September 18 of this past year was profoundly memorable for me. My dad, who was almost 84, passed away. In the months preceding his death, as his health was failing, I pondered some vivid memories of him, especially from the time when I was a boy and an adolescent. I remembered how when I was four and five years old, we lived in a home in London, England. Our house had three stories and a kind of winding staircase. If you were on the first floor, and you climbed the stairs to the second, you could turn to your right and there'd be a banister. You could walk down the hall along the banister, come to a second set of stairs, and make your way to the third story. And from the third story of our home, you could look down the stairwell to the first floor. My dad, when I was a young boy, loved to hold me in his hands over the banister from the third story to scare me a little, to entertain me, but I always felt completely secure in his hands.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was having some run-ins with the law. I was caught stealing. My dad sat me down, had me kneel in my room, and explained to me how I had brought shame on him, mom, and our family, and he struck me a couple of times, as was the practice of immigrant families, at least back then. As I stood at the top of the staircase in our home, which was now in North Surrey, I felt I needed to take a new direction in my life. It was a turning point for me.
As I was getting ready to leave North Surrey and head off to Chicago to attend university, my dad, who was a very well-educated man, said, "Get a Harvard C"—meaning, "Don't spend all of your time studying. Take time to play sports, build relationships, serve, and get a well-rounded education."
September 18 and the season that followed was one of profound loss, but also one of deep gratitude. My last words to my father, in what would prove to be his final lucid moments, were simply "I love you" (ieshitemasu). And then I slipped off, not knowing that he would soon become unresponsive. But his last words were "I am happy" (ureshiidesu).
Today, on Easter Sunday, I want to bring a brief reflection from Scripture on why Easter means that death—whether it's our own or the passing of a loved one that we're facing—is an occasion for profound sadness, but also deep gratitude: and as was the case with my father, even a time where we can say, "I am happy."
A glimpse of something to come
Jesus was no stranger to death. He lived in a time where infant mortality was very high, and if a child made it past infancy, about half of children then didn't live to see their 20th birthday.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, just a few months before Jesus will be crucified, he receives news that his friend Lazarus is very sick. Lazarus had two sisters named Martha and Mary. These siblings were among Jesus' closest friends. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. When Jesus felt like he needed space away from the crowds to rest and relax, he would spend time in their home. These people were like family to him.
But after receiving news that Lazarus was seriously ill, Jesus stayed where he was for a couple more days before going to see him. You'd think that after hearing of Lazarus's dire condition, Jesus, known as "Mr. Compassion," would drop everything and take the red-eye flight to Bethany. It's not like he was in the middle of something he absolutely couldn't leave, but he purposefully delays his coming so that people will see the glory of God manifest.
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, he finds Lazarus has already died—and, in fact, he's been in the tomb for four days. Mary, Lazarus's sister, comes out to meet Jesus, and she says, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died" (11:21). Jesus says to her, "Your brother will rise again" (v. 23). Martha responds, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (v. 24). Martha here is referring to the great final day of judgment when every person will rise from the grave and stand before the living God. She's referring to a final day in the future. But listen to what Jesus says in 11:25-26: "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?'"
Then Jesus asks, "Where have you laid him?" (v. 34). And they took him to the cave where Lazarus was buried and Jesus wept (v. 35).
Verse 33 tells us, "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." The word translated "was deeply moved" comes from an ancient Greek word that describes a horse snorting: a horse's nostrils are flaring out, and the animal lets out an involuntary gasp. Jesus was experiencing such emotion—he was so sad, upset, and angry—that it made his body tremble like a horse in great distress. When we are faced with the death of a loved one—particularly someone who is younger like Lazarus and who, it seems, hasn't fully lived their life—there's a real reason for grief, tears, sadness, and even anger.
Jesus walks up to the cave in which Lazarus is laid and says, "Take away the stone" (v. 39). But Martha, who is very practical, says, "[B]y this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days" (v. 39). She is saying in so many words, "Jesus, you don't want to go near his body; it's going to be putrefying, and it's going to stink."
