When my dad was a young man in his thirties, he was working for an import/export trading company in Tokyo, Japan. One day he happened to be passing through the British embassy to do some work there, and as he was getting ready to go, one of the British embassy staff members casually said, "We are looking for a broadcaster who can speak Japanese to work for the BBC. Do you know of anyone who might be interested?" My dad, who had never studied journalism before, on a whim said, "Yes, me."
He auditioned, and amazingly, he got the job. Our family moved from Japan to England, then we moved to Vancouver, where he continued his career in journalism with the CBC. Sometimes, we experience a profound change in our lives when we are not expecting it.
The other day, I had some folks over to our house for dinner, and one of the guests asked my wife and me, "How did you guys meet?" I told the story: 12, 13 years ago or so, I was in Tokyo, Japan, to meet with a friend of mine to talk through a personal issue with him. While I was there, he said, "I want to reintroduce you to Sakiko." I said, "I'm not here to socialize, and besides, she probably doesn't remember me—it's been ten years since we've talked, and we've only chatted a couple of times in a group context." And he said, "Oh no, she remembers you well, she asks about you from time to time. Here, call her."
I said, "No, I'm not here to socialize." He said, "Okay, I'll call her." So he called her, handed me the phone. I didn't know what to say, I was a little nervous, and I said, "Hi, this is Ken." She said, "Are you the guy from Berkeley?" I said, "No, that was Jeff." She didn't remember me at all.
We went out for coffee, and then we got married and began a family. I'm leaving out some details, but I've only got a few minutes. Sometimes, we experience a profound change when we are not expecting it.
A profound and unexpected change
On that first Easter morning, a handful of people experienced a profound change they were not expecting. Three days before, Jesus Christ had been arrested; he had been nailed to a Roman cross. As he was being crucified, most of His followers fled and went underground, cowering in fear for their own lives.
But on that first Easter Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene—one of Jesus' close friends—went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. It was actually in a cave in a garden. The Gospel of John, in chapter 20, tells us she was weeping, standing in front of the cave. Then she bent down, peered into the cave, and saw two figures dressed in white. They were angels: one where Jesus' head had been, one where his feet had been. They looked at her and said, "Woman, why are you crying?" And Mary said, "They have taken my Lord away … and I don't know where they have put him." She straightened up, turned, and saw someone she assumed was the gardener. It was actually Jesus, though she didn't recognize him. That first Easter Sunday morning, Mary was not anticipating that her friend Jesus would rise from the dead.
Whether you believe that Christ actually rose from the dead or not, at least we have the idea of someone rising from the dead because of the Easter story. Mary had no such story in her mind. She—and no one else in her world—was anticipating that Jesus would rise from the dead. Now the Jews believed that at the end of time, there would be a general resurrection of the dead, as people rose from their graves and as God judged everyone. But no one in her world was anticipating that someone would rise from the dead as a single individual, in the middle of history: any more than we would anticipate waking up tomorrow morning and expecting the sky to be green.
She looks at this man in the garden, whom she assumes is the gardener, and he looks at her and—perhaps with a twinkle in his eye—he simply says, "Mary." And as he speaks her name, her eyes are opened. She realizes it's Jesus. She's overcome with joy, and she embraces him.
A profound and unexpected joy
How long do you think it would have taken for Mary to have turned from the cave to Jesus? Maybe a second? Maybe two? Dale Bruner, a respected commentator, says that as Mary turned and saw Jesus, it was as if the world was also turning on its axis just slightly. As she turned one second into her turn, it was as though the world had shifted from B.C. to A.D., from "before Christ" to anno Domini: "in the year of our Lord." One second before, Mary had been this woman agonizing in the depths of sadness, in the face of unconquerable death. A second later, Mary is experiencing the highest possible human joy in the presence of the one who has conquered death. Mary was the first person in history to see Christ risen from the dead, and the joy and the elation she must have felt is unimaginable. Here's the thing: as people meet the risen Christ today, they experience this profound and unexpected joy.
