Living with win-win

How does Paul face his situation with such joy?  It's win-win.

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Living with win-win

June 1, 2014 – Philippians 1:18b-30

 

            “Heaven is for real” is the true story of Colton Burpo, who, when he was four years old, had what is commonly called a “Near Death Experience.” While being operated on for a ruptured appendix, he had an experience of being transported to heaven, sitting on Jesus’ lap, and meeting family members he’d never met before.

            The truth, however, of this story is something many people would question.  It’s been some time since I read the book, but that is really the heart of the movie.  Is this true?  Did he really go to heaven?  Is this just the over-active imagination of a four-year old?  Or is there another explanation.

There were certainly doubters and skeptics, even among the good church going people of Imperial, Nebraska.  Even for his parents, it was true.  His mother was slow to believe.  His father – who was the preacher of a small church – was slow to believe.  Even after he became convinced that his son was talking about what was very real for him, he struggled with what it meant. 

            Maybe that’s where I am as well.   I don’t know that I am quite convinced by such reports.  I am certainly intrigued.  I believe that heaven is real.  I believe that death is not the end.  I believe that there is something more.  And I believe that in that “something more” there is great love.

            But what that means for us now is still something I wonder about.

 

            Paul doesn’t seem to wonder.  Paul is in prison.  He has been place in a Roman imperial prison for practicing a religion that contrary to the official religion of the empire.  He has been imprisoned for his witness to his faith in Jesus Christ.

            His future is uncertain.  Will he be released?  Will he be put to death?  Paul does not know.  Still, Paul remains joyful.

            Paul remains joyful in the midst of uncertainty because of his connection to the Philippians – because of his love for them and their love for him.  “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart…” or depending on the translation, “I hold you in my heart.”  Suffice it to say, they are close.

            Paul remains joyful in the midst of uncertainty because, despite his imprisonment, Paul is still able to talk about the good news of Jesus with others.  Far from keeping him from his God given task, he finds this another opportunity to talk about Jesus.  In addition, his own situation has brought boldness to others in witnessing to their faith.

            Paul remains joyful in the midst of uncertainty because, of the two alternatives for him – life or death – he will embrace either.  If Paul dies, he gets to be with Jesus.  If he lives, he gets to be with them – the Philippians – and to continue his “fruitful labor.”  It’s a win-win situation for Paul.  Whatever happens, Paul will greet that circumstance with joy.

 

            Why is Paul so confident?  First, he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Paul was extremely zealous for the faith of his ancestors, so zealous that he was seeking to stamp out any of followed this renegade Jesus.  On his way to do more of the same, “God was pleased to reveal his Son to me,” Paul reports in Galatians.  And he was given a new task – to spread the word about Jesus beyond the faith of Israel.  Paul went from trying to destroy the followers of Jesus to making more of them.

            Second, Paul reports in II Corinthians of a certain “friend” who experienced what we might call today an altered state of consciousness.  This “friend” was transported to the third heaven.  I’m not sure what that means, but he was taken up into paradise and heard things that “no mortal is permitted to repeat.”  Although Paul speaks of a “friend,” it is possible that he is actually referring to himself, because Paul goes on to mention extraordinary revelations that he has received.  Paul does not elaborate, because he does not want to draw attention to himself.  Rather he goes on to tell us how God taught him a lesson in humility. 

            Third, even in his daily life, his earthly life, Paul knows the joy and freedom of knowing Jesus.  For that reason he has given up everything – all of his reasons to boast about himself – so that he may only boast in Jesus and in what Jesus has done for him.  (We’ll hear more about that in a couple of weeks.)

            Even though Paul faces the prospect of death with joy, he does not simply sit back and wait for it to happen.  Paul does the work God has given him to do.  Paul does it by continuing to stay in touch with congregations he has started.  Paul even does it by maintaining his witness to Christ.

            And this is what Paul wants the Philippians to do.  He wants them to focus on their conduct.  He implores them to maintain their connection with each other in the bond of the Spirit.  And he exhorts them to have courage in the face of their own suffering.

 

            When I was in Argyle, there was a member of Yellowstone Lutheran Church named, Vic Bredeson.  Vic had farmed for many years, but had retired to town.  When I got to know Vic, he was “driving truck,” which meant that in his small truck he would pick up animals for delivery to the sale barn or the meat locker.   I spent more time with Vic because he had been diagnosed with diabetes.  His doctor told him he needed to get more exercise.  So, Vic took up golf.  And I was one of his golf partners.

            One day Vic told me he wasn’t worried about death because he had a friend who had literally died and gone to heaven and come back.  I was skeptical.  I thought such things happened because of oxygen deprivation, or drug issues, or some deep-seated psychological need.

            But I decided to do some investigation.  I read the 1975 study by Dr. Raymond Moody, called, “Life after life.”  Moody wasn’t a doctor.  He was a philosophy professor, so that gave him credibility with me.

            Moody interviewed dozens and dozens of people who had Near Death Experiences, including people who technically died, but had no recollection of an NDE.  There were a number of elements of their experience that were very common, including such things as a tunnel, a brilliant light, a sacred figure, a life review, seeing loved ones who had died, and returning to life for some specific purpose.  Sometimes those experienced included learning things that the person could not have learned any other way.

            Moody concluded that these reports could not prove the reality of life beyond death, either scientifically or philosophically.  But he said that the stories were very evocative, particularly the ones in which it was clear that the person was changed by the experience.

 

            You may believe these stories.  You may not.  You may be skeptical, but curious.  You may be unsure, but hopeful.  But whatever you believe, no matter what you make of these kinds of reports, the question remains – how do we now live?  And that’s where the movie ends.  Todd Burpo says to his congregation, “If this is true, how do we live?”

            We could live as the Philippians – observing our conduct, honoring our connection through the Spirit to one another, and facing the challenges to our faith with courage.

            Or we could live as Paul.  We could live with joy no matter what happens, for to live is Christ and to die is gain.  In the face of death, it’s a win-win situation.