Remember that the letters of Paul were spoken before they were written, or more precisely, they were written as they were spoken. Because of Paul’s declining eyesight, he never wrote anything himself, but dictated his letters to a faithful amanuensis, a fancy word for secretary. Picture Paul, a relatively old man, under house arrest, shackled, facing a difficult trial, feeling a sense of urgency, trying to say a word of closure and express the tenuousness of his position to his friends, yet also trying to allay their fears about his prospects. His prose suddenly finds its rhythm and meter. In one extraordinary breath he says, “I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and by the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall be delivered. This deliverance may come by my life or by my death. I do not know. I would prefer to depart and be with Christ. That is better for me. Yet for you, it is more beneficial if I remain. My heart is torn. For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In one fulsome string of words Paul articulated the breadth and depth of his entire philosophy of life, his faith and his theological understanding. To live is Christ, and to die is gain!
Remember, Paul would have had what we might call a “captive audience” in dictating this letter. He was shackled to a Roman guard, but that also meant that the Roman guard was shackled to him. So this Roman guard would have been forced to hear everything this voluble preacher expressed in terms of lofty, heartfelt, profound theology. This coarse, calloused, hardboiled soldier would have heard this old man assert, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The guard would have surely found this assertion humorous, given the prisoner’s dire circumstances. One can imagine him smirking to his friends later, “Do you know what this doomed prisoner said, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’ – we all know he is wrong on both counts.” From the guard’s perspective, to live is nothing and to die is nothing. This soldier had seen plenty of people die; he expected to see this old man die a cruel, violent death. But when you die, you are dead. Nothing special about that. To live is nothing and to die is nothing. Sure, from the guard’s perspective, there are a few small pleasures that make life bearable, a few small vices to make life interesting, but in the end, life is a riddle of ultimate meaninglessness, which the guard had sense enough not to ponder too deeply. In the end, we are all thrown in a hole. To live is nothing and to die is nothing!
Of course, there were those among Paul’s hearers, as there are those in ours, who believed that to live is everything and to die is utter loss. There were plenty of people in his day, as there are those in ours, shaped by a hedonistic spirit that worshipped the god of self-pleasure. Two centuries before Christ, Epicurean philosophers said that the human body is only a collection of atoms which disperse when we die and coalesce with other atoms in other forms. They argued, the dead are dead and don’t know they are dead. Therefore, from their perspective, the main purpose of life was to enjoy pleasure as long as one is alive. They saw pleasure for one’s self as the highest good. To live is everything. To live is gain. But to die is absolute loss. True, there is no life after death. True, there is no God. True, there is no purpose worth self-sacrifice. So eat, drink, and be merry. There are plenty of amusements to grab our attention, plenty of beguiling pursuits to blind us to the void toward which we go. So go through life enjoying every pleasure you can, for that is the only meaning life offers! To live is everything! But to die is utter loss. Odd isn’t it? We tend to think of the denial of God and of a life hereafter as a product of modern skepticism, but no skepticism is truly modern!
However, I should note that long before the Epicureans, there was a Biblical author who tried the Epicurean approach to life and found it wanting. That Biblical writer was the author of Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes confesses “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. . . . I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces . . . So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem, also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my heart desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
From my perspective, Ecclesiastes is the most Messianic book in the Old Testament, more so than Isaiah, Jeremiah or any of the great prophets. Ecclesiastes is the most Messianic book in the Old Testament because the whole of the book, start to finish, reveals that in the center of the author’s being there is a vacuum. There is a Christ-shaped hole. The writer has experienced everything, has enjoyed everything, has sought to relish every benefit life has to offer, but in the end, the author admits, his whole life has been an exercise in vanity, a chasing after wind. There is a Christ-shaped vacuum in the center of his being. Paul would say to the author of Ecclesiastes, ‘You are on to something, but your truth is only a half truth that paves the way for a fuller truth. Life lived solely for oneself and one’s pleasure is indeed vanity. But that is because life is something gifted to us by God. Time is something we borrow from God. Life is beautiful, yes, meaningful, yes. But the way we give life ultimate meaning is by giving our lives back to God by means of our service to Christ. Life is wonderful only when it is lived in Christ. Only when to live is Christ is to live truly gain.’
A few weeks ago, alas, we saw the last football game of the 2021-22 season, a taut, competitive and dramatic Super Bowl. At the end of the game we witnessed ecstatic Ram players expressing pure joy and devastated Bengals experiencing pure anguish. That is as it should be. But I will suggest to you that at least one player on the winning team – the winning team, mind you – felt that attaining the ultimate goal in his profession was not as satisfying as he thought it would be. Someone on the winning team left the field thinking, “If this is the ultimate thrill, why is my inner being so strangely joyless?”
Such was precisely the testimony of Gary Gaetti, former infielder for the Minnesota Twins, who immediately after he won his first World Series, admitted that even as he was jumping on the pile with his teammates, even as he was screaming in exultation as he walked back to the locker room, there was a gnawing feeling of emptiness. Sure, he had dreamed of this moment since boyhood, had trained for it, had disciplined his body and mind to attain this pinnacle. And yet, on that day when he had achieved it, as the players hugged and screamed, there was a little part of him that asked himself, ‘If this is the ultimate joy, why am I so joyless inside?’ In that moment he realized what the author of Ecclesiastes realized, you can have everything you ever wanted and find that it is not enough. That sense of gnawing spiritual emptiness moved him to begin a pilgrimage of coming to a faith relationship with Christ. To live is Christ!
