Several years ago, my father died on the first of April, just a few days before Easter. And so each year now, April and Easter roll in and bring me an emotional mixture of grief yet hope, sadness yet joy. At this time of year, I acutely feel both the promise of life, and the inevitability of death.
When I returned home from my dad’s funeral, the church I was serving as interim pastor sensitively asked if I would be ready to preach as soon as Easter Sunday. I assured them I wanted to. I believed, deeply, in resurrection and eternal life, and I was eager to declare that boldly from the pulpit, both for the congregation and for myself. I wanted to publicly join the Apostle Paul in defiantly asking death where its victory and sting are, now that Jesus has conquered it.
But I was also still feeling immersed in the reality and pain of my dad’s death, and my sermon outline showed it. My first three points were simple, and somber. Death is definite. Death is designed. Death is difficult. I preached those first three points through the misty eyes of fresh grief.
If I could get through this sermon, maybe, just maybe I’d find hope.
Of course, I was working my way to a fourth point, and a hope-filled conclusion. Yes, death is definite, and designed, and difficult. But death is also defeated! I knew that to be the ultimate truth, the ultimate promise, the ultimate miracle. Yet during those painful days, it was as if I needed to admit those first three points as much as I needed the assurance of the fourth.
I needed to acknowledge, in fact to proclaim, the inescapability of death. Everyone needs to understand that everyone dies. I also needed to place the providential plan of death squarely at God’s feet. Because of our sin, it is God’s good and merciful design that everyone dies. And I needed, from my own deeply personal experience that year, to acknowledge how terribly painful death is, especially for those who lose someone they dearly love. If we do not have a sound theology of death, we will not have a sound theology of eternal life.
I learned that year that death is like a terrible, dark canvass, but a necessary one on which the story of resurrection and life can be brightly and beautifully painted. Without the reality and severity of death, the promise of resurrection and new life means very little. It is the depth, and finality, and “no exceptions” nature of our mortality that makes resurrected life so supremely valuable.
In other words, I had never valued Jesus’ resurrection more profoundly than when my dad died. The true victory and joy of Sunday is for those who have experienced the loss and despair of Friday.
So if you are entering April or Easter this year with a fresh experience of death, don’t be afraid to feel that pain deeply, with a holy grief. Only through death could Jesus remove the penalty of our sin. Only through death to our old selves can we be raised to a new and abundant life. And only through the death of our earthly bodies can we receive our new heavenly bodies.
As I learned eleven years ago in a profound new way, Easter is of necessity a matter of both life, and death. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can stare death right in the face and ask where its victory and sting are. Death is simply a role player in the Easter story, a story that ends with the greatest victory in all of history—victory in Jesus.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.