Chinese Theological Review 15

Living is Christ and Dying is Gain

Chen Zemin

My text for this memorial service for our colleague, Luo Zhenfang, is taken from Philippians 1:21. Paul included in his letters many teachings on life and death, and the Christian understanding of the meaning and value of life. The attitude one should have in the face of death is summed up in the well-known verse which is my title for today. We can say this is Paul's guideline for the Christian life and death.

Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned in Rome, awaiting judgment. There were two possibilities before him: to be exonerated and released, able to continue to be present to the churches in every place and the brothers and sisters there, serving the church and spreading the gospel of Christ; or to be sentenced to death, which was his fate at the end of his life. As he faced life and death, he had the feeling of being between a rock and a hard place, with no control over the choice. '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.' (v. 20) He went on to say, 'For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.' (v. 21) On the face of it, this sounds a bit arrogant, putting oneself on a par with Christ. 'Death is gain' is also very hard to understand. Most people see death as the completion of human life and work, as the end: how can there be gain?

In the original, these words are full of passion and the sentence is not very complete grammatically. The verb we use in Chinese is not in the original. A direct translation from the original would be 'for me, living ...' Christ, dying .., gain.' To make the meaning clearer in Chinese, we add verbs. (It is customary in Chinese at times to omit the verb as well, to give more force to the sentence.)

Since seeing Christ on the road to Damascus, being called, and gaining new life, we could say that for Paul, living was Christ. Barclay says that Christ was indeed the beginning, continuation and end of Paul's life; its encouragement and the source of its power. We can say that Paul's living was all for Christ, to show forth Christ and so we can say, 'living is Christ.' We are not Paul, and would not dare to say this, but we should take Paul as our model, learn from him, and strive to make our lives, our all, for Christ, learn from Christ, witness to Christ, and preach Christ. At the least, we should say, 'living is for Christ'

Human life is a gift from God, Psalm 90, which we just heard read, tells us that though life is short, like a dream or a breath in comparison to the eternity of God, those who believe in Christ should learn well to number their days. We are told to have a heart of wisdom, to be satisfied with God's steadfast love, to rejoice and be glad all our days. A person's life is usually seventy years; 'or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.' Rev. Luo Zhenfang was blessed by God with eighty years. He began to study theology in 1946, graduating from seminary in 1949. He served the church seven years, then joined the seminary, teaching, and doing research and pastoral work for forty-four years. Of his eighty years, fifty were given in the Lord's service. He worked conscientiously right up until the end. I won't forget his teaching and research (in linguistics), his translation of James D.G. Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. He supported the TSPM through its fifty years, taking an active part in it, and bearing beautiful witness to Christ in Chinese church and society. We can say that he 'lived for Christ, that all was for Christ.' He embodied the teaching 'living is Christ.'

'Death is gain.' If we apply common knowledge, these words are very hard to understand. Death is a sad thing. Why say it is gain?

1) Human life and death are in the hands of God: and are according to God's will. We cannot prolong our lives by a single moment. Medicine has advanced to reduce suffering and push back the moment of death, but in the end, people do die. How to treat death is an important part of how we treat life.

2) What happens when people die? There is no precise answer, but several hypotheses:
It is the end of everything, everything is extinguished. If this is so, there is not much meaning in human life. This is not Christian faith or teaching.

  • We go immediately up to heaven, or down to hell. We gain reward or retribution for our lives. This is what many Christians and worldly people think, but there is no evidence for it.
  • We fall asleep, waiting for the final resurrection and judgment. Many Christians believe this, and there is some biblical evidence for it. Paul sometimes appears to believe this.
  • We go to some 'in-between' place and time, and continue to wait and train. This is the Catholic purgatory.
  • Paul says, 'my desire is to depart and be with, Christ, for that is far better.' (v. 23) 'To be with Christ, to be with other Christians who have died. This is a 'spiritual fellowship.'
  • Revelation 14: 13, '... blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord... they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.'

'Blessed,' 'rest from their labors,'--cast off the weakness of the flesh, the suffering, all the cares of the world..., and be with Christ. After death we continue to serve the Lord in some fashion and to live in some way forever. 'Living is Christ (or, for Christ) and death is gain.' It is without fear or trembling, to continue in the spiritual realm that work, which went unfinished in life, with Christ and the other Christians, to enjoy the complete sweetness of spiritual fellowship. So it is called 'far better.' We believe that Rev. Luo Zhenfang is now in such a place. We, the living, if we attain 'living for Christ' will one day leave this world and be together with all the saints, continuing to serve the Lord. This is Paul's view of life and death, and the view of us Christians.

Finally, Rev. Luo left us just as we were about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Three-Self Movement. He had been part of the Three-Self Movement for the whole 50 years. In the: commemorative photo album published for the anniversary were many photos of those from the older generation who have gone before us, who contributed to the Chinese church and the Three-Self Movement. They did not make it to the celebrations either, but we remembered them. Now Rev. Luo is part of their glorious ranks, serving with them in heaven. We the living must urge ourselves on, so that in the new century, in the new phase of the Chinese church that we have already entered, we continue to progress and to engage in theological reconstruction. As teachers, we should strive to complete Rev. Luo's unfinished work; as students, we should study hard, and realize his hopes, so that we the living live for Christ, fulfilling this glorious task. One day, we the living will follow them, but the Chinese church will, with God's blessing and under God's leading, continue to build itself up even better.

May God bless these God's words. Amen.

Nanjing Theological Review, 4 (2000): 66-67.

Chen Zemin is Vice-Principal of Nanjing Seminary.