I’d Rather Die Than Come See You (But I May End Up Coming Anyway)

by Michael Usey; Philippians 1.12-30, NRSV

We’re in the second week of our fall sermon series entitled Evolve. The evolutionary Christian concepts we’re considering this morning are thankfulness and resilience. Our text for this sermon is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a prison letter. Some of the great literature of the world was written in prison, most recently, MLK’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, which turned the tide in the civil rights movement. After that letter was published, the movement gained national support.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, wrote letters from prison, smuggled out by his guards in Germany. Those letters and notes, some just fragments, ideas about the Christian life, were published after the war as Letters And Notes From Prison. That little book, perhaps a hundred pages, caused a revolution in the way we understand living as Christians in the post-modern world.  Dostoyevsky wrote The House of the Dead from prison.  Soul on Ice is a memoir by Eldridge Cleaver, which was written in Folsom State Prison in 1965, published in `68. Live from Death Row was penned by Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist from Philadelphia, having been convicted of the murder of a  police officer and sentenced to death.  John Bunyan wrote Grace Abounds from prison.

But the NT prison letters were written by Paul. And his greatest letter from prison is to the Philippians. It is just an amazing document, a theological one, of course. That is why it is in the NT. But it is also the testimony of a man who learned to sing in prison.

We know that Paul was in prison when he wrote this, probably in Rome. He says he is under the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorian Guard was only in imperial cities. There were other imperial cities, but evidence points to him being in prison in Rome. Which means, it is near his end.

Paul knows that it is near the end. The Philippians know that it is near the end. You have to know that, too, in order to appreciate the content of this letter. You should also know that there is a special bond between Paul and the Philippians. He founded that church years before. Through the years their friendship has deepened, matured and grown. The occasion of the letter is to thank the Philippians for their thoughtfulness. They sent Epaphroditus, a member of the church, with a present for Paul, as a way of communicating to him their concern and love. We don’t know what the gift was, but he is in prison, so maybe the gift was a cake, with a file in it. Probably not a gift card. We don’t know. At any rate, Paul writes this letter to say thank you. It is full of affection, especially in the salutation, not like letters he wrote to other churches, which are often filled with reprimands and even condemnations. But not in this letter. His letter is personal and warm. He writes in the salutation: I thank God for you. I am always praying for you and giving thanks for you. I hold you in my heart, because we are partners of the same grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense of the gospel.

What that means is that they stood with Paul through thick and thin, when he was being attacked by his detractors who followed him all around his churches, and now when he is imprisoned by the government. They never left him. They had been through everything together. He concludes the salutation, with these words: How I yearn for you with the affection of Jesus Christ. That’s not like Paul. His other letters are much more formal: “Grace to you and peace through Jesus Christ. Now about that matter that you wrote about…” He gets right down to business in the other letters.

Let me ask you, who is your life are you grateful for?  Who came along at the right time for you?  Who, besides your parents, loved you and was a friend when you needed one?  If you would, pause the sermon here, and offer a moment of thankfulness to God for someone who was there for you when they didn’t have to be. Try to name someone other than a parent. For me, it was Jeff Culp, who died 4 years ago this past week, and was closer to me than a brother growing up.  Pause this sermon, and, if you’re alone, remember that soul; if you’re with someone, speak of that person to others.  I’ll wait.

Now I want to shift the focus slightly, because Paul is in a terrible place.  Phillipians is no business letter. In this letter he sings. He rejoices. He says, “Rejoice; again I say to you, Rejoice.” Even in chapters where he doesn’t tell them to rejoice, he, himself, rejoices and sings. It’s an amazing letter. How does he do that? It is just incredible. That is what I want us to look at this morning. How can Paul find anything to sing about when he is in prison waiting to die? How can we find anything to sing about in where women in American concentration camps are forced to be sterilized?  How can we learn to sing when over 200,000 of our fellow citizens have died due to government mismanagement and lies over a worldwide plague?  When a national treasure like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who fought so long and hard for the rights of people on the margins) has died and will likely be replaced with some Federalist Society drone?  (RBG, may her memory be a revolution.) Feel like singing yet? I do not.  So how is Paul able to sing in prison waiting to die?

