15th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 20) LSB #716
Text – Philippians 1:23-24
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
SELF-CENTERED OR OTHER-CENTERED
How many of you, at some point in life, have owned & maintained a car? If you’ve done that for at least two years, you’ve probably learned the answer to this question. Which windshield wiper blade always stops working first? It’s the driver’s side, isn’t it?
While driving your car you can make do without the passenger side blade, yet it never seems to be the one that stops working first. This happened to a man one day while driving home in the middle of a blinding snow storm. I think it was last winter. Unable to see, the man pulled over & tried to figure out a quick fix.
He found it in a yellow cotton work glove lying on the floor. With it wedged under the windshield wiper arm, it did a decent job of keeping the windshield clear, & the road visible. Not only that, since the storm was brewing in broad daylight – you’d be surprised at how many people waved back. PAUSE
Where I grew up, it was such that looking out the back of the house, you couldn’t see another home or barn for a full country mile. And out there, if you were driving on the back roads with a car, or a tractor, or a bicycle, it didn’t matter when you met someone coming your way, if you knew them or not. Waving at them was just the neighborly thing to do.
It’s a very down to earth, polite & friendly way of being other-centered. When St. Paul writes, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” he’s writing from an “other-centered” viewpoint. In the verse right before he admits that his own desire is: “…to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better.” Human beings have to be taught to live other-centered lives. That attitude doesn’t come naturally in a sin-filled world. For example, young children just learning to speak instinctively seem to love learning the words “No” & “Mine!” They say them with such gusto & with feeling. Growing into adulthood, we learn not to let it show that crassly, even if our overall outlook on life remains totally self-centered.
At that childish level it’s easy for adults to recognize what is a self-centered outlook & what is an other-centered viewpoint. Each of us has been on the blunt end of another person’s selfishness & has no difficulty identifying that attitude or behavior.
But haven’t you also been on the receiving end of some very other-centered behavior? There are times we receive it from friends where we sort of expect it. There are times when a total stranger gives us a blessing & in that case doesn’t it have a more dramatic shock effect?
The extremes in life aren’t that difficult to recognize. It’s when the issues are closer to the middle ground that we have a lot more trouble sensing where the fine line is between God’s will & our own. St. Paul is trying to help us distinguish that fine line, for our own thoughts, words & deeds, as he writes his letter to the church at Philippi:
“For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain. If I am to live 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 & be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” To remain in the flesh is the other-centered desire.
You see, Paul has been in prison as he begins writing this letter, & the sentence of death has been hanging over him. He literally did not know if he was going to live, or if he was going to die. It was up to the judge. In that day it was not at all uncommon for Christians to be persecuted & executed simply for speaking the truth about Jesus.
As a worthy pastor should do, Paul wanted to leave the members of the church at
Philippi prepared for whatever the future might hold for them in their walk with Christ. Death was a very present reality for God’s children in that day & time; quite unlike it is for most of us, most of our lives. So they struggled with that fine line between the desire to depart & be with Christ, or to remain in the flesh – still working in the kingdom of God here on earth.
Although going to heaven is a good thing, in Paul’s middle ground context, far from any of the extremes, there is still a fine line between that good thing we all desire, & the necessary thing which is for the sake of others. If our lives were filled with persecution & the constant threat of execution we might have even a greater desire to depart & be with Christ.
Yet our lives are filled with luxury in comparison to St. Paul & the people of the churches he served. That’s probably another reason we don’t struggle so much to remain here on earth. We have life pretty good. It’s a far cry from life in prison as St. Paul was experiencing. He said, “My desire is to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Nevertheless, Paul is thinking far differently than we: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Not only is Paul thinking in an other-centered way, he recognizes that in living for others he is taking up his cross & that is truly following Christ. In fact, Paul is so focused on following Christ that he willingly confronts the possibility of his own death:
“…that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” To this great missionary apostle his life or his death are equals all because of Jesus Christ. Either one will bring glory & honor to Jesus’ name, because Yahweh will not allow the work Jesus accomplished to be shamed.
Whether he will die for his crimes, or be released to a continued life of hardship & deprivation, St. Paul has complete trust in Jesus as his Savior. Do you & I trust our Savior that completely? Do we “believe” in Jesus so we can go to heaven, or do we “believe” in Jesus because we long to know Him, whether that’s in death or in life? If we don’t see our living here & now as being in Christ then we’re not going to die the death that is gain. No human being will be able to “game” the system our Lord has set up whereby eternal life is received.
A few token coins in the offering, & making an appearance here once a month, does not constitute taking up our cross & following Christ with our living. Not only when we fail, but when we sort of, maybe, kind of actually refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves, have we taken up our cross to follow Christ with our living?
So we should consider why our Lord & Savior will apply the second half of Paul’s sentence to us: “For me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” For comfort & hope & peace, especially when our sins & weaknesses make us anxious, we turn to the last part of the Gospel reading for today:
“‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, & the first last.” The point Jesus is making is that the Christians who looked good, the ones who were always in church, & gave the full tithe as their offering; they’re the ones who are jealous.
Jesus was awarding all the workers the same eternal life, no matter how their faith appeared on the outside. Those who are struggling & lost, when found, are given the same blessings as the overachievers. There’s hope in that message for you & me especially when we are struggling, or lost or feeling beaten down, worthless & defeated.
St. Paul was in prison for preaching Christ & he found hope in the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, that hope is waiting there for you as well. Hear it, & then with the power of the Holy Spirit, that God’s Word conveys, believe it, trust in it & live it. Here’s what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians just before the reading from today, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more & more in knowledge & depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best & may be pure & blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory & praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11 NIV)
That is where other-centeredness begins – in Jesus Christ. Being other-centered is one of the fruits of righteousness that God’s Holy Spirit creates within us, along with a clean heart & a steadfast spirit.
Isaiah wrote this, along the same lines, for our comfort & hope & peace, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, & the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, & to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
It is in our heavenly Father’s mercy & love that we find the confidence to state & believe, “For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” It is in our heavenly Father’s mercy & love that we find the will & the power to live other-centered lives, even & all the while that He may be calling us home.
Because of that love you may even find yourself waving to a total stranger someday. Amen.
I walk in danger all the way. The thought shall never leave me that Satan, who has marked his prey, is plotting to deceive me. This foe with hidden snares may seize me unawares if I should fail to watch & pray. I walk in danger all the way. I pass through trials all the way, with sin & ills contending; in patience I must bear each day the cross of God’s own sending. When in adversity I know not where to flee, when storms of woe my soul dismay, I pass through trials all the way. My walk is heavenward all the way; await, my soul, the morrow, when God’s good healing shall allay all suffering, sin & sorrow. Then, worldly pomp, be gone! To heaven I now press on. For all the world I would not stay; my walk is heavenward all the way. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet