Sunday, October 01, 2023

Philippians 1:18-26; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; September 24, 2023;

Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and 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 1:18–26, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, I think I’m about to make you uncomfortable. It is a part of my calling to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. There is a topic that we can talk about in Church as no where else. And even though it may make us uncomfortable, the Church is the only place that has a real answer to this problem.

What I’m talking about is death. Specifically, yours (and mine). You are going to die. With the noted exception that those alive when Jesus returns won’t, but we will talk about that more at another time. There is very little you can do about your death, much less determine the time. God says in Hebrews,
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV)
There is an appointed time for your death and God knows when it will be. The way you will die is also appointed. It is set in concrete. As much as we’d like to choose our own death to make it easier, we can’t. It is all in God’s hands. Weather it’s a car accident, cancer, heart attack, violence, or and “easy” death in your sleep. (I’m not terribly convinced that that is the best death possible, but that’s just me). Your death could be said, is the most important event in your life. Harold Senkbeil, a Lutheran pastor, and author, once said,
“We live our whole lives graveside.”
He was not talking about someone else’s grave; he was talking about your own. And the noted philosopher Clint Eastwood sums up death, in the movie Unforgiven. He says,
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
Death is not your friend. It is in fact your greatest enemy. We have this understanding in common with the whole world. I have seen many deaths as a pastor, to call them blessed, in a worldly sense, is a stretch. Death is in no way a good thing. And moreover, God himself, hates it. He hates it because of what it does. It destroys relationships. It brings sorrow. It carries grief. Death is filled with pain. It ends what God has created to be an eternal good.

I have been asked, “Pastor, is it ok to fight death?” My answer is, yes. God’s gift of life should not be given up lightly. It is not his intention for you. God instilled in the body a desire to fight death to the very last. I have visited many older people who ask me, “Pastor, when will I die?” They are prepared for death, and yet, their body, by God’s design, fights it to the bitter end. That is exactly what you would expect from God’s eternal creation.

You were created to be an eternal whole person. Death tears that apart. Your body is separated, forcefully, from your soul. A soulless body, and a bodyless soul is not a complete person. That is the horror of death (not to mention the possible destination of soul and body in the end). Dylan Thomas’ poem talks about this fight. Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. I am opposed to calling funerals a “Celebration of Life.” It denies the primary emotion for those affected by the death of their loved one. No one wishes death on anyone. It is true that death is an end to suffering for those who believe in Jesus, but when a loved one dies, we want them back. Talking about a celebration is disingenuous. And don’t get me started on all the pithy things people say in a vain attempt to asswage grief. “God needed another angel.” “They are in a better place.” “Their suffering has ended.” Our loved one is gone, and we are left with grief. Grief is not a thing that can be ended. It is a life-long process that we must go through. It is, in fact, another proof that the resurrection of the dead is true. We long for what we know to be true. Sin has done its terrible deed. We are without our loved one. We must grieve. There is only comfort for grieving people found in Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection with the real and sure promise of reunion.

You have heard that a pastor would rather do a funeral than a wedding. That’s true. But I’d rather do no funerals at all. It was the most surprising thing about becoming a pastor, that every funeral became harder that the last. Rest assured though, if I am called to do your funeral (God forbid!), I will, as far is it is in my power, shepherd your body to its final resting place, and speak only about the comfort found in Jesus. The assurance of the resurrection and the promise of a happy reunion for those who have faith in Jesus.

And that brings us to our text for today. Paul seems to have an almost cavalier attitude toward his own death. He seems to view his own death as a good thing. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, ESV) But it is not death he is talking about as his gain. His death means he will be with Christ forever, that is the ultimate gain. God, as always, turns evil into good. He uses death to end the suffering and trouble of his saints. He uses the evil of death to gather his people to himself. Psalm 116:
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15, ESV)
So, the death of the saints (all those who have faith in Jesus are saints) is precious to God. It is so because the saints are precious to him. He desires to have them with him. Because of sin, death is the means that brings that about. It is the ultimate example of a gracious God turning evil into good. This is the gain that Paul is looking for.

And, since death is our greatest enemy, and God is our greatest ally, we should expect that what is most true about God is that he has done something about death. He has, in fact. Jesus greatest accomplishment deals with death. His greatest miracle is his resurrection. Jesus did many miracles. He shows he has command over nature. He shows he has command over demons. He shows he has command of illness. But in his resurrection, he shows he has command over life and death itself. It is the proof that he is exactly who he says he is. As one of my favorite professors said, As his greatest miracle, Jesus could have caused hair to grow on a billiard ball. That would have been amazing, and completely meaningless, except for bald people. His resurrection has meaning for everyone because everyone faces death. Jesus deals with our greatest calamity through the miracle of his resurrection.

