UNFOLDING THE DECK CHAIRS
“He is going ahead of you to Galilee” v. 7
In a Charles Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon, Lucy comes up to Charlie Brown and says, “You know, life is like an ocean liner. Some people take their deck chair and put it on the stern, to see where they have been. And some people put their deck chair on the bow, to see where they are going. Charlie Brown, tell me, “Where do you want to put your deck chair?” Perplexed momentarily, Charlie Brown looks at Lucy and says, “I don’t know. I can’t even unfold my deck chair.”
There is a danger in Easter that we modern-day Christians need to acknowledge. How many of you came to church this morning already knowing how the Gospel story was going to end? I remember a quote from David Collins, former Dean of the Cathedral in Atlanta, in commenting on the biblical story, “I sneaked a peek at the back of the Book, and Jesus wins!” For many of us we come to church already knowing the outcome of the Paschal drama: Jesus rose again. Knowing what is going to be said and sung, we are hardly shocked by this unimaginable, unprecedented event. It is just another one of those feel-good “happy endings.” The Cross, in this familiar thinking, is hardly a scandal, but is instead a highway lined with bunnies and baskets, and colored eggs.
But it is at this point that we need to follow Charlie Brown and unfold our own “deck chair” of faith, and decide whether to place it at the stern or the bow of the ship of life. For that is the image that will help us navigate our own Easter in such a way as to avoid draining all meaning from it because of our familiarity with how the story turns out. That image takes on life when we realize that while Easter tends to be a backward glance at what happened two-thousand years ago, for Mark its true meaning for us is embodied in what is yet to unfold.
Utilizing the imagery I’ve suggested, let me say initially that both ends of a ship provide a vital perspective from which to view Easter. First, there is the view looking back from Easter. As Hans Kung has written, “Easter is rightly understood only if the burden and strain of Good Friday are not forgotten.” The burden and the strain disclose several things that should never be glossed over, lest Easter lose its true character. In the first place, there are no heroes among the followers of Jesus after his arrest. The disciples had abandoned him. Only a few women, looking from a distance, were present as he hung on the cross. It seems to have sifted his closest followers like wheat. They couldn’t even unfold their deck chairs—or hope to. It appeared that Jesus and his cause had ended.
Those who choose to view life looking back do so with caution. On the one hand, as Kung points out, remembering the past does keep us in a thankful mode, mindful of sacrifices made for our benefit. But on the other, it can also anchor us to the past, make us question our ability to face challenges, fearful of change. It can also keep our past mistakes playing in our minds perpetually. But the Easter story breaks into our lives in these moments when we are held in the grips of our past. “Why are you looking for Jesus among the dead?” (Paraphrased) asked the angel to the women. In other words, do old routines, antiquated ways of thinking have us “entombed” too? The same old habits take us to the same old places. Are we hanging around the cemetery too much because while we know that no hope resides there, it does offer some comfort?
When my wife and I traveled to Ireland we went by ferry from Wales across the Irish sea. While we had been through Wales on previous occasions, we had never seen Ireland. As the ship left Wales for the four-hour journey, we gazed from the back of the ship at the slowly disappearing landscape of Wales. Going through my mind were thoughts of all the struggles we endured to get to this point, not only months of saving money, but the inconveniences and disruptions on the trip from London to the coast of Wales. We also had many good memories to hang on to from our days in England, Scotland and Wales. But as soon as the landscape disappeared from sight, we moved to the bow of the ship to wait in expectation for the Emerald Isle to break into view. I remember first sighting land after about three hours. Through the mist I could begin to see the shoreline and a fuzzy landscape. Our hearts began to beat faster in anticipation of what was to unfold for us. When our feet finally touched the ground, the beauty of the land made us appreciate even more all the struggles that were now behind us. We valued what we experienced because we had spent some time gazing off into the past, but we also knew when it was time to move the deck chair. As the ship of life sails the waters of travail and challenge, let us ask ourselves how long our chair has been facing towards the stern? While our hearts cry out in thanksgiving for what God did for us on Good Friday, we nevertheless experience resurrection when we risk, step out, and follow Jesus.
What does an empty tomb have to say about the future? According to Mark, a lot. But then again, the empty tomb is never enough. What we do know is that the empty tomb has never been made a “proof” or an “article” of the Easter faith. We are never asked to believe on it, or in it. Perhaps also that is why Paul nowhere mentions the “empty tomb” to support his preaching of the Risen Christ, and the earliest Christian communities never appealed to it as a way to convince nonbelievers.
It is here that our Easter faith rests upon the placement of our chairs on the deck. From Mark’s point of view, those who seek, in the resurrection, closure for the story of Jesus and a program for the mission of the church should turn to another Gospel. The significance of Mark’s version of the resurrection lies in its understanding of the basic life stance of a Christian: expectancy. Stand on the bow of a ship and gaze ahead and feel your heart beat in expectancy of what is to unfold.
Mark carefully crafts the first Easter story so that we are satisfied but eager, fulfilled but expectant, confident but not over-confident, and fearful but willing. For Mark, more than for other Gospel writers, delayed gratification is the backdrop of the resurrection because delayed gratification is the defining challenge for Christian discipleship. “He is not here...He has been raised....He is going ahead of you to Galilee....”
There is something about resurrection faith that says that Jesus is out there, not removed from us, but ahead of us, beckoning us, waiting for us to arrive. The Easter story has no ending, no conclusion. Easter always calls us into the future. Our future. God’s future. Galilee. Where is that, we ask? Perhaps Easter gets finished in the ordinary places of life. Perhaps Jesus’ story comes to its conclusion in our everyday events. Mark Twain was once asked if he believed in infant baptism. He replied with, “Believe in it? I’ve actually seen it!” Likewise, I believe in Easter not just because of what once happened in a tomb in Jerusalem, but because of what I see in the lives of others. God has begun a new thing through Jesus’ resurrection, and as a result, I see Easter breaking more and more into our own broken, sinful world. When we discover the holy in the midst of the routine of life, that is where the risen One comes to us.
The Easter story never ends. It is unfinished business, God’s continuing gift of life in the midst of the kingdom of death. As a result of God’s new thing begun on that first Easter, all who die in the Lord will be resurrected and return with Jesus to the fullness of the Kingdom of God here on earth. I believe Mark could not tell us the end of the story because he wanted to give us a faith that would see us through to the end. God will take it from there. Amen.
Fr. Craig M. Kallio
April 16, 2006