mercy and as we brace ourselves for a mid-April snowstorm, I beg of you, for the love of God: Please take down your outdoor Christmas decorations! Everybody knows that keeping them up past March is a jinx, a curse us on all. C’mon people. Be responsible!”

Of course Christmas decorations in spring were not a problem for the apostle Paul in this morning’s passage—Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth until the fourth century. Snow wasn’t a problem either; Paul wrote this letter from Rome where you don’t see a lot of snow. Especially if you’re chained up in a prison dungeon.

Paul was in jail for worshipping Jesus rather than Caesar as Lord. He held no expectation of ever enjoying another springtime on earth, and yet he was overjoyed by the growth of the nascent Philippian church; a church that prayed for him and financially supported him throughout his entire prison ordeal: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ… I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” One way or another.

Philippians is a favorite book for Christians. Many of its verses are habitually memorized, embossed on greeting cards, coded into websites and cross-stitched as gifts. It is from these verses most likely to be cross-stitched that I plan to preach until Pentecost. Last week we looked at chapter 1 and verse 6: “The one who began a good work among you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This morning we take up verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Christian hope pulsates at the core of both of these verses; a hope theologian Karl Barth described as “not some sort of empty anticipation that may be mocked, but… a waiting fraught with actualization, a questioning fraught with answer, a hoping fraught with fulfillment.” As far as God is concerned, his “good work” is already his “good job.” What God began is as good as completed. So certain is Christian hope that biblical writers portray the anticipated future as having already happened; it is more real than the experienced present which is passing away. Our certainty centers on God’s raising Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection validates our hope. Having done it in Christ, God promises it for all who believe in Christ, which is what enabled Paul to so confidently announce “living is Christ and dying is gain.”

However, Paul’s confidence in God for the future did not render his present life on earth inconsequential. To the contrary, his confidence freed up and empowered his present even as he languished in prison awaiting trial. “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way.” Some have taken this to mean Paul was concerned that he might choke when the time came to stand up for Jesus at his pending Roman tribunal; that he might recoil from his customary boldness once the heat got hot; that he might get scared.

But Paul was not scared. His words echoed the Psalmists, “O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.” “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can people do to me?” Imprisoned for his mission work, Paul knew that there was a reasonable chance he could get executed. Human life was cheap in the Roman world and perceived troublemakers were ruthlessly discarded. However Paul also knew that the outcome of his ordeal, even if the outcome is death, would honor Christ and benefit himself. Since to live is Christ and to die is gain, Paul wins either way.

This mention of life and death launches Paul into a short soliloquy in verses 21-24. He oscillates between longing to depart to be with Christ and staying engaged with his “fruitful labor” on earth. Paul’s sure hope in Jesus created genuine enthusiasm for eternal life now—and immediate release from his chains—but his equal passion for unbelieving Gentiles to know Christ too made staying and working necessary, even from behind bars. “I do not know which I prefer,” he wrote, like trying to make a decision between the Bahamas and Fiji during our Minnesota spring.

Not that the decision was his to make. He gladly submitted to the will of God. Though ultimately “better by far” to die and be with Christ, it was for him more necessary now — by which Paul means required or even appointed by God—for him to “remain in the flesh” for the Philippians’ sake. Therefore, “convinced of this, know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” Interestingly, although Paul expected to return to Philippi in the flesh, the word he uses for return here is the same that in most every other Biblical instance refers to the return of Jesus. Paul covered all the bases. Either way, dead or alive, sooner or later, here, there or in the air, he would see the Philippians again and their mutual joy will be outstanding. He’s not worried about it.

When an aged and increasingly feeble Billy Graham visited Harvard’s Memorial Church many years ago, I heard him begin his packed-house sermon by saying, “I’m going to die soon, but I’m not scared. Are you?” It turned out that soon wasn’t that soon. 15 years later, at 94, Billy Graham is still with us. “All my life I’ve been taught how to die, but no one ever taught me how to grow old.” Modern medicine and advances in technology do all they can to keep us around as long as biologically possible—expending enormous financial and emotional resources, treating death as a tragedy solely to be feared. “Dying well” is rendered a quaint relic of a primitive Christian past. Funerals can be morose events, even church funerals, often bereft of the substantial power and joy Christianity’s vision for the future guarantees. Here at Colonial, we strive to make funerals and memorial services “celebrations of life,” referring to the life lived well on earth, but especially to the new life now lived forever with Christ. Given a choice between doing a wedding or a funeral, I lean toward doing the funeral. After your wedding, your life typically gets harder: love and sacrifice and selflessness don’t come easy to sinners. But after your funeral? You’ve got nowhere to go but up!

I’ve told you before about a delightful and faithful retired minister colleague who exuded such love and grace to every person he met that you swore Jesus had already come back to earth. The cancer he later contracted spread rapidly through his body such that his last months were miserably confined to hospice care. I say miserably because of the way his faithful disposition darkened into obsessive fear and worry about dying. Among his many longtime companions was a mutual friend who would visit daily but always leave the failing minister’s bedside agitated. “I don’t get it,” he would gripe to me. “All his life he preaches of the assurance of his salvation and of his hope in Christ, and now that it’s time to exercise a little assurance and hope, all he can tell me is how afraid he is to die. If your faith does you no good in your final days, what good is it?”

