"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” – Paul
“To be or not to be–that is the question.” – Hamlet
Life. Death. These twin mysteries lie at the core of what it means to be human. What do we do with the fact that we are alive? And what do we do with the fact that one day we will die?
As important as these questions are, they rarely find their way into our everyday lives. They get pushed out by grocery lists, appointments, budgets, and parent-teacher conferences.
We need stories like the Apostle Paul’s and plays like Hamlet to bring us face-to-face with these questions. But it is not enough simply to ask the questions; we need an answer. At first glance, it might seem that Paul and Hamlet have similar answers to these questions. Both are wrestling, facing death, and uncertain whether to choose life or death. But it is there that the similarities end. Paul, in chains in prison, wonders aloud whether life or death is better. Hamlet, a Danish prince in the midst of politics and intrigue, wonders aloud whether life or death is worse. These are different answers to the same questions; what is more, we see that how we answer those questions determines how we live our lives and face our deaths.
So what is the right answer? We are surrounded by dozens of answers played out in millions of lives. The ancient Egyptians, for example, so revered death and the afterlife that the bulk of their wealth and labor of their lives was directed toward preparing properly for the afterlife. The pyramids are a lasting testament to their focus and devotion. Our monuments to death in Western culture can be no less elaborate. But rather than revering the afterlife, we have emphasized this life. Thus the bulk of our wealth and the labor of our lives is devoted to enjoying and preserving this life.
As Hamlet’s soliloquy unfolds, he comes to this point: in the face of all the troubles and trials of our lives, suicide seems a valid option, except for the fact that we fear death. He muses, “But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” In our culture we are children of Hamlet–tempted to manage our pain and maximize our pleasure for as long as we have life.
As we heard on Sunday, that is not Paul’s answer, and it is not ours.
For Paul, to live is Christ and to die is Christ. The question is not whether he will live or die, because either way, he is Christ’s, and Christ is his. Death for Paul, and for the Christian, is not “the undiscovered country” of Hamlet; rather in Christ we have One who has gone into death ahead of us and taken away its sting. Death is now neither unknown nor feared, and that changes life. It is no longer about creating a legacy or monument for this life or the next, or limiting our pain, or managing our risk, or “getting the most out of life,” or “living life to the fullest.” Rather, life becomes about living for the One who lived for us. Christ lived for us, died for us, and was raised for us; how can we not give our lives to the One who gave His life for us?
So what do we do with the fact that we are alive? And what do we do with the fact that one day we will die? Is your answer Paul’s answer?
Without Jesus, the life we have isn’t really life; with Jesus, our death is no longer really death. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”