Here’s Paul’s secret: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I don’t know about that. I can say, “For me to live is Christ,” because I have given my life to Christ; maybe you can too. But have I given my death to Christ? “For me to live is Christ,” that’s true. It is truer to say, however, “for me to live is everything.” To be completely honest, I don’t want to die. I don’t look upon dying as enhancing my happiness. Woody Allen said what kind of funeral he wanted: “All I want is just a few of my close friends to gather around my coffin and do everything they can to bring me back to life.” 

I can understand that. I want to live. I have given my life to Christ. But have I given my death to Christ? Can we say what Paul says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”? He goes on: 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 better. But to remain in the flesh is better for you.

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to relate to that kind of discourse. I can imagine the minister of the College Park Church of Philippi, addressing the congregation on Sunday morning. “Well, we got a thank you letter from Paul this morning. He said that he would rather die than come and visit us.”

I mean, that’s the way it sounds. It sounds so out of touch with our priorities. It is almost macabre, really, what he writes. It is certainly inappropriate. The Philippians were just trying to be thoughtful. He taught them to do that. He taught them to be concerned about one another, so they are doing that. They send a messenger, with a gift, a gift of love.

It sounds like Paul is saying, “Thanks, but it really wasn’t necessary. I am doing fine. I may die, but that’s all right. I am better off dead than being with you.” It makes we wonder if he sent the gift back with Epaphroditus. That can’t be right. There must be something else here. I got an insight into it when I read Moorhead Kennedy’s account of his being a prisoner in Iran back in the 70s. You remember when the Ayatollah Khomeini held those American hostages, Moorhead Kennedy was one of them. Later he wrote about his imprisonment. He said, “You know when you are going through a bad moment in normal life, you usually say to yourself, ‘Well, it could be worse; at least I am still alive.’ Well I was imprisoned in Iran, and all of a sudden I realized that may no longer be true.” That is to say, it was no longer a source of hope to say, “It could be worse; I am still alive,” because he knew in that situation of extremity, he was reminded of it by his captors, that tomorrow he could die. He continued. “From that realization came the greater awareness that life is not just for now and here. … You are part of a much larger thing, much larger than one’s own life. God’s life and love, if you will.”

That’s what Paul experienced in prison. He saw what it really means to give your life to Christ, your whole life to Christ, including your death. When he finally did that, he saw something. Really it is better to say that he experienced something, because he had seen it before. Now he experienced it. That is why he rejoices. That is why he sings. Because what he believed and what he had preached, he now experienced.

In Damascus, years ago, he gave his life to Christ. In Rome, in prison, he gave his death to Christ, and so experienced a freedom that you and I have probably never experienced. So he says, I am now content to stay here and follow my plan, if that works out. But if not, that is all right, because Christ has, in his Resurrection, revealed to me that there is a greater plan than mine waiting for me. So for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

This remarkable letter not only outlines that proclamation, but it also illustrates it with practical experiences from Paul’s own life. Paul tells the Philippians, for instances, “I have three alternatives now. First of all, I can be released and come to you.”

That is the first alternative. He is not ruling that out. In fact, he believes that he is going to be released. He is not ruling anything out, because God is in charge of the future. Besides that, Paul has gotten out of jail before. In fact, it was in Philippi. The Philippians were there. They saw it. You remember, that is when the earthquake hit, and the jail crumbled around him. He just walked out with Silas, and converted the jailer on the spot, who stood there dumbfounded by all of this. So the Philippians should know that Paul has gotten out of jail before. Paul writes to them, “I plan to come and see you.”

You’ve seen that old cartoon: two prisoners in a cell. No windows in the cell, just stone walls. They are both manacled to the wall. One prisoner turns to the other and says, “Now here’s my plan …”  That’s Paul, and a whole lot of other faithful people I know, who know that if the future belongs to God, then anything can happen. So keep on making plans.

There was a woman in my San Diego church who lived that way. She retired  years ago. In fact, she retired from two careers: she was a captain in the Navy, and then she went to work for the San Diego School District. She loved to travel; in fact she lived to travel-she did a lot of it. She told my mom that she gave the first 10% of her income to the church as a tithe. The second 10% went into a fund, which enabled her to do all this traveling. She did a lot of it.

One day she got cancer. Took care of it pretty easily. Just kept right on going. There was a reoccurrence. She kept right on going, although she was weaker now. One day she came home from a trip to Russia. She got back in time to attend a neighborhood dinner that we were holding, during one of those financial campaigns several years ago. It was so typical of her. She got off the plane from Russia in the morning, and went to a church dinner at night.