The people in Jesus's day believed that during the first days of death the soul would kind of hover around the body, but on the fourth day, even the soul is saying, "I'm out of here." Jesus approaches the tomb and simply says, "Lazarus, come out!" (v. 43) No long incantation, no "abracadabra": simply "come out!" And Lazarus comes out in his grave clothes.
In Jesus' day, when a person died, you would wrap him or her in more than a hundred pounds of linen strips. And here comes Lazarus—dead man walking—a walking Egyptian mummy coming out of the tomb. Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead was a glimpse of something else that was to come: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (v. 25-26).
When the religious leaders who were opposed to Jesus asked him to prove his claim that he had the power to raise people from the dead, Jesus responded by saying, "Destroy this temple"—meaning his body—"and I will raise it again in three days" (John 2:19). And on a Friday, Jesus was nailed to the cross, absorbing our sins into himself so that we could be forgiven and made clean in God's sight. And on that first Easter Sunday morning, God raised Jesus from the dead. It was God's way of saying, "I can raise you from the dead as well. I can raise your loved ones from the dead as well." Lazarus being raised from the dead was a prelude to Jesus being raised from the dead.
The reality of Easter
When Jesus was raised from the dead that first Easter, he was conquering death. This is why the apostle Paul could say later in Scripture, "Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55).
The great poet George Herbert wrote, "Thy curse being laid on him, makes thee accursed. / Spare not, do thy worst. / I shall be one day better than before." What Herbert is saying to death is that death's curse has been laid on Christ: meaning our sins and the judgment for those sins, including eternal death, was laid on Christ on the cross. Because Christ took the curse for us on the cross—instead of our being cursed—death is cursed. Because he voluntarily entered the grave, we can come out. Because he was made ugly on the cross, we can be made dazzlingly beautiful.
So Herbert says to death, "Spare not, do your worst, bring it on: I shall one day be better because of it than before."
C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar, said in his great sermon "The Weight of Glory," "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal and their life to ours as the life of a gnat." He says:
The dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw them, you would be strongly tempted to worship them. … If we let him—for we can prevent him, if we choose—he will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a … dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright, stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) his own boundless power and delight and goodness.
If it's true that one day we'll be dazzling, everlasting splendors—if the Easter story is actually true, as we face death—then yes, we will experience profound grief, tears, sadness, and loss, but as was true of my dad, we can also say, "I am happy." As we face the death of a loved one, in the midst of searing pain and poignant loss (as was true for me), we can also say, "I am grateful." The reality of Easter is something worth celebrating with all that we have—every ounce of our being.
In the Lewis quote from his sermon "The Weight of Glory," he referenced cultures, arts, and civilization. My dad was an arts and literature kind of person; he was a radio broadcaster with the BBC and the CBC and also worked as a journalist for NHK, the Japanese counterpart to the CBC. Aside from the occasional office politics, he loved his work. He adored his wife, my mother. Aside from the fact that he was a workaholic, which was pretty common of a Japanese person of his generation, in my opinion he was an ideal father: a person of complete integrity, very kind and compassionate.
Like my father, I think a lot of us here are hoping to find some kind of meaning in life through our work: a relationship, having a family, becoming a certain kind of person. These are all noble aspirations. But if our life one day simply ends, and we just rot in the ground like a carrot, and we're no more … and if this world, billions of years from now, overheats and makes life no longer possible, and then there is nothing … then our careers—which seem so important to us—and our romantic loves, and our family loves, and our friendships—which seem so important to us—the kind of people we're becoming—which seem so important—mean nothing. Things like elections or sports games mean nothing. If this planet one day overheats, and life is no longer sustainable here, and there is no more life, then it's over. Period. Full stop. The fact you've made vice president or partner, or that you were in love with somebody? Ultimately, it won't really matter long term. It makes no ultimate difference. We are just the echo that dies out in the darkness.
