St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:21-23).
It didn’t used to be that way.
It used to be that death was the dreaded end of life. And the very thought of death sent chills down the spine something like being pushed over the edge of a cliff into a deep dark unknown below.
It used to be that the death of a loved one caused great sorrow and weeping for the deceased.
All that changed however one early morning when several women went to the tomb where their beloved friend had been buried just three days before. They went with tears in their eyes and spices in their hands to mourn and anoint His body. But when they arrived they found the had been stone rolled aside and two angels, grinning from ear to ear, saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”
And ever since that day, people of faith in Jesus Christ have never looked at death the way they used to. St. Paul says, “to die is GAIN…” “to depart and be with Christ is BETTER BY FAR.”
Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul says, “We do not grieve like rest of men who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.” (1Thess.4:13-14).
On Saturday, February 7th, Herb Schartner fell asleep in Jesus. And as sure as you are here today, Herb is not here, he’s risen from the dead. For those who die in Christ are raised with Christ. And if we were able to ask him, WHICH IS BETTER, he would surely say, “TO DIE IS GAIN.” “To depart and be with Christ is better by far.”
I have been the pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Waterville for 21 years now. Herb was a member a lot longer than that.
I have lots of fond memories of Herb, many of which have to do with the farm. There were the hayrides through the farm with the youth from church. A couple of times I spent several very enjoyable days working with the crews picking apples and bringing them into the barn.
And I learned some pretty good theology from Herb. One time he took me on a private tour of the farm on his tractor. We came to one tree and he explained to me that the trunk of the tree was a Macoun but this branch right here was a Red Delicious and that one was a Macintosh.
When I asked how such a thing was possible, (keep in mind, I grew up in Philadelphia), he explained the science or art of grafting branches into the trunk, how you bore a hole in the trunk and insert the branch into the hole, and it grows. It gets all of its nutrients for life from the trunk but still maintains its unique fruit.
So I learned what St. Paul was talking about when he talked about the gentiles being grafted into Christ like as ‘wild olive shoots’ grafted into the body of Christ. A soldier’s spear opening a hole in Christ’s side, and we, though Holy Baptism are grafted into Jesus. And we get all of our spiritual nutrients for life from Him and yet each of us have our own unique identities.
Herb explained the importance of pruning and showed me how each tree is carefully pruned. The old dead branches are cut away so that new shoots might grow and bear fruit.
And I learned what Jesus meant when he said, “every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2).
I remember a conversation in my office that was about the apple business and how competitive it’s gotten and how all the big supermarkets want now is fruit that looks good, even if it’s tasteless.
And I learned something about what Jesus meant when He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24). And what He meant when He when He talked about the Pharisees and Scribes, who look so good on the outside, but on the inside were rotten.
I’m not saying that Herb himself was actually thinking of any of this as he gave me the grand tour. But sometimes you can learn some pretty cool things from people who just want to talk about the things that they are passionate about and enjoy.
Which, of course is not to say that Herb’s life was all passion and joy. We have an ‘eternal light’ in our sanctuary that was given by Herb in memory his daughter Kathleen who died at a young age. I know that that was a wound Herb carried with him. And like lots of wounds that we all have, sometimes it was all but forgotten, and then, who knows why, flared up and in painful reminder that the healing wasn’t yet complete.
On several occasions, Herb let me know that his favorite hymn in the hymnal was the one we just sang,
I’m but a Stranger here. Heaven is my home.
Earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand, round me on every hand;
Heaven is my fatherland, heaven is my home.
I think that sounds a lot like what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Philippians about desiring to depart and be with Christ which is far better.
Our life in this world is often a stormy voyage over turbulent seas. And I know Herb had at least his fare share of turbulence if not more than his fare share.
And I’m not suggesting that Herb was entirely innocent. But fortunately, our innocence before God is not based on our life, but on the innocent life of another, Jesus Christ.
If I may apply some of the theology that Herb taught me to Herb, Jesus grafted Herb into His innocence in his baptism. God took a ‘wild olive branch,’ which is what we all are, and grafted him into the tree of life.
And here’s where these clever little analogies break down. The Macintosh branches that were grafted into the Macoun trunk may have produced Macs. But when God grafts a person into His Son, Jesus Christ, that person is no longer what he used to be. He is conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
That may not be the way it looks to us. When we look at ourselves, we see the same old sinner who was grafted into Jesus in our baptism. And it’s true, that is who we are. But when God looks at those who have been baptized into Christ, He sees saint. And that is who we are too. We are simultaneously saint and sinner.
And we all struggle with that. Paul talks about the struggle every baptized child of God has within himself. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15,18,19)
This is why Paul can say that knowing all of the work that there is still to do in this world, if given the choice, which is never mine to make, but only God’s, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”
The death of the believer in Christ marks the end of a turbulent journey and the arrival into the safe harbors of God’s perfect peace. The battle between saint and sinner is over and we are pure saint.
We are brought into the victory that our Lord won for us when He separated our sins from us by nailing them to the cross in His own body, and on the 3rd day, walking out of His tomb with eternal life for all who will receive it.
So, even in the midst of death, there is life. Not because we are worthy or innocent. But because Jesus Christ is and we have been grafted into Him.
Whatever sorrow and sadness we have at the loss of a father, a friend, a brother in Christ, is swallowed up in the certainty of God’s promise – “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16).
Our comfort is not based on the false hope that Herb was a good guy, or at least good enough to ‘minimum standards required.’ Our comfort is based on the grace and mercy of God who “calls things that are not as though they were.” Who calls sinners as though they were saints; and the dead as though they were alive.
What we still wait for, with patience and perseverance in faith, Herb has now. For him, the wait is over. The time has come. As Paul writes, “Behold, NOW is the favorable time; behold, NOW is the day of salvation.” (2Cor.6:2)
And that is why, although we grieve and this is why, although we are in no mood to jump with joy, we “do not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thess. 4:13-14).
Herb’s body remains right here in this urn and later it will be reverently place in the ground where it will sleep with all the other bodies that rest in peace. Herb was a hard worker all his life. Now, his work is over. It is time for rest.
But his soul is in heaven, with the Lord. Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise because of their sin and the doors were closed behind them. But by His cross, the 2nd Adam has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
He has thrown open the gates of the city of God and He ushers in the “countless host who from their labors rest.” “Where death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev.2:7; 21:4).
Of all the trees in the Herb’s orchard, there is now only one that matters – the tree of life. The fruit from that tree that once brought death into the world, now gives life to all who eat and drink of it. And how sweet its fruit is. “Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.”
The day will come when body and soul will once again be united to the soul in one, glorified, whole person, just as it was in the beginning. What we by our sin have rent asunder, God, by the body and blood of Christ, will once again join together.
In the meantime, we persevere in this one, true faith, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, not pursuing those things that are PLEASURABLE, but those things that are PROFITABLE, until that day finally comes when it is our turn to pass through that portal of death and take our place alongside angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.