IN LIFE AND IN DEATH – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 20, Year A; Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

September 24, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 55:6-9
Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18 (18a)
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Matthew 20:1-16a

The popularity of texting and other digital communications has led some commentators to declare letter writing a dead art. Similar pronouncements, of course, followed earlier innovations like the printing press, the typewriter, the telephone, and the photocopier. While there may indeed be far fewer letters sent by postal mail today, human beings do continue to send their thoughts to others in written form—and sometimes they even write letters.

Paul was clearly an avid letter writer. As he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world, he preached, taught, and formed communities of disciples, then maintained contact through letters, some of which are included in the New Testament. All of them demonstrate how deeply Paul loved these communities, even if some express a certain level of exasperation over problems and conflicts. None of his letters has a more affectionate tone that his letter to the church at Philippi, from which the Lectionary begins a series of readings on this Sunday.

Paul wrote to his beloved Philippians from prison. In today’s passage, drawn from the first chapter, we hear Paul thinking out loud about his own situation. He is clearly anxious about the outcome of his trial, not knowing if he will live or die. He is, however, unafraid of death. Indeed, he writes, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23). Yet Paul is laser focused on his call to preach the Gospel and his heart is filled with love for the community of disciples at Philippi. And so, he continues, “I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith” (Phil 1:25).

This passage provides a glimpse into Paul’s deeply intimate relationship with Christ: “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:20-21). His reflection here offers a model for healthy living in the here and now while rejoicing in the hope for life with Christ beyond the grave. Far from abandoning the world, Paul readily embraces a life “that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil 1:22)—preaching the word of Christ and supporting the communities that he has established.

While he writes as a prisoner and reflects briefly on his own life and death at the beginning of his letter, the remainder of his message might be summed up in the conclusion of today’s reading: “Only, live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). His primary concern is for the well-being of the community. His message is full of encouragement to live in harmony and gratitude for the support they have provided him in his need.

How many of us need to hear that kind of message today? Through baptism, we too have been joined to Christ, so that, whether we live or die, Christ lives in us. We can embrace the tasks of today in the confidence that our present life has meaning and is but the beginning of eternal life in Christ.

A Hymn for Today: “Pues si vivimos / When We Are Living”

As we hear today in his Letter to the Philippians, Paul understood the life of the Christian, whether in life or in death, as one of intimacy with Christ. In his Letter to the Romans, he expressed it this way: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8). That verse became the basis for the first stanza of this traditional Mexican hymn.

Three stanzas were added by Mexican-born musician Roberto Escamilla, who served as editor of Celebremos II (Discipleship Resources, UMC, 1983), a collection that drew on Spanish language sources rather than on translations of English hymns. The three stanzas (2 -4) added by Escamilla likewise reflect the message of Paul in today’s Epistle reading. These stanzas are based on John 15:8: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” We glorify God in our lives, like Paul, by engaging in “fruitful labor” (Phil 1:22).

Read more here. Listen here.

Pues si vivimos, para él vivimos;
Y si morimos, para él morimos.
Sea que vivamos o que muramos,
Somos del Señor, somos del Señor.

En esta vida frutos hay que dar,
Y buenas obras hemos de ofrendar.
Sea ya que demos o que recibamos,
Somos del Señor, somos del Señor.

En la tristeza y en el dolor,
En la belleza y en el amor,
Sea que suframos o que gocemos,
Somos del Señor, somos del Señor.

En este mundo por doquier habrá
Gente que llora y sin consolar.
Sea que ayudemos o que alimentemos,
Somos del Señor, somos del Señor.

If we are living, we are in the Lord,
And if we die, we are in the Lord,
For if we live or if we die,
We belong to God, we belong to God.

Throughout our lives we have fruit to bear.
All of our good works are for us to share.
Whether we give or we receive,
We belong to God, we belong to God.

When there is sadness, when there is pain,
In Christ the Lord, we have love to gain.
Whether we suffer or we rejoice,
We belong to God, we belong to God.

And in this world we will always find
Those who are weeping, sick in heart and mind.
They need our help, they need our care.
We belong to God, we belong to God.

Text: Verse 1, Rom 8:14, trad. Mexican; vss. 2-4, Roberto Escamilla, b. 1931, © Abingdon Press; tr. by Deborah L. Alvarez, b. 1969, © 1994, Abingdon Press, admin. Music Services. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Tune: SOMOS DEL SEÑOR, trad. Mexican

Image Credit: Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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