True, I thought, but c’mon, having hope in the resurrection is easier to say than do; especially when you’re not the one on death’s doorstep. Let’s just see what happens when it’s your time to go.

This friend’s time to go came sooner than any of us anticipated. Just a year or so later he contracted his own cancer and was confined to hospice care. But you know, he was fine with it. I’d go by to visit and he’d ask me to anoint his head with oil, since that’s what the Bible says you do in the valley of the shadow of death. As a Congregationalist minister, I didn’t mess around much with oil. I had no idea where to get the anointing kind. The bottle of Wesson I showed up with ended up spilling so that that it ran all over his face. But when I went to wipe it off, he stopped me. He wanted to lean his head back and let it roll. He’d always insist his visitors bring a funny story or a joke because he planned to laugh his way into glory. And if you were interested in weepy condolences, he’d lecture you for being faithless and suggest that maybe you had some un-confessed sin in your life. During his last hours, his friends encircled him and sang songs and hymns and rejoiced over the hope we shared, and we felt genuine gladness for him, and maybe even a little envy. He knew where he was going and wasn’t scared a bit.

Resurrection gives death a definite upside. And it takes away a lot of fear. Once you’re not scared of dying, what’s left to be afraid of? You’re not afraid of your enemies anymore—what can they do to you? You might as well love and forgive them like Jesus said. You’re not afraid of losing your lifestyle anymore, what does that matter? You might as well let loose of your possessions and give more money away like Jesus said and store up that treasure in heaven. And as for losing your life to find it? That makes total sense. Living is Christ and dying is gain. You win either way.

Such a perspective works wonders on our life together as a church too. Without fear, we’re freed to do things that otherwise would have been way too risky. I met a Methodist minister once with plans to baptize a baby. The baby’s mother was fourteen years old. “Wow,” I replied, “Do you really think she is capable of raising a baby?” “Of course not,” the minister said. “No fourteen-year-old is capable of raising a baby. For that matter, not many thirty year olds are qualified either. (To which I’d add most 50-year-olds too.) He said a baby’s too scary for any one person to raise by herself. “So we’ll baptize this baby as a sign that we’re all in this together by God’s grace. In this case, the baby and her mother are going to move in with a retired couple from our congregation who have enough time and wisdom to raise children. They going to raise the mama and her baby both. And the rest of us will be there to help out.”

We announced our six Innové winners this past Tuesday—six ideas to be funded with a quarter million dollars we’re just giving away. They’re a fabulous group of young entrepreneurs determined to change the world for Christ—Mike and Leah Driscoll here this morning–you can meet them online now and face to face next Sunday. Our Judges broke the news first to our Navigators, those members of our church who each took one of our twenty semi-finalists and personally mentored them through the Innové process. Each Navigator saw that their Semi-Finalist met with experienced skills coaches from our congregation to better refine their ideas, they made sure each felt supported and was prayed for, helped then with their budgets and business plans, and then cheered them through their pitches to the judges. In the process these Navigators grew to care deeply about these young idea-makers. Dave Dustrud went so far as to say he felt like a mother bird nurturing a daughter longing to fly.

Before announcing the judges’ decisions on Tuesday, we went around the room and heard as each Navigator described his or her experience. It was one of those overwhelmingly beautiful unscripted moments. Jason Phillips called Innové one of the most meaningful things he had ever done in church. Dick Primuth described how rewarding it had been to use gifts for the Lord that they use every day at work in church. JA Scwartz, Cindy Stone described how wonderful it had been to come alongside people who were so passionate about serving the world, with Rick Heltne noting how doing mission outside these walls caused so many good things inside our walls. Bill Aldridge remarked about how often he’d been able to talk about his church to his friends—something we don’t often find the opportunity to do–no matter how brilliant the sermon. Linda Nyvall highlighted the joy of working together across generational lines. Others described an excitement that faith doesn’t always generate. John Berge shed a tear, Bob Thomas prayed a prayer, Steve Coleman called it the work of God, and Linda Van Bergen mentioned how glad she was that all of this has happened around Easter. Resurrection brings an upside to everything.

“I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,” Paul wrote, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus.” At the risk of sounding paternal, I was so proud. And grateful. Everybody in the room on Tuesday recognized Jesus’ hand in it. Though we had called the meeting on just a few days notice, everybody still showed up. Early. For a church meeting. Including Brad Boyd who Skyped in from Walker. Some stayed late as if they didn’t want it to end. And all those whose projects were not picked for funding rejoiced with the ones that were.

Resurrection brings an upside to everything. Our confidence in God for the future frees up and empowers our present. In the instance of that Methodist congregation, the teenage mother was freed from shame and fear and empowered to raise her baby with help from a retired couple freed from worry about helping because whole congregation had their back. What first felt like loss proved to be a huge gain. For Innové entrepreneurs, they are freed to follow their calling and passion with help from mentors and coaches who’ve given valuable time and energy they would normally charge to give others, in exchange for deep satisfaction, knowing they have a whole congregation praying and supporting their efforts. We risk $250K on these ideas to be sure, but when you’re not afraid of losing, your faith gets stretched and your joy enlarged and good work gets done for the gospel. And as for dying, that’s not a problem because we get raised to new life. Living is Christ and dying is gain, so whether we live or die, succeed or fail, we always win. Resurrection brings an upside to everything.