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Finding the universal truths of that first Easter

Message of love and service toward mankind at the heart of death, resurrection of Jesus

Walt Shelton Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.

So what is the Easter season all about anyway? It is about being alive instead of dead, making the personal choice to live an authentic, meaningful, loving and moral life. The choice is always available and open along with the potential to enhance and deepen the experience along our journey of life.

I grew up in a conservative Baptist church, which did a lot for me, such as introducing me to the importance and diversity of the Bible and providing some excellent behavioral role models for life.

My faith tradition taught me that Easter is a formative event for Christians, which I still whole-heartedly believe. Easter and the belief in the risen and "alive to us" Jesus is the beginning of our Christian faith. As much as I like Christmas, whatever the experiences "eye witnesses" to the resurrection of Jesus had as emphasized in the New Testament were the start of my faith tradition.

One of the earliest written expressions of this is in I Corinthians 15:1-11, probably written around 50 to 55 A.D. (about 20 years after the earthly ministry of Jesus) by Paul to a church he established at Corinth. Paul emphasized (verse 3) that he handed down what he had received, including a list of people who claimed to have had experiences of some kind with Jesus after his death (and Paul was one of them per verse 8). Paul appears to be quoting and citing a very early confessional liturgy or formula familiar to him and his readers. Paul's experience is also recorded in Acts 9, where Jesus "met" him on the road to Damascus, changing Paul's life and in many ways shaping some aspects of Christianity.

In retrospect, what I do not like about my early exposure to Easter is its exclusivity. Yes, personally, I do believe the Easter story. It is foundational to my own faith. Yet, I do not see it as a sword to be used for judgment, litmus tests, and exclusivity.

I think Easter has something important to say to everyone — that positive change toward a life of service, love, care,and the pursuit of justice is a volitional choice at any point in life for everyone. Those are the traits Jesus himself lived and taught his followers to live out.

For Christians, lives with those characteristics are the expected response action to the Easter accounts. We can die to other, inauthentic ways of life and change for the better.

"Following" Jesus is what I think all Christians are called to do. It is our vocation. As Paul or one of Paul's companions tells us in Colossians 3:12: "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, put on [this can also mean 'clothe yourselves'] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." For me, "chosen ones" simply means those who choose to follow as disciples. Paul adds: "Above all, [we should] clothe [ourselves] with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:14).

I think Paul is onto something for Christians and everyone in any faith or non-faith tradition. We are free to choose to live in such a way. It is all about our decisions and chosen actions in life situations.

From the depths of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl advised that the last of human freedoms in any situation is the ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances. His were extreme and unfathomable, yet he had this life-altering insight in his autobiographical "From Death Camp to Existentialism" (also known by the alternative title "Man's Search for Meaning"). Authentic and moral intentions can and should result in favorable behavioral modifications.

Easter is the time and reminder of potential true life change for everyone, in challenging and rewarding times and every season in between. Having to "believe" certain things happened in an exact way on the first Easter and resulted in certain theological truths ultimately important for God's acceptance and a ticket after death through the pearly gates simply misses the point.

Easter is about life and response now. Yes, as a Christian, I take comfort in the afterlife component of the Easter message, but it is not a vehicle for judgment. That would contradict what Jesus taught us in the important Sermon on the Mount, the longest of his assembled teachings in the New Testament: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged" (Matthew 7:1). In that same chapter and collection, Jesus puts the emphasis not on calling him "Lord" (Matthew 7:21) but on following his teachings and example (Matthew 7:24-27).

Easter is for everyone, multifaceted for Christians and meaningful for all, an opportunity to follow a prime example of love, service and justice with action.

Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.