Entirely too often the family of God gathers in this memorial setting. This kind of gathering is never easy, for it is a time of mixed emotions. Certainly there is no pleasure in gathering to bid good-bye to someone who is very special. This moment is a time of loss. An investment has been made into the life of someone, and now that someone has been called home to our Lord.
Yet grief is not the only agenda today. This setting takes on an entirely different meaning for a Christian because we gather in the midst of hope, the hope that comes from our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This time is also one when we let God’s Word speak to us. We turn to His Word, not because there is a lack of anything else to read. Rather, we need the Bible because it is a Book about life and death. Just as the Bible is very frank and honest about life, so is it also very honest about death. The Bible never tiptoes around the issue of death. Consider the psalmist as he spoke so very freely about our walking in and through the valley of the shadow of death. This walk was not to be seen as something awesome, but rather simply a part of the journey which everyone must make.
Other than Christ, no one ever spoke more frankly about death than the apostle Paul. He understood all of life to be in the control of Christ, and, therefore, death was just as natural process by which we leave one state and enter into another.
Paul made one statement about death that is as bold as any we shall ever read. He said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). The assumption is that Paul was in prison awaiting trial when he made this statement, and he had to face the fact that he was quite uncertain whether he would live or die. However, to him the matter made little difference. His indifference was not the result of some sick attitude about life. Paul enjoyed living as much as anyone. However, he saw living and dying all within the loving arms of God.
For Paul, living gained meaning through Christ. For him, living was Christ, and life could not be separated from his Lord. For Paul, Christ had been the beginning of his life. He was born again on the Damascus road. Life had literally begun all over for him. From that moment on, Christ had become the sustaining element of his life. There had never been a day since that experience when Paul had not lived under His presence. For Paul, Christ had also become the reason for his existence. Christ was the one who had made of him an apostle and had sent him out as an evangelist to the Gentiles.
Even more, so, Christ was the reward of Paul’s life. The only thing that made life totally worth living was the thought that all of his life would untimately result in Christ Himself. If Christ were to be taken from the life of Paul, there would be nothing left. To him, Christ was nothing less than life itself.
Paul’s dependency upon Christ did not end with his days of living. He made the statement, “To die is gain.” Over the years this statement of Paul has frequently been misunderstood, taken out of context, and made to appear as some sick statement about life itself. This statement was not the result of any weakness on the part of Paul, but instead was the result of strength.
Paul knew that the only entrance into Christ’s presence was through death. For Paul, death was not just falling asleep but an immediate entry into the presence of the Lord. For if one believes in Christ, Paul believed very strongly that death means an immediate union with Christ and with those whom we have loved and lost.
How does Paul’s description of death as gain influence our gathering here in this setting? To make such a statement in this kind of setting is not some idealistic thought nor some sadistic wish. Such a position is a result of the undergirding belief in the Lord of Life.
First, death is gain because it removes us from the pain and suffering of life. Jesus, Himself, said that in this life there will be tribulation. No one is immune. We all must face those days of suffering and heartache. But when death occurs, there is not longer suffering. Death removes us from all of life’s pain and suffering and ushers us into the abiding presence of Christ where there shall never again be pain.
Life includes pain and suffering. We are not promised an existence that is free from pain. Fortunately, it is all a temporary condition.
Second, death is gain because it removes us from the evils and struggles of this life. We are limited creatures. Life is most definitely a battleground between the forces of good and evil, and we are constantly caught in that battle. We are weak, and sin fills our lives, even in the best of us. There is a battle of conscience that wages itself constantly in our lives and in the lives of all believers. In fact, it is not pessimistic at all to believe that life is a long series of struggles. We grow as a result of these struggles, but they have their price.
Third, death is gain because it secures for us those things that are unfailing. Life has many disappointments. We work and strive for those things that thieves can steal, storms can destroy, and time can take away. Much of life seems to surround things that are failing. However, once we are ushered into the divine presence of Christ, all things become unfailing. For our reward shall be gifts from Christ that shall never tarnish, nor can they be taken away. They become our gifts for eternity.
Fourth, death is gain because death alone can bring us into the presence of Christ. All men and women should seek to follow the example of Paul who made Christ his ultimate goal. Christ was not only Paul’s beginning, his sustaining element in life, but the end for which all of life should be lived. Christ should be our ultimate goal. To be ushered into the presence of Christ solves everything. All the problems, struggles, and pain will be done away. For the Good Shepherd of life and death will care for us in such a way that is beyond our own imagination.
Our thoughts come back to this setting. Yes, there is pain, grief, and suffering in this setting. But let us not forget the hope that surrounds us and undergirds us in this moment. For we are gathered in this setting not just to acknowledge our grief but to celebrate our hope. For with the apostle Paul, we can individually and collectively acknowledge our faith in a Lord who is in control of all of life. We recognize that death is simply the passage from one stage of life to another. Without death, our own resurrection would never be possible. Paul really was correct when he said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
God give us grace to share in that kind of faith in this kind of moment.
Poem: They who on the Lord rely, Safely dwell though danger’s nigh; Lo! His sheltering wings are spread O’er each faithful servant’s head. When they wake, or when they sleep, Angel guards their vigils keep; Death and danger may be near, Faith and love have nought to fear.
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Prayer: God, grant us the strength and courage to embrace our Faith so that we may see that all of life is in Your hands. Amen.