We see this in Genesis 1–3, where God creates the cosmos by the word of his mouth and forms human beings from the dust of the ground and breathes life into them. In the temptation and fall in the garden, death enters by way of sin, not as intended or created by God, but as the ugly and regrettable negation of the flourishing life God had given to both humans and the earth. Unsurprisingly, Genesis’ next chapter tells the story of the first murder. The alien, enemy realities of sin and death inevitably lead to violence, the absolute disruption of human life and community together.
The calling of Israel (through Abraham in Genesis 12) was always about witnessing to the gift of life in the midst of great suffering and the structures of death all around. Israel rarely questioned why suffering and death existed, but instead called on the God of life to conquer and defeat the threat and forces of death. This constant calling on God (most visible in the Psalms) had little if nothing to do with what we often label “spiritual” matters, but rather concerned life here and now, life on earth, life as given and sustained by God in human community, in flesh and blood.
Israel’s God heard these cries and answered—in the deliverance of the slaves from Egypt, in the giving of the Law and the land, in the promise to work in and through David’s line, in the return of the exiles from Babylon. But ultimately, death always seemed to have the final say; and Israel groaned for God to strike the final, decisive blow.
And so Jesus of Nazareth came, proclaiming that God’s reign, the kingdom of life delivered from death’s grip, had come near in his own life, ministry, and teaching. Those who followed after this curiously powerless Messiah would live after Jesus’ own way of life, living as if the coming dawn of God’s good reign were already present. Thus his disciples were to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, share abundantly with friend and foe alike, refuse the sword, care for the needy, welcome the stranger, and celebrate together (that is, party), for if God is Lord even over death, there is nothing to fear.
Jesus’ own death, then, was a profound crisis for his disciples, because the very one who came proclaiming life abundant was nailed to a tree, gasping for breath, now gone. This was no divine triumph, no celebration of life, but only devastating defeat, only horrific silence. Death indeed seemed to have the last word even over the Lord’s anointed.
The crucifixion turned out to be no defeat at all, however, but rather the exaltation of the world’s true king. Just as God raised up Israel from the grip of death in Egypt, so God raised up Jesus from the dead once and for all, consequently triumphing over the primal enemy now and forever. Jesus had refused to live his life according to the rules of death—refused to fear its inevitability, refused to take another’s life in defense of his own, refused to succumb to the idols of “responsibility” or “effectiveness” in his mission to Israel—and the principalities and powers of death crucified him, with the cooperation of both the political and the religious rulers of the day. But in the cross the supposed power of death was disarmed, revealed as powerless before the death-defying love of God revealed in Christ: love, love for all, love grounded in life eternal, love willing to die for one’s enemies. This is true power, the power of God’s deliverance and salvation.
Thus in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, death was put to death once and for all, vanquished in the overwhelming life and love of God. In this victory the reign of God was inaugurated in time and space, and is the good news of the gospel.
Of course, people continue to die. People continue to suffer. The gospel is no abstract blindness unable to see the world’s pain. Rather, in Jesus’ ascension and in the giving of the Spirit, God has called and empowered the church to be his witness to life in a world of death. For how will the world for which Christ came and gave his life know of the good news of death’s defeat unless God’s people live and tell of it?
The living-and-telling of the church’s mission is shorthand for the practice of the spiritual disciplines. The disciplines are not meant merely for ourselves, for our own edification or growth; they are meant for the life of the world. And the church is called (among other things) to a twofold witness: as prophet, and as priest. The prophetic role stands before the violence, lies, greed, hatred, suffering, and death so prevalent and accepted in this world and denounces them as wholly incongruent with the God of all life, calling the world instead to repentance for alliance and (in truth) worship of death. Repentance is nothing less than turning from death to life.
The priestly role of the church stands before the beauty, happiness, friendship, festivity, art, culture, and life so resiliently present throughout the world and celebrates them as the joyous expression of the life God gives and desires for his beloved creation.
What do these two roles look like in practice? Without claiming to be exhaustive, an essential list of embodied resistance of death in the world includes practicing and working for social justice, service to the poor and marginalized, and care for the earth. An essential list of embodied celebration of life includes the making and sharing of art, throwing communal celebrations for special events or commemorations, and gathering together to rejoice in the worship of God.
Of course, in many ways practicing the resistance of death is simply affirming and celebrating life, and vice versa. Regardless of how we speak of it, the mission is the same: to live in anticipation of the coming kingdom as if it were already here—as it indeed is in the power of the Spirit and the victory of Jesus in the cross and resurrection—as fearlessly and joyfully as God has shown us to be in Christ.
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Therefore our working definition will be:Insofar as Christian discipleship is irrevocably bound up with the relentless affirmation of life in the face of death, embodied protest and praise names any and all forms of resistance to the power and structures of death in the created order, hand and hand with any and all forms of celebration of the flourishing of life as the primal, enduring gift of the triune God.