It is true, that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, we are truly lost. Jesus is then a liar. He isn’t God. He has no power to save, and there is nothing to save us from. Death then means oblivion. It is then, the very end of everything for us.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14–19, ESV)
Those are strong words. What they mean is that Christianity can be proven false. All you have to do is prove that Jesus didn’t rise. All you have to do is find his body. But, of course, that’s one body that will never be found. Jesus did rise from death. He did not stay in the grave. He was seen by a myriad of people. His resurrection is as provable as his walking on earth. All you must do is show that he was alive at one point, dead at another, and finally alive again. Of all the religions of the world, none but Christianity is based on a provable resurrection. In fact, for most religions, whether the primary founder existed or not makes no difference.

And what does this mean for you? Well, your faith is not in vain. In Corinthians Paul continues:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20–26, ESV)
Jesus is the key. He is the answer to your death. It has no hold on you because the one who died also rose again from death. He is the firstfruits, Paul says. That means there is more to come. Because Jesus rose, you will rise. Death is not the end, but only the beginning of eternal life. He is returning to set everything right again. He has all authority and power, that means over death also. And you, if you are alive when he comes again, won’t have to die.

Until that time we walk beside death on the tightrope. It could come for us at any time. And it is a fearful prospect. Are you afraid of death? Well, that’s an interesting question. I am certainly afraid of death. But not because I don’t have faith in what happens after. I don’t look forward to the pain of death. I don’t look forward to the fearful anticipation. But because of Jesus, I will pass through the pain of death to be with him and await the resurrection of my body.

Saint Paul didn’t have an easy death. He was decapitated befitting a Roman Citizen. We know the place, there is a chapel there, and in the chapel, three springs, tradition says one for each place his head bounced after it was cut off. So ended the physical life of Jesus’ servant, Paul. He then joined his Lord to await the resurrection. He is past all pain now, after his life of service. He has the gain of which he was speaking. He is with Christ. And as wonderful as that is, he is also looking forward to a much greater thing. There is more to come as he looks forward to his resurrection, as he has been promised by his Lord. He has gained everything, with more to come (God’s math again).

Was Paul afraid at the end? I don’t know, afraid of the pain maybe. But he saw through it to his Savior. I do know, he fought death with every legal means at his disposal. In the end he went to his death in the peace of Christ.

Was Jesus afraid of death? That’s an interesting question that I think doesn’t have a good answer. He certainly suffered great stress in the Garden of Gethsemane, producing his “bloody sweat.” By the way that also shows he was completely human. It is a rare but known condition for people under extreme stress to bleed sweat (called Hematidrosis). Was Jesus bloody sweat caused by fear of death? That would be quite human. And scripture tells us that he experienced everything humans do, without sin. So, with Paul (and possibly) Jesus, afraid of death, if you do, you are in good company. At the very least God, himself, in Jesus, can sympathize with your fear.

Death is your greatest enemy. Unless, by God’s grace you are alive when Jesus returns, you will die. I don’t know when I will die, much less when you will die. For me, I’m sure, it will be sooner than expected. (Yikes!) Will it be quick or long suffering? Accident or violence? It really doesn’t matter, all of that is in our Father’s hands.

So, what does the church have to offer in the face of the fearful portal? We have what we have been given, Jesus, and Jesus alone. He has done something about death, more specifically your death. Nothing he says is more important for you. Nothing he promises is more powerful. The promise is yours. It is assured for you when God spoke his name over you in Holy Baptism. He was saying,
“When death comes to this one, he/she will pass through it to me. When time ends, he/she will be raised in a perfect body to be with me forever. There will be no more fear of death. There will be no more pain, or mourning, only life forever.”
Do you want more assurance? God provides it. Be here when he speaks continually his words of promise. Be here to receive the blessing of fellowship. Be here when we confront death in all its ugliness. Be here when he offers to strengthen your faith with his body and blood given in death for you. It is Jesus who gives it all. He is the firstfruits to pass through death to life. Will it bring an end to your fear of death? It could. But there is so much more to death than fear.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, ESV)
That was Paul’s faith. Not that he could bypass death, but that through death is something even more wonderful than this life, and beyond that is a life that will be even more, though far beyond his understanding.

We don’t shade death here. We speak about it in all its horror. We speak the truth as we have been given it by Jesus. We will neither shade life. Now it is full of trouble and pain and fear. Your death is a terrible thing, yet a through it a gain for you none-the-less. Using God’s own words, “precious in his sight.” He looks forward to it with eager anticipation, because for you it means life, for you it means an end to suffering, and mostly an end to sin. Death will bring about for you the beginning of the blessed reunion. Firstly, and most importantly with Jesus, your savior. Then also, with every death on earth, you will see the preciousness of it as you are united with your loved ones in Christ. Then will come the unspeakable joy of the resurrection. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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