Living Baptismally, pt 14: To Die is Gain

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 20), 2020.

We prayed in our Psalm these words: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; Your dominion endures throughout all ages.” And also these words we prayed: “The Lord preserves all those who love Him.” It is the Kingdom of God that baptized Christians seek, and are taught to seek; and it is in the Kingdom of Heaven that will behold the true face of Christ: face to face. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directs us unmistakably in this regard: “See first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” And, He in effect goes on to direct, everything else important and necessary will be given to us as we need them. As the Upper Room Church, having been taught to see and find Jesus in the Scriptures—that is, taught to see and find Him in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets—they remembered Jesus directing them—their attention, their aspiration for their lives, their ultimate end—directing them toward the Kingdom of God. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, Jesus taught.

And remembering this bit of spiritual direction, when we encountered these verses in Psalm 145, the fire of love in their hearts undoubtedly grew. Jesus directed our hearts, minds, and bodies to seek the Kingdom of God, they thought to themselves perhaps, and the kingdom He is speaking of is an everlasting kingdom, ruled by Him throughout all ages, they thought to themselves perhaps; and, He preserves all those who love Him—so, their desire to love Him was catalyzed all the more. Because, as the simple logic shows, if we love Him, He will preserve us; and if He preserves us, we will be with Him in His Kingdom; and because His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, we will have everlasting life in Him, beholding His Face.

It is simple logic, but it is transformative logic. It was so transformative that it led Saint Paul to teach that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Such a haunting teaching, especially the last four words: “to die is gain.” But of course death in the Lord is gain. As our funeral liturgy proclaims at its beginning: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.” When we die in Christ, we begin to enter the seventh day, the day of rest, the Lord’s Sabbath, for we are always restless until we find our rest in God. In our physiological death, the end of the course of our mortal life, we begin to enter into God’s rest, begin to enter into the nearer presence of God, begin to enter into His kingdom—and of course this is gain. What else could it be but gain?

This has led many Christians to ask the very logical next question: why, then, should we live in this life? Why not enter into the nearer presence of God sooner rather than later? Why live in this world, if the next is gain? We see Paul wrestling with this question, and it is indeed a worthy question to wrestle with, and to do so is a sign of growing spiritual maturity. Where Paul comes down on this question is that it is all God’s will: it is all up to God. If to die is gain, yet if all is also in the hands of God, in the hands of Providence, then God wants him still to be in his mortal body, to do good in the world, which is to proclaim the Gospel that people progress in the joy of the faith. Our purpose as Christians really is to serve the lonely, because it is the Christian belief that all persons are lonely for the Gospel, and all persons desire to enter into the Kingdom of God. So God keeps us alive for this purpose, and He knows that each of us has it in us to be the Gospel in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces.

And our loving Jesus, as recorded by Saint Matthew, affirms that there is no loss of the ultimate treasure if we, as it were, come late to the party. In His parable, Jesus tells of a vineyard where laborers are hired. The first laborers hired were the holy Martyrs of the Church—our first Saints, even John the Baptist and the deacon Stephen and others, including 11 of the 12 Apostles. They were the first into the vineyard. They have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, and they did so for God, and also for us, on our behalf, that we could learn from the stories of their saintly lives: knowing that because their manner of life was worthy of the Gospel of Christ, and therefore was a manner of life worthy of entering into the Kingdom of God, we ought imitate the Martyrs and imitate the Saints.

And as we do so as baptized Christians, as we order our lives by the Gospel, to be the Gospel to others around us, we make ourselves available to God to be hired by Him: hired to enter into the kingdom of God in our death, we being at rest and God working through us completely unhindered because we are at rest. Entering into the Kingdom of God offers the same reward no matter the timing of it: a denarius, a silver coin, but a coin on which is the Face of Christ.