C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, described himself as the most reluctant convert to Christ in all of England. He described himself as someone who came kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God. But he said the most surprising thing about his conversion was the joy of it, so he aptly titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy.
I was this dark, sullen, very self-conscious teenager whose goal in life—at least, at the time—was to be cool. I believed in the existence of God as a teenager, but I thought that to commit my life to God would mean missing out on a lot of fun and good times. But someone explained to me that I could know God personally, and I turned my life to God. For me, as well, the profound surprise was this joy I felt.
I never sang at home when I was a kid, especially as a teenager. My family preferred it that way: I'm a terrible singer, and just way too self-conscious and cool to do that. But when I met Jesus, I was filled with this new joy, and I spontaneously began to sing. My little sister pointed it out to my mom: "Ken is singing." It wasn't anything amazing in the sense of my singing, but it was so amazing that I was singing. One of the surprises that people experience when they meet the risen Christ is this new joy.
A new courage
Mary is embracing Jesus, overwhelmed with happiness. Jesus, after a while, says, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (John 20:17). So Mary takes off, and she finds Jesus' students locked in a room, afraid for their lives. And she says, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18), but they don't believe her. They knew that people didn't rise from the dead; they didn't believe her.
But later in that day, Jesus appears to his students as they are locked in a room. He says, "Peace be with you" (John 20:19), and he shows them the nail marks in his hands and in his feet. They are overcome with joy: they believe. But Thomas, one of the students of Jesus who was a skeptic, wasn't there that day. He said, "Look, I don't believe that you saw Jesus. In fact, I will not believe unless I see Him with my own eyes, unless I see His wounds and His hands and His feet, and unless I put my finger where those nails were."
A week later, Jesus shows up in that same room to the same group, except Thomas is there. Jesus looks at Thomas and says, "Look, I'm here. Here are my wounds. Put your finger in them, if you want." I don't think Thomas does put his finger in the wounds, but he does say, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28).
Here is one of the great mysteries of history. When Jesus Christ was arrested and nailed to a Roman cross, his disciples fled in fear. They locked themselves underground. But overnight, they were transformed into some of the most courageous people the world has ever seen. When Jesus was crucified, his disciples denied they knew him. They were afraid for their own safety, their own lives: and yet overnight, they were transformed into some of the most courageous, bold people the world has ever seen as they went public. They proclaimed the message at great risk to their lives: that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that he rose again, and that Jesus (not Caesar) was Lord. All of those original disciples—with the exception of John, who died in exile—died a martyr's death, and some of them at the mouths of hungry lions. People who meet the risen Christ not only experience a profound and unexpected joy, but they are also filled with a new courage in the face of life and death.
My grandmother was born and has lived all her life in Japan, a country where people are afraid to die because they don't believe in an afterlife. My grandmother is doing pretty well for her age. She's 99 years old. Two years ago, she retired from her illustrious tennis career. A month ago, she finally moved from her own home in Tokyo to a seniors' home, because her youngest daughter thought she needed a bit of support. My grandmother contests that opinion, but she's there in the senior's home. We are all hoping my grandmother will make it to 100, and it looks quite likely. But she has no such ambition, because while she loves life, she is not afraid of dying at all. When she was 70-something years old, she had a powerful encounter with the risen Christ. In the last few years especially, as she has become more vulnerable, she has been expressing her gratitude to Christ: praying, sensing his presence. She's ready to see him; she's ready to meet him. She's not afraid of death.
My dad, this past week, had an unexpected kidney failure. He was rushed into the ICU, and we thought he might die. My sisters flew in from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Montreal. I left the hospital this past week thinking this might be it—that he might die. I was sad; it was painful, and tears came to my eyes. But I wasn't despairing because I know—and this belief was really tested—that my dad is in God's hands, and there is nothing to fear. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die" (John 11:25). I believe that for my dad. When we meet the risen Christ, we can experience a new joy, but also a new, unexpected courage in the face of life and death.
