In the summer of 2011, a small band of brothers traveled to Avon Lake, Ohio, to remember and honor the life of our friend, Mike Medders. We served with him in Iraq, we loved him, and in September 2008, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber killed him.
I remember that trip vividly because of two moments. The first happened when we were at Mike’s sister’s house. She was hosting a gathering of Mike’s friends. It was a hot summer night, and most of us were outside, talking, laughing, and remembering Mike.
Then, out of the darkness, we heard bagpipes. One of the neighbors was standing by himself at the foot of the driveway, playing “Amazing Grace.” All conversation stopped. We stood still and listened as the neighbor played through each verse and then turned and walked silently home.
The second happened the next day. Before we all left to go back to our homes, we gathered at Mike’s gravesite. As we walked up we could see that he’d had visitors. They’d left mementos of their time with Mike in Iraq. We stood by his gravestone in silence. Then one of my friends addressed him like he was standing right beside us.
“Hi Mike,” he said. “We miss you.”
I’ve thought about those words for more than a decade. They represented one of the simplest and most direct statements of faith I’ve heard in my life. Of course Mike is alive. I know this because Jesus is alive. He defeated death and hell.
The evidence that physical death does not end our lives is all over scripture. In Matthew 31, Jesus confronted a faction called the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, and responded that God had said, “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” three men who’d been dead for centuries. Jesus adds, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
Then there’s an event known as the transfiguration, an event recorded in three of the gospels. Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain” and was “transfigured” in front of them. Scripture describes the scene in vivid terms, Jesus’s “face shone like the sun; his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him.”
Moses and Elijah had also been dead for centuries.
We also can’t forget the direct and immediate promise that Jesus made to Saint Dismas, the thief on the cross, the man who turned to Jesus in the moment of Christ’s apparent ultimate defeat but who had the faith to say, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And what was Christ’s response? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s crucial to remember the thief because it’s a reminder that eternal life isn’t reserved for the spiritual greats, but also for men like Dismas—who acknowledged his own guilt and who simply reached out to Christ and asked for his mercy and grace.
One thing that I love about the Catholic faith is that it lives the reality of human eternal life in a tangible way that Protestants do not. I’ve always been fascinated by the Catholic practice of praying to saints. Yes, I’ve heard the Potestant counter-arguments, but there is something so immediate and tangible about regularly expressing faith that this great truth of scripture—that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living–is real.
The practice simply makes sense. If I believe that, say, Augustine is truly alive, then asking him to pray for me makes every bit as much sense as asking my pastor to pray for me. No, I don’t need to. I can pray to God directly. But do we not solicit the prayers of others in times of distress? And when those petitions acknowledge the remarkable reality of eternal life itself, they both build and demonstrate faith.
Moreover, those prayers, as with all prayers, acknowledge that Christianity is a religion of miracles, and the central miracle—the miracle upon which all else ultimately depends—is Christ’s victory over sin and death. Here is C.S. Lewis describing the meaning of the resurrection:
The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the pioneer of life,’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.
And if the resurrection story is false? Here is Paul in 1 Corinthians:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.
Indeed, it is Christ’s defeat of death that makes the entire “upside-down” kingdom of God viable. If there is nothing beyond this earth, why should the last be first? Why should we love our enemies? How could one possibly say that we gain our lives by losing our lives?
But acknowledging this truth does not insulate us from grief. It is not even a firewall against fear. There is still pain and separation in death. In our Good Friday service, our pastor reminded us that the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept,” applied to the death of his friend Lazarus, a man Christ would momentarily resurrect. And Christ did not say to us, “do not mourn, for there is no reason,” but rather “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
And speaking of fear, there is nothing quite like the feeling of facing a true mortal threat. I know there are readers who have faced this in war. I know there are readers who have faced moments of peril at home, or have received a grim diagnosis in a doctor’s office. If your experience is anything like mine, fear wells up involuntarily. In a moment, you ask yourself, “What do I really believe?”
For many of us, it’s only because of faith and hope that we can take that next, trembling step—that we can do our duty, or face a danger, or endure the days or weeks or months of treatment and decline. There is pain ahead. There is mystery ahead. There is separation for a time. But is death the end? No. That is a lie.
I’m writing this newsletter not just because it’s Easter, but also because we’ve just passed a dreadful milestone. One million lives have been lost to COVID-19 in this country. And that’s a number on top of the escalating deaths of despair and the “normal” losses to cancer, heart disease, and all the other maladies that destroy our mortal flesh. Our nation is absorbing such a wave of death that the wealthiest, most technologically-advanced, and most powerful nation in the world is experiencing a decline of life expectancy.
There are millions of Americans who are gathering around gravesites too soon. They’re placing their flowers and mementos, and they mourn. But there is a reason for comfort. There is a reason why believers speak the name of their friend, their father, or their mother and greet them in the present tense. There is a reason why they can look at that headstone and say, “Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting?”
Our pain is the pain of separation. It is not the pain of true loss. Resurrection Sunday is the reason why a band of brothers can gather at the grave of a friend and say, “Hi Mike. We miss you. But we will see you again.” Death is defeated. Easter is everything.
One more thing …
A friend texted me this clip earlier this week. It’s a short segment of an interview with Bono where he discussed traveling to Jerusalem, the place “where death died.” It’s powerful. I’d invite you to watch:
Another thing …
In this week’s Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I talk about a subject that might seem a bit wonky or nerdy, but it’s laden with deep theological meaning—why should Christians care about democracy, or more specifically, liberal democracy?
The answer has a lot to do with our love for each other, and our knowledge that we each were created in the image of God.
One last thing …
I shared this song two Easters ago, and it’s worth sharing again. Easter is a moment of celebration, of defiance, and of ultimate triumph, and this song captures that spirit. Enjoy: