Well Mwendwa has sent greetings from Mburi, Kenya on this Partnership Sunday and I bring greetings from St Joseph's, Benwell. And I thank God for your generosity and prayers for St Joseph's. The building is wonderful and the start has been encouraging. The people are so friendly. We still need 30 more of you to join the team, so do come and join us.
What or who are you living for? And for what purpose? And does all that bring you true joy and real hope? Some in this city might say Newcastle United FC! Others might dare to say Sunderland AFC! Real joy and hope?! Fleeting joy and lots of despair more like! And what's your attitude to death? What motto do you live by? Here are a few:
"The trouble with being punctual is that no one is there to appreciate it."
One used by politicians in the EU referendum debate:
"If you can't convince them, confuse them."
Newcastle United's motto is 'Triumphing through brave defence', which is slightly ironic although it was true against Crystal Palace yesterday! Sunderland's is 'In pursuit of excellence', which is clearly an ongoing pursuit! In Kenya, written above many shops, in spite of difficulties, is 'God is good all the time'. St Philip's, Mburi, despite hardships, have 'Sir we want to see Jesus'. The Apostle Paul wrote in verse 21 with purpose, joy and hope in spite of being in prison for his faith in Christ:
"To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
But what about you? How would you complete Paul's two phrases about you? The fact is we human beings consume and are consumed by a desire for a whole variety of things - food, drink, possessions, ambitions, love, sport and looks to name but a few. But with anyone who has a great cause, that consuming force can become just the obsession or passion needed to change the world. During World War 2 Winston Churchill was consumed by defeating the evil of Hitler and championing the cause of freedom against the odds. He said:
"I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and trial."
That helped to keep him going during very dark days. Another man who was consumed with a passion felt as if the whole of his life had been one long preparation, not by destiny but by God, in order to lead a counter resistance movement to set men and women free from oppression far worse than Nazism - the oppressive forces of sin, death and the devil. He too was a man of one thing. For this one thing he was willing to be beaten, laughed at and even die. That man was the Apostle Paul. And the one thing which consumed him was the good news or Gospel of Jesus Christ, including getting that good news out to others. Just look at how many times he refers to the Gospel or preaching Christ, or the word of God, which amount to the same thing, in verses 12-29. Do you see?
And so we shouldn't be surprised that the world was turned upside down by Paul under God. And you'll find that the times when Jesus' message has been promoted most vigorously and societies changed most drastically have been when men and women have become men and women of this one thing - the Gospel. So let's take a look at the difference it makes when you put Christ and his Gospel at the centre of everything. Paul's motto was:
To Me To Live Is Christ And To Die Is Gain (vv18b-26)
Notice, Paul is rejoicing and hopeful, "And because of this I rejoice." What a striking characteristic of a Christian - one who 'rejoices in Christ'. But the Gospel does that to you. And he continues to rejoice and hope because of the prayers which he's sure will result in his 'deliverance' (v19), meaning not his release from prison, but his ultimate vindication by God, whether in life or death. That is, he wants to remain faithful (v20) so that he:
"will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or death."
Do you see what matters to Paul? Not personal comfort but Christ's honour and commendation. He wants to hear that "well done good and faithful servant" from Jesus. That's what his sights are fixed on. Not the problems of the here and now, but the blessings of the there and then - heaven. Now we can't earn a place in heaven – Jesus is the only way to God and so to heaven – but God wants us to live fruitful lives and to prepare for heaven in the power of the Spirit after putting our trust in Christ. Are you? Are you getting the good news out? Or are you fearful rather than fruitful?
You see the wonderful thing is that Paul knows he's in a 'win, win' or 'no lose' situation. If he lives, the ministry goes on and Christ is honoured in that. If he dies, he goes to be with Christ in glory and Christ is exalted in that too. "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain." And he feels the tension of this in verses 23-24. But what tremendous freedom such an outlook gives to a Christian. Often we're so concerned, aren't we, with what others might think about us or do to us? But those who live for Christ are free from such concerns. One example of this is the current Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas. He's a Christian whose motto is a verse from Galatians 3,
"Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God?"
Another example is the 19th century Christian, General Gordon. When King John of Ethiopia brought Gordon before him saying:
"Do you know that I could kill you on the spot if I liked?"
"Do so at once if you want. I'm ready."
"What, ready to be killed?" said the King.
"Certainly, I'm always ready to die."
"Then my power has no terrors for you?" the King gasped.
"None whatever! For I know Christ."
Danny Willett, the English golfer, who recently won the US Masters is a Christian. After winning the Masters he said his faith is far more important to him than golf, in fact he added, Jesus is the only 'thing' worth living for. Can all that be said of you? We should be aiming for it through prayer and the power of the Spirit for Christ's glory. But you may say, 'Paul's too preoccupied with himself - all this "I'm hard pressed between the two, to be with Christ is far better."' But note verses 24-25:
"it's more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ will overflow on account of me."
Who is Paul concerned about? Himself? Hardly. No the growth of other Christians. You see, when you've been gripped by the Gospel of Christ, you become less self-centred and more other-centred. You're forever asking, "What will help my brothers and sisters in Christ, what will be for their good, leading them to a greater joy in Christ and what can I do to promote that?" That doesn't necessarily mean giving people what they want – we're naturally sinful and tend to want things which God doesn't want. It's a matter of giving people what they need to become more mature in Christ.