The neighborhood where the dinner was held was strange to her. It was dark. She couldn’t find the house. She decided that it would be easier to read the addresses if she parked the car and walked. She walked up to a house. It was dark. She tripped on the step. She lay there on the ground for a couple of hours. She couldn’t get up. Someone came by, found her, took her to the hospital. She broke her pelvis, which had been weakened by cancer. She knew that it was pretty bad, that she may not recover from this one.

My pastor Sam called on her the next day. She told him, “You know, I made a list of all the places I wanted to visit, all the trips I wanted to make. This trip to Russia was the last one on that list. I just came home, and then this happened.” Sam asked her, “What are you going to do now?” She said, “I am going to make out a new list.” It’s just like Paul. He’s chained in prison, but making plans for the future. That’s the first alternative.

But Paul allows that his plans may not come to fruition, and he may be stuck there in prison. That is the second alternative. Paul says, “That alright with me, because I have already discovered that I have crucial work to do, right here.” Earlier in the first chapter he says, “I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” He is in prison. He has found something meaningful to do there. 

Paul is a preacher. The Romans, to imprison him, had to assign soldiers to guard him. What did Paul do? He preached to the guards. They couldn’t leave. They had to stay there. It’s a preacher’s dream. Besides that, they couldn’t go to sleep–hear that Wayne Jones?  They would be court-martialed if they went to sleep on duty. “I want you to know what happened,” he wrote to the Philippians, “bad as it is, has turned out to be good. Now the whole Praetorian Guard knows about me. They are all talking about me now. They all want to know more about the gospel.”

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 20 years in South Africa. When he was inaugurated as president of South Africa he invited a small group of his friends, and some dignitaries, to witness his swearing in. Two of those who were present there at his invitation were his guards in prison. Two white Afrikaaners, who were won over by the witness of a man being faithful to the best that he knew, in the worst circumstance of his life.

That is the second alternative Paul offers. If this isn’t what you wanted, if this isn’t your plan, if you are stuck with a total mess, at least for a while, then look for something good in it, because God may have things for you right where you are.

But there is a third alternative. The first alternative is to be released and find a new life. The second alternative is to stay where you are and find a life. The third is to die, and find a greater life. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. The central focus of Paul’s life is the resurrection. It has always been the resurrection for him. He wrote about it to all his churches, especially to the Corinthians. 1 Cor 15 is where we get most of our language about resurrection. For us, the resurrection is something we hope for at the end of life. For Paul, the resurrection was something that guided him every day of his life.  The resurrection for him was like a horizon. Because he had his eyes always on the horizon, he was able to live meaningfully in any terrible situation that life threw at him.

A horizon is the boundary line at which earth and sky appear to meet. It was something like that for Paul. The horizon for Paul was the boundary line where earth and heaven meet, and on the boundary, there is an empty tomb. So with his eyes on the horizon, he not only saw the limit of this life, he saw all the possibilities of another life.

A number of years ago I flew in a private plane, owned by my friend John Branin. It was a small four-passenger plane. I have built model airplanes bigger than that plane. You had to have something like Paul’s faith “for me to die as gain,” in order to get into such a tiny craft. But it turned out to be a wonderful flight. I learned a lot about flying in small planes. I noticed, as we were flying, the largest instrument on the panel, right in front of the pilot, was an instrument with a little plane on a horizontal line. I asked the pilot what that was. John said, “That’s an artificial horizon. It’s a crucial instrument on the plane.” (Chuck Joyce can tell us more about this.)  Then he told me stories of what happened to pilots when they don’t pay attention to that, flying through bad weather with no visibility. If they don’t have an artificial horizon, they are in trouble. John demonstrated how it worked. He dipped the nose of the plane, and that little plane on the instrument panel went below the horizontal line. He pulled the stick back; it went above the horizontal line. When he was flying straight, the little plane was right on that horizontal line.

That is what Paul lived by, an artificial horizon. The horizon that only the eyes of faith can see. The horizon that enables us to keep steady in a storm, to keep going even when we cannot see the future. You keep on going. That is why he could sing in prison. He could see not only the boundary of this life, he could see the beginning of an even greater life, and why he could say: For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.