A new vision
Finally, when we meet the risen Christ, we also are filled with this new vision to make the world a better place.
To backtrack just a little bit in our text: Mary, when she sees the man in the garden, assumes he is the gardener. On one level, she was obviously wrong, but on another level—as commentator Tom Wright points out—she was right, because Jesus Christ was a gardener, ushering in a new creation in our world.
In the opening pages of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, there is a poem that describes how Adam was the first gardener in our world, in the paradise of Eden. But according to the poem, Paradise was overcome with thorns and thistles and hard ground because he and Eve turned away from God. Jesus Christ is the new gardener, who comes into the world to remove the thorns and the thistles, to break up the hard ground, and to replace it with blossoms, with flowers, with harvest.
See, in a mysterious way, when Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again, he was breaking the power of death and evil and unleashing the greatest life-giving force the universe has ever known. When people meet him, they want to become part of his revolution: his revolution in making our world a place of greater beauty and justice, in making all things new.
If you were a person living in the first-century Roman Empire, chances are you would have found a garbage dump if you walked to the outskirts of your city. On the garbage dump, chances are you would have found discarded babies. In the first century, people who owned slave houses would go to those garbage dumps to retrieve babies to raise them as slaves. Others who owned brothels would go to those dumps to raise those babies as sex slaves. But followers of Jesus would also go to those garbage dumps, and they would retrieve girls and boys and raise them as their own. They would adopt them. When hungry people in the first centuries knocked on the doors of Christians, and they didn't have enough food to feed everyone, they would fast until they could all share a meal together. In the year A.D. 250, it is estimated that 10,000 Christians fasting 100 days a year were able to give one million meals to the poor and hungry. Today, as people meet the risen Christ, they have a new energy to make this world a more beautiful place through acts of compassion and justice.
Earlier this year, I was with my friends Dave and Diane in Toronto. They are committed followers of Jesus, and they've been sponsoring children in the developing world for more than 20 years. As I was with them, I saw a video shot of a young woman from a poor country in Latin America, speaking in Spanish. I was reading the English subtitles, and she was saying, "Thank you, Dave and Diane, for sponsoring me from the time I was a little girl. I have just finished college, thanks to you." Then she got kind of emotional, and she said, "We live in a very poor town, and thanks to you, my family was able to get a house." She got even more emotional, and she said, "When we were going through really hard times here in the village, thanks to you, Dave and Diane, my family and I were able to eat and survive." She was weeping, and some other folks came into the video. I don't know who they were; I assume they were her brothers and sisters. I was really touched by Dave and Diane's generosity, but it's not unique. People who meet the risen Christ love vulnerable kids, and in some cases sponsor them. They love to care for the poor and the homeless.
If you live in Vancouver, you may know that several years ago Tenth Church was in the headlines because we had invited folks from city hall to come and inspect our building and our ministries. We were hoping to renovate part of our building that was built back in the 1930s. The officials from city hall looked around and said, "You're doing so much work with the poor that we consider you to be a social services agency, not a church." We responded by saying, "To care for the poor, to temporarily house the homeless during the coldest months of the year, and to feed the hungry are not extracurricular activities for a church, but they've been part of our core mission since Jesus Christ, for more than 2,000 years." Thankfully, an election was coming up. City councilors got the pulse of the city, in terms of people who had tuned in, and they voted in our favor, so we were able to continue these ministries.
When we meet the risen Christ, we have a new and unexpected joy, courage, and passion to make the world a more beautiful place. Jesus Christ is the only crucified person in history whose name we know. There were countless people who were crucified in the Roman Empire and in other civilizations throughout history, but there was something very special about him. Today about a third of the world—two billion-plus people—gather to celebrate his life and his rising again, because they know when people meet the risen Christ, they can have a new joy, a new courage, and a vision to make this world a better place. That is reason to celebrate, no matter what language you speak.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything