Today, I’m cheating a bit on the mug. This is a mug (or cup) hanging on my wall, but it can’t hold liquid.

This is one of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes. Although of late I’m more on the coffee train than the tea train, I still enjoy a good cup of tea (or as the Brits call it, a cuppa) as I read a good book. That’s a tough combo to beat. Especially when, thanks to a Christmas present from my parents, I’m drinking my Mere Christiani-tea.

Before opening Scripture today, let’s begin with an extended prayer. There’s a good chance you’ve got other things on your mind right now—maybe work emails or school work or the new episode of Tiger King awaits. But for this time, try to still your heart, soul, mind, and body. Slowly read this prayer (aloud, if you can) and meditate on it as you read.

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept
me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

(From the Celtic Prayer Book)

Next, read through today’s passage:

20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. (Philippians 1:20-26)

Paul’s message today is almost shocking: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” From the beginning, Christianity has had this almost weird comfortability (I don’t even know if this is a word) with death. Paul seems to look death in the face almost mockingly. He is unafraid, and even desires to depart—to die. Which “is better by far” (v. 23).

But notice what he says: “living is Christ” but “my desire is to depart and be with Christ.” In short, to live = Christ; to die = Christ. Paul gets Christ either way, because “neither death nor life” (Romans 8:38) can separate him from Christ. This is the kind of relationship we should long for with Jesus.

Ever since Stephen was willing to be stoned for his relationship with Jesus, Christians have a long history of dying for their faith. Of Jesus’s disciples (besides Judas), all were martyred except one: who was exiled to an island. For the first 300 years or so, the church faced waves of intense persecution. Many stories of Christian martyrs remain today, but two famous ones are that of Perpetua and Polycarp.

While in prison for her faith (like Paul!), Perpetua was visited by her father. He pleaded with her to deny being a Christian.

“Father do you see this vase here?” she replied. “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

Although she was a new mother and had deep family ties, Perpetua’s relationship with Christ stood above all else. She remained faithful unlike the end, when she was brought before a crowd in order to be fed to wild beasts. The crowd complained that the beasts were taking too long, so she was slain by the sword.

Polycarp was an early Christian leader, and probably the last person alive to have personally known an apostle. He was a disciple of Jesus’ disciple John. Around 160 AD, at the ripe age of 86, Polycarp was arrested for his faith. He was told to recant,

“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”

“86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

After numerous threats, Polycarp was to be burned at the stake. Just before the pyre was lit, he prayed this prayer:

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”

Most of us today won’t face wild beasts in the arena or the threat of a public burning. Still, Paul’s words should instill themselves in us as they did Perpetua or Polycarp. Whether living or dying, Christ is our end. That’s the kind of lives we live: Christ-centered lives that cannot be shaken or changed by the prospect of death.

With the lives and deaths of Perpetua and Polycarp fresh on our minds, let’s pray to God for help in times of suffering or weakness:

Dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: I hold up all my weakness to your strength, my failure to your faithfulness, my sinfulness to your perfection, my loneliness to your compassion, my little pains to your great agony on the Cross. I pray that you will cleanse me, strengthen me, guide me, so that in all ways my life may be lived as you would have it lived, without cowardice and for you alone. Show me how to live in true humility, true contrition, and true love. Amen. (BCP 2019)

Grace and peace, see you tomorrow!


This is an optional ending, if you’d like more. This passage raises an interesting theological question about the nature of the afterlife. Paul says,

22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

At first glance, this appears to suggest that when Paul dies he leaves his body, his flesh, behind forever and is with Christ somehow spiritually. However, Paul is clear elsewhere (for instance, 1 Corinthians 15) that our resurrection—thanks to Jesus’ first resurrection—is bodily. It is physical. The resurrection of Jesus is our guide: he wasn’t just “spiritually” raised, but his body was raised too.

Human persons are body + soul. We aren’t just souls with body costumes. Some people think that humans are like Michael in NBC’s The Good Place. Michael has a “body costume,” but he doesn’t have a real body because he’s not really a human. But humans do have bodies. God made us that way. We are, as some theologians have talked about it, ensouled animals.

If only our souls go to heaven, does Jesus’ redemption not cover our bodies?

The better way to think about this, says N. T. Wright, is that Paul is talking about life after death, but heaven, after the final resurrection, is life after life after death. At the final resurrection, when Jesus returns, all humans are raised: body, soul, and all. We don’t eternally exist “spiritually” out there in the clouds but, like Jesus, we are bodily raised.

To close out this coda, I’ll leave this extended quote from Wright, who comments on on this very Philippians passage like so,

One of the great questions that people have asked throughout human history, and still address particularly to religious leaders, is this: where do we go when we die? Until recently, most people in what used to be the Christian Western world would reply ‘to heaven’, with some also warning that there might be other destinations as well that ought to be avoided if possible. Now, however, with the decline of Christianity in the Western world, people are turning again to folk religion to find alternative beliefs. Some think we’ll all be merged into one great sea of consciousness, or perhaps unconsciousness. Some say (and really seem to mean) that we’ll all become stars in the sky.

Paul doesn’t intend that this should be the main subject of his letter to the Philippian church, but in this passage and one or two later ones he says things which should form the heart of serious Christian thinking on this subject. Here he faces the question: will he survive his present imprisonment, and then be released so that he can visit them again, or will the powers of the world decide that he’s better off dead?

The curious thing about the second alternative is that Paul actually agrees with them: he would indeed be better off dead. ‘What I’d really love’, he says, ‘is to leave all this and go to be with the king.’ This isn’t a ‘death-wish’ in the sense of someone losing self-esteem, becoming terminally depressed, and longing to get out of this life as quickly as possible. Paul, as this letter shows, is full of life and energy and quite ready to get back to work the minute they let him out of prison. But Paul is also a man in love — with the king, the Messiah, the Jesus who, as he says in Galatians 2.20, ‘loved me and gave himself for me’. And the central thing about dying, as far as he’s concerned, is that it will mean going to be with this Jesus, his Lord, master and king.

Nowhere, in fact, in the New Testament do we find people talking about ‘going to heaven when they die’. The closest we come is when Jesus says to the penitent brigand beside him on the cross that he’ll be in paradise with him that very day (Luke 23.43). But in the Jewish thought of the time ‘paradise’ was not usually a final destination. It was thought of as a place of blissful rest where the dead would wait until the day of resurrection.

Paul seems to have a similar view. Immediately after death, he implies, the Christian goes to be with the Lord. This language (‘being with the Lord’, or ‘with the king’) is perhaps the best and safest Christian way of talking about life after death. But for Paul, as for most Jews, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. As we shall see in chapter 3, the resurrection is still to come. The dead will no longer be disembodied, but will receive new bodies to live in the new world that God will then make (3.11, 21).

Christian Student Fellowship