The inspiration for this sermon came years ago when our children were small. Little germ carriers that they were, they brought home a horrible virus that swept through our entire household, inducing high fever and achiness. Our family could do nothing more than while away the hours watching Disney movies. About four one morning, parched, miserable, dehydrated and disoriented, the question came to me: ‘What if Walt Disney and the animators at Disney tried presenting Paul’s letter to the Romans?’ I know the Southern Baptists would never go for the idea, but the Disney folks have done reasonably well presenting the stories of Rudyard Kipling and Hans Christian Anderson. Could they be ready to tackle a true epic, the Apostle Paul’s magnum opus? Think of the press buzz: two geniuses – the Apostle Paul and Walt Disney – teaming up to present a theological classic the whole family, indeed, the whole world could enjoy!
In my fevered mind I could envision the first scene: there would be an idyllic garden, deep green vines, bluebirds whistling, idyllic pools, vivid flowers, where Bambi bounded nearby, while bears and orangutans danced to hot New Orleans jazz — and one might even see an elephant fly!. In the center of the garden lived a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman, much in love, who tended their gardens with great pleasure. Both bear the distinctive mark of the Master of the garden, whose presence they relished. It is a scene of beauty, harmony and symmetry. The two lived under no prohibition save one imposed by the Creator and Master of the garden. They were not to eat of the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet this prohibition did not seem severe: life was so overwhelmingly joyous and complete that observing this one rule seemed little bother. In short, Paul and Disney would agree that this drama begins with a depiction of innocence and harmony. Indeed, like all fairy tales, Romans the movie might initially give the impression that the story will never get off the ground, because everything seems so perfect that nothing could possibly go wrong.
Yet the Apostle Paul and Walt Disney agree that when creation is free for great beauty, it is also free to spawn real and powerful evil. All memorable fairy tales feature memorable villains. The ruthless tiger Shere Kahn stalks the peaceful jungle; treacherous Scar usurps and kills his brother; the shadow of the Wicked Witch of the West darkens all of Oz; Captain Hook stands as the eternal nemesis of Peter Pan. Mr. Disney seemed to see creation like the apostle Paul did: creatures that are free to become altruistic and good are also free to become spiteful, hateful, breathtakingly vicious. One can easily envision Satan, the Adversary of the Unseen Master of the garden, stealthily transforming himself into a sly serpent like the one in Jungle Book as sweet Eve walks alone near the forbidden tree. Her seduction into disobedience is swift, subtle, and pitiless: “You don’t have to worry about heeding the prohibition about the tree. God is trying to prevent you from experiencing a good blessing. The fruit won’t kill you. Eat!!!” Eve succumbs to the voice of the Tempter, and she eats. And Adam takes and he eats. And their eyes are opened, and they see themselves for what they no longer are, God’s obedient, trustworthy children who bear the mark of the Master. Now they feel terror in the presence of the Master, from whom they flee. The scene fades to black.
Maybe you have never thought of the book of Romans or the entire Christian Gospel in terms of fairy tale language, but that is the only language that can convey its true meaning and comprehensive scope. The book of Romans is no dry theological treatise. It is an epic discussion of salvation history! No one can truly understand Romans or the scope of the Christian Gospel unless one sees it as a vast cosmic drama, so universal in theme and relevance that only a teller of fairy tales can do it justice. Romans is the spiritual saga of all humankind, laying out the activity of God who seeks to transforms the cosmos. Paul uses fairy-tale language, cosmic language, dramatic imagery to describe what happened to the world: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” That’s fairy-tale language, larger-than-life, cosmic language, language that speaks to grand themes! Death entered the world through sin, and death spread to all because all have sinned.
In the next scene, the handsome man and beautiful woman leave the garden and enter a world that is cold, mean, and foreboding. Harmony has vanished. People treated each other in such a beastly manner that people came to think of human beings as nothing more than beasts. Indeed, the more beastly people treated each other, the more they obscured the divine mark of the Master of the garden. In fact, people so obscured the mark of the Master that there developed people who forgot that there even is a Master of the garden. Indeed, belief in the unseen Master of the garden becomes dismissed as pure fantasy.
Maybe modern theologians have a hard time explaining Paul’s concept of original sin, but tellers of fairy tales have no trouble explaining such a concept. Fairy tales are full of long-lasting curses, of beauties condemned to sleep, of princes turned into frogs, and proud people sentenced to live as animals until they can appreciate the true value of things. Fairy tales have no problem envisioning a world where all creatures slumber or everyone is blind to their blessedness, where everything labors under an oppressive, lethal weight, and everyone hopes for a Liberator that never seems to come. All creation moans. All creation groans. The harmony and symmetry of creation are completely lost. Yet, even as we watch these beautiful creatures become increasingly beastly in behavior, even as we watch the transformation from beauty to beastliness, we can still discern, albeit faintly, the distinctive mark of the Master on each face. All the while we remain painfully aware of the great discrepancy between humanity’s increasing beastliness and its infinite capacity for beauty. We are aware of the great chasm between what we could be and what we are. As we witness Romans the movie, we still see the divine mark upon every participant, no matter how obscured. And we yearn for Someone to come who might be able to break the curse.
Here I must introduce to you a term that you might have never heard before. It is a word coined by the great fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who noted that all great fairy tales require what he called, a “eucatastrophe,” literally, a “good terrible event.” Tolkien noted that all great fairy tales are marked by an event of terrible evil and penetrating sadness that seems so tragic, so inconceivable and unfair at the time that the reader is left gaping and grieving. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic, Lord of the Rings, the seemingly most powerful figure for good, the gray wizard Gandalf the Grey, dies. At the time, his death appears to the reader as an unthinkable tragedy, an inconsolable evil. The reader catches his breath in horror, feels a profound grief. But the death of Gandalf the Grey paves the way for his resurrection as Gandalf the White, who serves as an even more powerful force for good. In the greatest story of all, on that terrible day of eucatastrophe, the horrible day we call Good Friday, the One True Man who kept the will of the Father, who embodied in the same life perfect human obedience and perfect divine love, died crucified on the cross in answer to the commission to the Father, thereby lifting the curse of sin and death that had held the world in thrall. God the Father’s beloved Son dies by means of a horrific injustice, and is buried so that humanity may live! The power of life succumbs to death so that in so doing it might dispel the power of death. The mission of Jesus Christ is nothing more or less than the banishing of the curse of death, the establishment of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, and the embodiment of the principle of eternal fellowship with God! The mission of the Son of God is to open us up to the prospect of embracing God’s redemptive story.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, why do you tell your children and grandchildren fairy tales? Why don’t we instead put them to sleep by reading them the daily paper? Aren’t we filling their heads with useless junk to tell them tales of “once upon a time?” Wouldn’t it be better at this most impressionable age of their lives, when we are giving them tools for living, to read them Time or Newsweek? We know better! We know that in a very real sense, fairy tales are truer than anything we see on TV or read in the papers. We know in our heart that news of killings, stabbings, robberies, betrayals and embezzlements purport to be reality, but these are just signs of the curse of sin under which we live. These things are not as real as the great themes articulated by timeless fairy tales of life. We know in our heart that humanity was meant for something greater, something nobler, something higher in purpose and power. We tell our children fairy tales because we want them to know that everlasting verities inform and undergird every generation; that the power of good is ultimately stronger than the power of evil; that there is a power loose in the world bringing light into darkness, life out of death, healing out of pain, hope out of despair. Moral courage is never useless! Embedded in fairy tales are eternal verities more eternally real than anything we will read in today’s daily newspaper. That’s why we tell them. And the great fairy tale of our Gospel hinges on the truth that the God of this universe, the Master of the garden, has sent his beloved Son into the world, that whosoever believes in him might not suffer the curse of death, but enjoy the blessing of eternal life.
Thus the eucatastrophe that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings about a great reversal in the history of the world. Life has broken into the realm where death reigned. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the curse of sin and death is annulled, a new power of life is unleashed. That’s why the Bible presents Pentecost as God’s breaking into the world through wind and fire, empowering ordinary people to proclaim cosmic good news in every tongue. Our Scripture alerts us to the transformative nature of our Gospel when it records our Lord as saying, “Behold the Kingdom of God is nigh. Indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you!” And behold, if anyone is in Christ, he or she is about the process of being made a new creature. All creation looks forward to that day when the lion shall lie with the lamb, and peace shall be wrought out of war. All creation looks forward to a day when there shall be no more crying, or death, or pain, for all of these former things are but relics of the accursed past! The One who sits on the throne says, “Behold, I make all things new!” The new has come through the coming of the Christ, and an in-breaking of the Spirit has been accomplished, and Christ’s Spirit is active in the world, rolling back the hopelessness of sin and death. One cannot grasp the grandeur and penetrating spiritual liberty offered by the Gospel, unless one hears Christ’s message: “Behold, if anyone is in Christ, he or she is being made a new creature.”
Every day you and I are participants in a cosmic drama that brings life and love and hope and truth to a world that knows so much of the opposite. We are participants in a divine fairy tale meant to bring about transformation and redemption. Paul is trying to do the impossible, trying to express inexpressible truth. So he dictates to his amanuensis, his recording secretary, these portentous words: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” Acquittal and life! Paul must have shuddered as he dictated that sentence. Our Savior has brought life into our cosmic drama, fulfilling the mission he was given by the Master of the Garden! By one man’s righteousness, acquittal and life are offered to all creation! Through the life of Jesus Christ, God’s power of life and incipient Kingdom has been let loose in the world, and the Spirit of Christ will continue to be active throughout creation until God is all in all.
How do fairy tales end? In the end, everyone receives their true name. Everyone becomes who he or she truly is, becomes who they are supposed to be. Kings are crowned as kings, queens receive their tiaras, and people receive their just reward as servants of the true Lord. Do you and I see ourselves as ambassadors of the King in this ongoing story of good? Do we see ourselves as representatives of redemption? Do we understand that however small or large our part, each of us has a role in bringing life and light to our dark and perilous world? The movie Romans ends, as it must, just as Paul envisioned it – with Christ being all in all, and the Master of the Garden bringing about the restoration of the creation, just as the Master intended. All fairy tales have an end, and the end of our story is Jesus Christ, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.