St. Paul tells us today that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I confess, every time I read this passage and contemplate this phrase, it always drives me to reconsider my own life. Can I really say this along with Paul?
Of course, the answer is “no,” but before I let myself off the hook here, I want to confront the all too easy cop-out I sometimes allow in my heart. First, I say “Well, that’s St. Paul. He’s a saint, and I’m not ever going to reach that status.” Or, I soothe my conscience by saying “St. Paul had a vision of Jesus, and I never had so this doesn’t really apply to me.” Yep, the stench of spiritual cowardice just permeates every bit of these cop outs and excuses for my own spiritual lethargy. What are your excuses? Ok, OK, now I’ve gone to meddling, but how do we escape the easy dismissal of this challenge to a lukewarm spiritual life?
Look at our lesson today in Philippians 1:20-27:
BRETHREN, I shall 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 it is to be life 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 shall 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. Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.
St. Paul says some incredibly brave things to these folks. The reason for his words is that the possibility of real, physical death for being a follower of Jesus was always with him and our fellow brothers and sisters of that day. The persecution of Christians was something they lived with all the time, much like our brothers and sisters in the Middle East face in our own day and age.
There’s something about the stark reality of one’s own mortality to focus priorities and purpose. This was certainly the case for the Apostle Paul. He was in jail for being a believer in Christ and for preaching that Jesus was the promised Messiah for the whole world. He also suspected that this would be his last time in prison and that he was going to be executed (which he was. The Roman authorities beheaded him.) As Paul sat in his jail cell, his ultimate purpose in life was clear to him. He loved Jesus Christ. He even admits that he was having a hard time deciding which would be better for him: to stay alive and keep on working for the Faith or to go to Christ? He insists that being with Christ is “far better.” But the only way anyone can come to such a conclusion is through the faithful embrace of eternal truths as far more important to everyday life than the temporary distractions we so often mistake as important!
Paul’s embrace of this way of life, of everyday life, meant his priorities were reordered to fit his faith. His choices were informed by this Faith. His attitude and actions were shaped by this Faith. And because of this foundational Faith, Paul was able to stare physical death in the face and see it for what Christ had made it: At best, a temporary inconvenience! In other words: To Live IS Christ, and To Die is Gain! No wonder that kind of faith is offered to us today. Perhaps we will never reach the level of confidence of St. Paul, but does that excuse us from the effort? Paul would say “NO.” Look how he ends this passage to the Philippians: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of the gospel of Christ.”
Today, is your life “worthy of the gospel of Christ?” It can be if you allow this Faith to so shape you that you put even your physical mortality in the proper perspective. To live is Christ; to die is gain. Your life is meant to be fundamentally altered by your faith. And nothing less is worthy of such a gift as Orthodoxy! That’s why I keep encouraging you to join me in being Orthodox on Purpose.