The With-God Life: “Living is Christ and dying is gain”

“What is bringing you life this season?”

That’s one of the two questions one of our campus pastors asked me to think about, for a short series of daily videos he’s recording with various Bethel employees. (Here’s what my friend Sara said.) “What is bringing me life?”

I’ve still got a few hours before I need to go on camera and share my answer, but my first instinct was to talk about this series of blog posts — or rather, the time I spend each morning with God, reading the Bible and praying, that inspires these reflections. What could be more life-giving than to pursue what Renovaré founder Richard Foster calls “the with-God life“?

That’s probably what I’ll say when we record that video. But as I turned to this morning’s lectionary passage, I found myself asking a deeper question: What is life? Or, why do we live?

One of Rembrandt’s paintings of Paul, ca. 1657 – National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia

Such questions seemed to be on the mind of the apostle Paul when he wrote his letter to the Christians of Philippi. Writing from prison, Paul insisted “that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel” (1:12), as he had the chance to talk to jailers who might otherwise have never heard the name of Jesus. But it also forced a man who had spent so many years on the move, tirelessly proclaiming the gospel in city after city, from synagogues to public squares, to stay in one place. That gave Paul time to pray regularly for people that he loved (1:3-5), and to write letters to the fledgling Christian communities of the Roman world. But it also gave him time to think about his life, and how it could end:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 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 for you. (Phi 1:20-24)

Faced with public health measures that produce a kind of confinement (albeit one that would have seemed impossibly luxurious to Paul), some Christians have argued that “saving lives at any cost” has led us into “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” I don’t doubt the wisdom of taking steps that can prevent millions of deaths. But it is bracing to realize that there’s a part of Paul that does yearn “to depart and be with Christ.” If it were just up to him, what would give him life is death.

(“This is the end,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said just before being hanged, “for me, the beginning of life.”)

But it’s not up to Paul. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary,” he concludes, for his sisters and brothers in Christ back in Philippi.

(Jesus, wrote Bonhoeffer from prison, was “the man for others.”)

Paul would eventually “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (3:10), but until that moment came, Paul’s life was not his own. How could it be, if he had in him the same mind that led Jesus to empty himself and take the form of a slave (2:7)? Paul lived to pray for others, to teach others, to encourage and exhort and serve as a model for others. Whether absent from them or seeing them in the face, Paul lived to love others.

All Paul asked was that each of those fellow disciples of Jesus would “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v 27). Or, as I’ve sometimes put it in attempting to explain Pietism’s emphasis on lived faith, don’t just believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but live as if you believe in those things. (And not on your own, but together — “striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”) In the process, we will not only know Christ, but make Christ known.

What brings me life this, or any, season? If I follow the teaching and example of Paul, what will bring me life is bringing life in Christ to others.

<<Yesterday: Psalm 31:9-16                                                     Tomorrow: Mark 10:32-34>>

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