So let me ask: are you a person of one thing? Are you consumed by the Gospel, by Christ? What lies at the centre of all your hopes and desires, what excites you, what do you live for first? A relationship? Getting that job? Those things aren't mentioned here. The plain fact is, if your faith is in Christ, you and I have a wonderful Saviour and one day we'll see him. Wouldn't it be a tragedy if he asks us, "So what did you do with your life that I gave you and the new life for which I rescued you?" And we were to reply, "Well, to be honest Lord, apart from going to church once on a Sunday, I really didn't live that much differently from my non-Christian friends. I didn't get drunk like they did but my lifestyle and aspirations weren't that much different." The Gospel we've been given saves us and it's meant to change us and be at the heart of everything that we stand for. And that's what the Lord Jesus wants for us, because he loves us. Then we'll know what true rejoicing is, true hope is, for then we'll be able to say, "For to me to live is Christ, to die - well, that is gain."
But you say how can Paul speak of death as 'gain'? In what way would it be far better to 'depart', that is, to die? Well, what Paul speaks of here as departing to be 'with Christ' takes us to the very heart of the Gospel message. Now to some the answer to: 'Why is death gain for Paul?' is clear. Take a look at his lot in life – he's languishing in a Roman jail. And there's his mental anguish of hearing about people who are taking advantage of his time in jail by defaming his character (v15). But that's not how Paul sees things. Christ is being preached. "And because of this I rejoice." As far as his physical condition in prison is concerned, later in chapter 4 Paul says that he's rejoicing in the Lord and has learnt the "secret of contentment." So he's not desperate to end it all.
But you know, it's so easy for Christians today to view the Gospel in the way some were then, as simply a means of escape. If I ask: 'Why are you a Christian?' the answer may be: 'Well, I now have forgiveness of my sins, the slate's been wiped clean, I'm no longer guilty and life is no longer meaningless.' All true, but not fully what it means to be a Christian. Why?
Well let's go back to the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3. As a result of defying God to his face, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden and prevented from re-entry. What was the worst thing about that? Well the most horrendous element of the judgement upon sin is the loss of the presence of God. That's why in the Old Testament the punishment for Israel as they turned their back on God was exile - being taken away from the land and the temple both of which signified the presence of God amongst them. And that filled them with horror and dread. And when you think about it, that's the ultimate horror of hell. For what's hell but the eternal absence of God, being shut out from the One who is eternal beauty and light. That's what makes hell such an infinitely dreadful place, a night without end.
But could it be that in our thinking about heaven, we're willing to settle for something which more resembles hell? If you could have heaven, with no sickness, with all the friends and family you've had on earth, all the food you've ever liked, all the leisure activities you've ever enjoyed, all the natural beauty you've ever seen, all the physical pleasures you've ever experienced, with no human conflict or natural disasters; would you be happy with that if Christ were not there? The answer for some might be: 'I'd feel OK because that's what heaven is for me - it's a bigger and better version of this world'. But you see, if hell is the absence of Christ and we'd be content with a heaven without Christ, then we're opting for a form of hell in heaven. And if that's so then we need to stop and ask ourselves have I really understood the Gospel?
You see, what's Paul willing to exchange his present life for - a life with which he's more than content and fulfilled? Verse 23: "to be with Christ", which is far better. If you were to make a list of what's in heaven, what would you put at the top? Streets paved with gold, heavenly choirs? Surely it should be Christ. What Paul enjoys in some measure on earth by the Holy Spirit, he'll enjoy in all its fullness when he dies - the presence of Christ.
Maybe we can think of it like this: have you ever been homesick? It can be the most horrible feeling. You can feel physically ill. But homesickness is not so much a longing for a place but for a person located in a place. And that's what being with Christ is all about for the Christian. The perfect definition of heaven is to say that 'heaven is where Christ is', so when a Christian dies they can be described as 'going home to be with the Lord.' But if we've no friendship with him when we die we won't have friendship with him afterwards. So can I ask are you fit for heaven? I don't mean are you good enough - no one is - it's a gift through faith in what Christ has done. But do you have that faith and walk with the Lord Jesus now so that you'll see him and be with him then? If not please turn to him and trust in him before it's too late.
You see at the heart of the Gospel is Christ himself. It's coming to know him, it's coming to love him and worship him, being restored to God through him, so that in the here and now we have a relationship with him, a relationship lost by Adam and by our sin but restored by Christ. And heaven's more than Eden restored; it's Eden surpassed. That sense of joy and hope we have on earth when we meet up with someone we love but from whom we've been apart will be as nothing compared to the welcome home Christ will give to those who love him. The most breath-taking sight we've seen will be so underwhelming compared to seeing Christ. That's why to depart to be with Christ is far better. Do we have that longing to be with the One who loved us and gave himself for us? God is the Gospel, the God whom we come to know face to face in Christ. All the other things, forgiveness of sins, being declared not guilty, being made more like Jesus are but means to this great end - knowing and being with Christ as the supreme object of our thoughts and affections.
And you know this is something which is extended even to the simplest child. Let me tell you about a 9-year-old boy and his Sunday school group. His name was Philip and they weren't keen on welcoming him because he was 'different' - he had Down's syndrome. One Easter the Sunday school teacher gave plastic eggs which pull apart in the middle to each child. They had to find a symbol of 'new life' place it inside their egg, open it and explain how it represented new life. When the teacher opened the last egg there was nothing in it. "That's stupid" said one boy. The teacher felt a tug on his shirt. It was Philip. Very slowly he said, "It's mine. It's empty. I have new life because Jesus' tomb is empty." The class fell silent. And from then on Philip became part of the group. That summer after an infection, Philip died. At his funeral the children put on his coffin an empty egg. You see Philip had gone to be with Christ.
So how would you finish Paul's sentence: For me to live is… What? For Paul it is Christ. What is it for you? And to die is… What? For Paul it is gain.