Then again, there were Christians in Paul’s day – as there are Christians in ours – who believe that to live is nothing – but to die is everything. There have always been Christians who focus so solely on their heavenly reward in the misty beyond that they discount the value of this earthly life. It is no accident that some Christians used to sing, ‘The world is not my home. I’m just a passing through.’ Such Christians believe that because the world is not our home we bear no responsibility for it. They see no need to bring the Kingdom of God into blighted neighborhoods, no need to bring God’s Kingdom into the classroom or the business world or the sports field. We need only to be concerned with our own souls and our own personal reward. But to disvalue this life on earth is to demean God’s creation. Paul challenged Christians to value this world and to transform it even as we seek to transform ourselves in accordance with Christ’s values. We are to pour ourselves out for this world even as Christ did. To value this world as Christ did means that we are to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to include the outcasts, and to liberate the oppressed. This world matters. This world — this world! – is as much an expression of God’s love and God’s goodness as is the world beyond. Treasure and transform it! God created this world and said, “It is very good!” This world is as much God’s gift to us as is the prospect of being drawn up into heavenly glory. We are called to commune each day with our heavenly Father so that every action we do, every act of grace and love and generosity, is an expression of the values of God’s eternal Kingdom. To live is Christ! And to value this world is to live as Christ lived.
I must add that there were those Christians in Paul’s day –- they are with us still – who see our belief in the resurrection power of God as an ancillary and extraneous, disposable doctrine tacked on to the heart of the Gospel. For such people to live is everything, but to die is nothing. To die gains nothing. That may sound crazy to you, but we find Paul writing to such people in Corinth asking “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we are lying about the nature of God. We are lying about the nature of Christian hope. We are lying about the fate of our Lord. We are lying about the fate of all who lived and died in faith. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then our faith is vain and we are of all people the most to be pitied.” As we engage in our long Lenten march toward Easter, we must remember that the doctrine of God’s resurrection power is not something tacked on to the end of our theology. It is embedded in the rhythm of all life. It is a thread woven into the fabric of everything we live and believe. This resurrection rhythm of God is not only something we experience in the bye and bye, but rather it is a reality we can appropriate daily. Into those dead corners of our lives we allow God’s resurrection impulse to come revive, renew and heal us. The resurrection nature of God is not something “tacked on” to our understanding of God. Rather from the beginning of time until the last moment of existence the resurrection impulse of God informs all of creation. Yet we find this thread of resurrection power by valuing the world and looking through this life to the life beyond.
What Paul was trying to express to those people in Corinth is exactly what the writer Annie Dillard tried to explain when she wrote about learning to split wood. She admitted that what she did was less like splitting wood than chipping flints. But one night she had a dream in which God helped her understand that you split wood, not by aiming at the wood, but at the chopping block beneath the wood! When you aim at the chopping block, not the wood, then you split the wood instead of chipping it. Dillard noted, “You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end by aiming past it.” That’s exactly right! says Paul. To grasp the fullness of life’s dimension of meaning, we must aim past this life! We must aim through creation to the divine dimension that lies beyond it. The full meaning of our existence cannot be grasped unless we aim through our tangible, palpable world to the transcendent realm that lies beyond it.
My mind goes back to those smirking prison guards who scoffed at that old man’s bold notion that to live is Christ and to die is gain. They saw Paul as a fool. Yet, I wonder: twenty years later, long after Paul had been executed, when their own lives had matured, when their youthful confidence in common pleasures had faded, when their pride in their country’s power had soured, when their surety had been shaken to its roots by life’s bewildering ambiguities – could they have thought back upon the words of that old man and wondered if his perspective was right? Could they have wondered if perhaps that crazy old man had truly seen into the nature of things? As they struggled with their own anxieties, frailties and fears, could they not feel within themselves a spiritual hole where they knew that old man was all spiritual strength? Now that they faced their own mortality, their own self-dissatisfaction, their own profound insecurity, might not they now marvel at the surety of a man who believed that nothing, not life, not death, not imprisonment, certainly not the power of the Roman government, could separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord? Might not those guards have yearned for that same spiritual certainty? Might not they in time have whispered a prayer of hope and faith to this old man’s God that his God might be their God, too?
Many years ago, I spied a church member at a restaurant and went over to ask her about her grandson, who was battling cancer. He was seventeen years old. She replied, “He is so much more mature in attitude than the rest of us. He says, ‘Grandma, if I beat this cancer, that is wonderful. Life is wonderful. But if I die, I go to God. So why do you worry so?’ ” Seventeen years old! But this kid had grasped the fundamental truth of the universe and understood the nature of God’s gift of life more clearly than many who have lived a half a century more. To live is Christ and to die is gain. The question is, do we really live as though we believe this?