Paul's Eight-Word Epitaph
by Rev. Bob Clark
September 24, 2017
Text: Philippians 1:12-21
A very wise old Jewish Rabbi in Jerusalem announced to his congregation that he had decided to go into the hills, to a cave, and live in that cave for seven years meditating on "The Meaning of Life." Of course, the congregation was excited and promised to support him in his spiritual seclusion, because they truly believed that he was one of the wisest men in the world.
So, on the day of his trek into the hills there was quite a crowd accompanying him, including a sizable press corp.
The cave was well supplied with food and water and necessities, and someone from his congregation would visit him once a week to replenish. Otherwise he was alone to meditate on "The Meaning of Life!"
Seven years passed - to the day. A large crowd gathered at the foot of the hill watching and waiting for his emergence from the cave. And suddenly there he was, this wise old Rabbi, stepping out into the sunlight, smiling, rubbing his eyes and stroking his long white beard.
They were quite sure he had an answer for them.
A young reporter just couldn't contain himself, and with microphone in hand and a recorder strapped to his waist he rushed up the hillside to where the Rabbi was standing.
"Wise Master," he said with microphone extended, "For seven years you have meditated day and night on 'The Meaning of Life.'" "Do you have an answer for us?"
"Yes," replied the Old Master, "The Meaning of Life is Music!"
"Music!?" the young reporter responded. "REALLY?"
After a significant pause, the Rabbi looked at him and said, "Well, maybe not."
Now I doubt that the Apostle Paul meditated for seven years on the meaning of life, but in his Letter to the Philippians, he nailed it in eight words: "To Live is Christ; To Die is Gain."
Oh, he had plenty of time to think, because he was under house arrest in Rome for 2 years when he wrote this letter. He wasn't in prison. He was in a rented house under watch by the palace guard 24/7. And to his joy he was able to successfully witness the Gospel to these guards, many of whom became Christians.
It wasn't that he had committed any crime or broken any law - no, he was under house arrest because he would not stop preaching the Gospel of Jesus, the Christ.
And, in his letter to the Philippians he shared with them that his confinement was serving the Lord - Praise God! - but that eventually things would probably turn ugly for him, but until then he looked forward to encouraging his beloved Philippians and helping them to continue to grow in the joy of their faith, and to witness to the living Christ in his present situation.
If he lived he had work to do - Christ's work to do: "To live is Christ." This was the meaning of his life in the flesh: to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And when he was no longer "in the flesh," he would be with Christ: "To die is gain!"
As Paul saw it, it was a win/win.
However, he confesses to his Philippian friends that he hopes he has courage enough to face what is coming and not be ashamed by buckling when the chips are down. He knew what was coming, and we know he remained faithful to the end.
Paul's eight-word epitaph: "To Live is Christ; To Die is Gain." Beautiful!
In preparing for this message I came across some epitaphs I found rather enjoyable. Here's one on a grave from the 1880's in Nantucket, Massachusetts:
"Under the sod and under the trees Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there's only the pod Pease shelled out and went to God."
Here's one from a more recent burial:
"Here lies my wife Here let her lie.
Now she's at rest And so am I."
How about this epitaph from the grave of a dentist named John Brown:
"Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity!
John Brown is filling his last cavity."
Epitaphs normally seek to sum up a person's life in just a few words. If you had to sum up your life in just a few words, how would you do it? If you feel an assignment coming, you're right.
I did mine this week in just 8 words: "Enjoy life; Love my wife; Serve the Lord!"
That's pretty much who I am these days.
Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to sum up your life in eight words or less. Then turn them in to Terri this week so we can share them.
Author Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to prove his skill as an author by writing a story in only six words. Hemingway responded with these six ingenuous words: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." - a heartbreaking story in six words!
A literary magazine challenged writers to describe their lives in six words. Here are some of the entries:
Famous author, Joyce Carol Oates wrote this: "Revenge is living well without you."
Comic Stephen Colbert submitted this: "Well, I thought it was funny."
Singer Aimee Mann summed up her life like this: "Couldn't cope so I wrote songs."
Then there were some entries by obscure writers. This one from a 27-year-old man after a break-up: "I still make coffee for two."
How about this one: "70 years, few tears, hairy ears."
And the best one of all, to me, is this one: "Cursed with Cancer. Blessed with friends."
Let's go back a minute to Paul's first four words: "To Live is Christ. That's a four-word memoir that sums up the abundant life. What would you substitute in its place? "To live is work?" "To live is football?" "To live is my iPod?" It can get sort of pathetic compared to "To Live is Christ!"
Some people would profoundly declare "To live is my family!" And, certainly, our family is important. But here is the truth of the matter: there are many people with good jobs, nice families and fun hobbies, who when they come to the end of the day, realize that none of it is enough to satisfy their deepest hunger.
Maybe you remember a scene from the movie "City Slickers" in which the character played by Billy Crystal is visiting his son's classroom to tell them about his work. He's a salesman, but obviously he doesn't find any fulfillment in it, or his life in general, for that matter. Listen as he unloads on the bewildered students: (vintage Billy Crystal)
"Value this time in your life, kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices. It goes by fast."
"When you're a teenager, you think you can do anything - and you do! Your twenties are a blur."
"Your thirties, you raise a family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself, 'What happened to my twenties?'"
"Forties, you grow a little pot belly; you grow another chin. The music starts getting too loud, and one of your high school girlfriends becomes a grandmother."
"Fifties, you have a minor surgery - you'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery."
"Sixties, you'll have a major surgery; the music is still too loud, but it doesn't matter as much because you can't hear it anyway."
"Seventies, you and your wife retire to Fort Lauderdale. You start eating dinner at 2:00 in the afternoon, you have lunch around 10 in the morning, and you have breakfast the night before. You spend your time wandering around malls looking for the perfect soft yogurt and muttering, 'How come the kids don't call?' 'How come the kids don't call?'"
"The eighties, you'll have a major stroke, and you end up babbling with some Jamaican nurse who your wife can't stand, but who you call mama.'"
Then he turns to the children and asks, "Any questions?"
You bet! I have a question: IS THAT ALL THERE IS? IS THAT IT?
And the answer is that without Christ, that really is all there is.
"To Live is Christ" is how Paul put it.
In his book The Pursuit of Happiness, author David Myers surveys all the research that's been done on happiness. In the end, he concludes that the happiest people are active in their church AND also active in some form of social ministry serving others. NO SURPRISE TO ME!
Let's go back to Paul's second 4 words: "To Die is Gain!"
St. Paul couldn't lose. If he lived, he could continue sharing his faith in Christ. If he died, he knew he would be going home to be with Christ. WIN/WIN.
So, friends, what can you say about the meaning of your life in eight words or less - your life RIGHT NOW? I enjoyed thinking about it this week and found it worth the effort.
I hope you will as well because Christ is definitely in your life.