But if the Easter story is true, if God raised Jesus from the dead that first Easter Sunday morning, then we can believe a God who says, "I will also make a new heaven and a new earth. I will protect this planet. I will one day restore it to its original intention." If that is true, then everything matters. If it's true, then as N. T. Wright—one really respected theologian—puts it, "We're not just oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff. We're not just restoring a great painting that will shortly be thrown into a fire."
As strange as it may seem, if the Resurrection actually happened, if God will one day renew this Earth, then every prayer, every act of love and kindness, every minute teaching a special needs child to read or walk, or listening to a lonely elderly person, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God, every act of care for the earth, will somehow find its way into the new creation that God will one day bring about. The smallest acts of kindness become infinite.
My dad grew up in a Japan that had been devastated and impoverished by the war. As a young boy, he ate flowers to fill his stomach and though he loved to read, his family couldn't afford to buy him books. Given his temperament, he also didn't have great expectations for his life. He ended up attending an Ivy League university, marrying the woman of his dreams. While living in New York City, he attended the famous birthday party for JFK where Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday." He loved his career as a broadcaster. His son, my brother Tetsuro, would go on to write a critically acclaimed play about his life. Not long before his death, he told me, "I am the luckiest man in the world."
The world has turned since my dad's boyhood. Now kids grow up with great expectations. According to a recent survey—and this was certainly not true of my father's generation—80 percent of young people now are saying one of their most important goals in life is to become very rich, and more than half say they want to become famous, a celebrity figure.
Our society says, "If you just work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be." On the one hand, it's a beautiful, exciting message, but if you don't end up becoming really rich, successful, and widely known, then you can feel like you are a loser or that you have missed out on life.
It's interesting that bookstores, in the self-help section, have books by people like Tony Robbins on how to become a success in life: "You can do it." "Anything is possible." "You can awaken the giant within you." But the bookstores' self-help sections also have books on how to cope with your low self-esteem and shame, written by people like Brené Brown. As the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton points out, "There's a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem."
Some of us go through life feeling bad because we haven't reached our full potential. And it's not always because we haven't worked hard enough. The economy can turn. Sometimes we experience impediments because of our social background, race, gender, disability, orientation. How does the Easter message relate to this?
If there is a resurrection not only of our bodies, but of the world to come—Easter makes a world of difference.
In the film version of Babette's Feast, Papin, a leader of the Paris Opera, is vacationing in a small seaside village in Denmark. He says to Filippa, a beautiful young woman with a singing gift for the ages (but whose talents will never be widely celebrated as she's stuck in a small, poor village), "In paradise, you shall become the truly great artist you were created to be." For some of us, the deepest yearnings of our hearts will never be fully met here on Earth, but they'll be realized in eternity, in the world to come.
The writer Peggy Noonan said, "Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one." We are the first generation of man that actually expected to find happiness on this earth.
If you do not believe in another higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe this is your only chance at happiness, if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches—you are despairing.
If you have loved ones who passed before you, you have hope. My mother's been part of a grief support group. In one grieving exercise, my mother and the other members of the group who have lost loved ones were asked to imagine their deceased loved one writing a letter to them.
Here's what she imagined my dad writing to her: "I am here waiting for you, but please don't spend all your days thinking of me. Live your life fully, because we will spend all of time together in the hereafter."
If there is life beyond the grave, a resurrection, then this assignment isn't just a psychologically helpful exercise, but an expression of a hope grounded in reality.
The great message of Easter, however—the true message of Easter—is that there is a world to come beyond death, where our greatest potential will be fulfilled and where we will be united with loved ones. If we entrust our lives to the Christ, God will raise us one day from the dead. He will not only make us new, but he will also renew this earth.
Jesus said in verses 25 and 26, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." Jesus asks, "Do you believe this?" If so, like my father in life or in death, you can say, "I am happy." And with me, "I am deeply grateful."
You may doubt the Resurrection, but if you think there's a chance there is a God—and if you believe that it's not such a far leap to believe that God, who by definition is very powerful, could raise the dead—perhaps you can pray in response to the words of C. S. Lewis: "If we let him—for we can prevent him, if we choose—he will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a … dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine."
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything