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Easter from the Back Side
J. Ellsworth Kalas
Using an approach similar to the one he took in Parables from the Back Side and other books in the popular Back Side series, author J. Ellsworth Kalas opens up new possibilities of insight into the biblical Easter story. The author looks beyond the traditional gospel scriptures to connect the story of Christ’s resurrection with ...
Easter from the Back Side
J. Ellsworth Kalas
Using an approach similar to the one he took in Parables from the Back Side and other books in the popular Back Side series, author J. Ellsworth Kalas opens up new possibilities of insight into the biblical Easter story. The author looks beyond the traditional gospel scriptures to connect the story of Christ’s resurrection with other stories and scriptures throughout the Bible, including both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Kalas’s creative approach both clarifies basic teachings and introduces new possibilities of meaning, even for those who are most familiar with the Easter story. Enriched with contemporary illustrations and personal experiences, this volume will provide new perspectives on Easter.
Chapter titles and Scriptures include: “Why We Need Easter” (Genesis 3:1-7, 22-24); “Easter from an Ash Heap” (Job 19:13-27); “Easter for the Disillusioned” (Ecclesiastes 2:14-26); “Ezekiel Celebrates Easter” (Ezekiel 37:1-10); “Easter Is a Love Story” (John 20:1-18); “Late for Easter” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11); and “Forever Easter” (Revelation 21:1-4).
J. ELLSWORTH KALAS is president of Asbury Theological Seminary and has been part of the faculty there since 1993, after thirty-eight years as a United Methodist pastor and five years in evangelism with the World Methodist Council. He has been a presenter on Disciple videos, is the author of the Christian Believer study, and has written more than thirty books, including the popular Back Side series; Longing to Pray: How the Psalms Teach Us to Talk with God; Strong Was Her Faith: Women of the New Testament; and What I Learned When I Was Ten.
GENESIS 3:1-7, 22-24: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves....
Then the Lord God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Easter is an answer. It is such a dramatic, earthshaking answer that for nearly twenty centuries, artists of every kind and quality have been trying to portray its significance. It has been celebrated in music, from country-western and bluegrass to symphonies, and in graphic art that ranges from children's crayon work posted on the refrigerator to hangings in most of the art museums of the Western world. Poets and playwrights have celebrated Easter's answer in untold thousands of documents—and of course, no one can begin to estimate the number of sermons preached on this theme over these passing centuries.
So, what's the question? If Easter is such a monumental answer, what's the question?
To answer that question, I'll have to take us all the way back to the beginning. I mean, really the beginning. I'll have to take us back to a kind of mythical place. Not mythical in the sense of being untrue, but mythical in the truest sense—that is, something so true that it's difficult to tell the story without entering areas of mystery and wonder, where ordinary language fails us.
The Bible tells us that once our world was like a garden, fresh from the hands of a loving Creator. Everything about it was ideal. In fact, it was so good that God, the ultimate critic, smiled and pronounced it very good. For example, you didn't have to worry about the need for herbicides, because nothing could be classified as a weed; everything grew where it belonged, without crowding out other expressions of beauty, usefulness, and singularity. The animals were not afraid of the humans, and the humans were not afraid of the animals. The relationship was so good that the humans served in loco parentis (Latin for "in the place of a parent") to the animals. Nor did the animals prey on one another. It was all just one big, happy family—the kind of family all of us wish our families could be, except that this family included all the inhabitants of the planet. And when you wanted to have a picnic, you didn't have to worry about rain, because the water simply rose up from the earth, like a wonderful underground irrigation system.
But, as you must have guessed by now, something went wrong. I mean, big-time wrong. And the problem came not through the weeds or some malfunction of the watering system and not through a controversy among the animals, but by way of the chief executive of the planet, the creature made in the image of the Creator and therefore the one responsible for oversight of the whole operation. Of course this figures, because if the problem had been with the animals or the plants or the watering system, the person in charge could have taken care of it. But when the problem was with the person in charge—well, you can see for yourself what a mess it was.
Here's how it happened. I should warn you in advance that it's a strange story, so you may have difficulty handling it. I should also warn you that the strangest part of the story is not that you can't imagine it, but that you've seen it so many times that it doesn't get to you the way it should. Not only have you seen this story, you've sometimes been an actor in it. Lots of times, in fact. This means that you should grasp the story quite easily, but instead, most of the time you miss it. That's part of what makes the story so strange.
It was like this. One day, in the midst of all this perfection, someone suggested to Adam and Eve (the roots of our family tree and the ones originally trusted with the care of the perfect place) that perhaps things weren't really as good as the Creator had told them. In a way, this visitor (a serpent, though he didn't slither about at the time) was suggesting that perfection could be improved upon; to do violence to language, that perfection could be made "more perfect."
I hate to tell you this, but Adam and Eve believed the serpent. (I repeat, he didn't slither in those days; he was really quite handsome and able to sell almost anything, else our ancestors wouldn't have bought his grammatical misstatement.) In doing so, they misused their unique human gift, the power of choice.
And worse still, as far as you and I are concerned, they let loose on our planet the deadly plague that theologians and philosophers and street-corner preachers call sin. And between you and me, probably our human race wouldn't have been especially upset about the plague, except for what it brought with it—that is, the consequences of sin. Unless our thinking has been changed by a quite decisive meeting with God, most of us seem to get rather comfortable with sin. Not with the sins of other people, mind you; other people's sins are almost always obnoxious. But as for our own sins, we learn to live with them, and we eventually come to feel that other people should be able to live with them, too. So we say, after engaging in one of our pet sins, "I'm just that way, you know. I've always had a rather sharp tongue. The people who know me best take it for granted." As my late, dear friend Bud Rhyand used to say, "Every person thinks his own fleas are gazelles."
So sin doesn't necessarily upset us too much, except as other people express it, and except when the sin gets so out of hand that it destroys our health, our career, our family, or our self-respect. Or (and this is a severe mercy) when our consciences become so sensitive that we see sin the way God sees it, as an illness so abhorrent and so contrary to the nature of what was meant to be a perfect universe that the consequences are just what one should expect from something so ultimately evil.
The most obvious of these consequences is death. God had warned Adam about this: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:16-17). It is a touch of ironic realism that the first recorded death is neither Adam nor Eve, but their second son, Abel, murdered by their first son, Cain. (See Genesis 4:116.) Thus Adam and Eve experience death in what is arguably its worst form—not in one's own death but in the death of a loved one. And more: the death came by a further act of sin, the sickness they had set loose in the world, in a form they could not have anticipated in their worst fears—one of their children destroying another.
After the death of Abel and the gracious replacement in the birth of Seth (see Genesis 4:25), the writer of Genesis is about to go on with our discomfiting human record in the story of the flood. But first this theological historian with the touch of a novelist interrupts the unfolding of his plot to give us a collection of obituaries (see Genesis 5). These death notices have a monotonous beat: each gives us the name of the person, how long he lived until the birth of a first son, then a report of how many more years he lived bearing "other sons and daughters," and always concluding with the words, "and he died."
It reminds me of a classic weekly radio program of the 1930s, Time Marches On, produced and sponsored by Time magazine. At a given point each week, an announcer with haunting, stentorian tones announced, "Last week death came, as it must for all men, to ...," after which the announcer read the obituaries of the several notable public personalities who had died since the previous week's program. The Genesis writer made the same point by his drumbeat recitation, but interrupted himself once with the unique exception of Enoch, who "walked with God" and "was no more, because God took him" (Genesis 5:21-24). Thus Enoch becomes the fragment of hope in a story that from sin's entrance plays in an insistent minor key.
So this was the problem. Sin had come into the world as the result of humanity's disobedience to God, and with sin, death had come. And death, of course, is the ultimate disaster. Not simply physical death itself, but the premonitions of death that physical death has brought into our human story. The journalist Alan Brien tells of interviewing Brendan Behan (1923–1964), the brilliant Irish author and political personality, as he lay seriously ill in Middlesex Hospital. "Brendan," Brien asked, "do you ever think about death?" Behan pulled himself up in his bed and shouted, "Think about death? ... I'd rather be dead than think about death."
There's rugged humor in Brendan Behan's answer, the kind of earthy humor typical of the man, but there is also some very earthy theology. Behan put his finger on the heart of the matter: the ugliest part of death as we humans know it is in the fact that we must live with it all our lives before we finally have to contend with it in the first-person singular. We live with death in those occasions when we lose someone we know and love, and we live with it in those hours when we think about it. No wonder, then, that Behan preferred to be dead than to think about death.
But we can't escape thinking about death, because death is part of our definition. We humans are mortals. I remind myself that my ninth-grade Latin teacher explained that the word mortal comes from the Latin mors mortis—that is, the Latin term for "death." How painfully ironic that we humans have named ourselves by our inevitable end! Saint Augustine, next to the apostle Paul perhaps the greatest Christian theologian, once said that when a physician leans over the bed of a sick person, he may announce gravely, "He will die; he shall not get over this." But Augustine said that just as surely one might look into the crib on the first day of a baby's life and say, "She will die. She will not get over this."
Do I sound dreadfully negative? I really don't mean to; I mean only to describe our situation as it is. We are mortal creatures, so when one of us is born, there is only one thing we can say with certainty about that person's future: we know it will end in death. We don't know when, but we know it will come. Furthermore, we can never become so rich, so successful, or so powerful as to become an exception to this rule. John Donne, the brilliant seventeenth-century poet and preacher, dared to recognize that fact in a sermon he preached to the king of England at Whitehall. "What is so intricate, so entangling as death?" Donne asked rhetorically. "Whoever got out of a winding sheet?" No one is so rich, so learned, or so powerful as to extract himself or herself from the death garment. And as the king had to realize as he listened to Donne's words, death is an equal-opportunity enemy; he indiscriminately oppresses rich and poor, famous and unknown, heroes and villains.
Our modern and postmodern world has remarkably reduced the physical pain of death, a fact for which all of us must surely be grateful. But it hasn't been as successful in delivering us from the fear of death. Several years ago, a British journalist said that we are now "secretly more terrified of death" than were the people of medieval times. If so, I suspect it is partly because our ancestors lived closer to death than we do. Both births and deaths were likely to occur in the home, and sometimes they came so close together that the fragility of life and the inevitability of death were made dramatically clear. Perhaps, too, our fear of death is accentuated by the very fact that we have gained so much ground against our other enemies (such as physical pain), that the undiminished power of death is made all the more mysterious and all the more frightening.
Charles Wesley, who with his brother John founded the Christian renewal movement known as Methodism, left the world more than seven thousand hymns. A great many of them were autobiographical, reporting on Charles's own religious experience, but autobiographical also in describing the experience of the human race. In one of those hymns, written not long after the experience that transformed his life, Wesley described our human state and then the divine deliverance that followed:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Wesley saw sin as an imprisonment of spirit that bound him, so that his soul dwelt, chained, in a dungeon. But the light of Christ broke into that dark and dank place, so that his chains fell off and his heart was free. John the Baptist had announced just such a possibility when he introduced Jesus by declaring, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
But there had to be more to the story. It is a monumental thought that Jesus died for our sins, an expression of divine love beyond our comprehension. But if the story ended with Jesus' death, it would seem that sin had still won, since death had taken Jesus, too. Indeed, in a sense, if the story had ended with Jesus' death, sin's victory would have seemed greater than ever, in winning out over even the Christ of God.
That's where Easter comes in. The resurrection of our Lord is heaven's announcement that not only has the power of sin been broken, so too has the power of death. Michael Green, for many years the rector at Saint Aldate's Anglican Church in Oxford, England, said that death—"that final curb on freedom"—itself "suffered a death blow through the resurrection of Jesus."
What happened so long ago, when our human race first used its power of choice to go against God rather than to go with God, was monstrous, indeed. It is not simply that someone once sinned but that all of us since then have followed the same irrational pattern. We live in the midst of the luxury of God's love, a luxury that shows itself in each breath we take, yet we choose to scorn that love. We live daily with the evidence that good is better than evil, yet we cast our vote so often for that which is shoddy and self-destructive. To put it baldly and yet somewhat philosophically, we seem to vote daily for death. No wonder, then, that death awaits us, and no wonder that we fear it, yet seem unable to escape it. The death penalty is all around us.
But our Lord Christ came, and with his death and resurrection he set free "those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (Hebrews 2:15). So Charles Wesley, in another of the hymns following soon after his transforming religious experience, wrote, "Love's redeeming work is done ... / Fought the fight, the battle won ... / Death in vain forbids him rise ... / Christ has opened paradise." And with such a grand message, no wonder Wesley chose to punctuate each statement with his Alleluia!
Excerpted from Easter from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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