Death Still Has Power, But Not As A Tool for Oppression

Last week we began exploring what it means in this Easter season, in a world filled with death and its painful fallout on all sides, to say that Jesus “took away the sting of death.” The phrase “the sting of death” comes from Paul at the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth. In a discussion about the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul asks the community in Corinth, “Where, O Death, is your sting?” This word that Paul uses that we translate as “sting” is the word κέντρον (kentron) in Greek, which, in another story featuring Paul is translated as “goad.” When Paul tells of his conversion in the 26th chapter of Acts he describes seeing Jesus in a vision on his way to Damascus and that Jesus said to him, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

This word for sting is most simply something pointy, like the goad a farmer would use to poke an animal in order to make them move in a certain direction. It was a sharp prodding tool that was used for coercion, a tool of violence meant to take power over another and force their actions through threat of pain.

Jesus tells Paul, “It hurts you to kick against the goads,” meaning, “Isn’t it painful to persecute faithful people and ignore God’s movement in your life?” What would it mean to Paul to say that deaths “goad” has been taken away by Jesus’ death and resurrection? It would not mean that death is no longer powerful or painful. Not would it mean that we can no longer die, as if death itself has been erased. Instead, we are invited to see death not as an end, but as a beginning, as an opening into newness, because Jesus’ death at the hands of the state, as a member of an oppressed group fighting for liberation, showed that the movement of liberation cannot be killed. It cannot be squashed by death. “Where, O Death, is your goad?”

The stopping power of death was shown to be an illusion by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just like the state used (and still uses) death as a coercive and oppressive tool, a threat to force acquiescence, Jesus’ resurrection showed the cosmic impotence of this state sponsored “death tool.” Two thousand years after Rome wielded this tool against the liberating mission of Jesus, that spirit of liberation persists, and the empire of Rome does not.

Of course a revelation is not a promise of action.  It is no more a sign of God’s intervention in or controlling of human action than the cross was.  We are still responsible. We still need to respond.  This ending of the cross was certainly an ending, but every end is also an opening to something new.  This revelation is an open-ended invitation to respond differently now, and to re-frame how we both respond to and thus how we understand these powerful forces of oppression and justice in the world. God is not going to take care of our problems for us. God is not going to swoop in and stop the systemic oppression of the most vulnerable.  But we do know that the aim of God, the lure we feel in us, is not toward a power that dominates but one that liberates.  Not toward a power that wields death, but one that responds to death, that uses it by integrating it for our own transformation and the transformation of the world rather than as a tool for manipulating the world toward our own power.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the truth of the resurrection meets us on our way out of town, when we have given up, when the oppressors have won, and opens up to us the truth of God’s aim, God’s promise, that the DNA of the universe is liberation.  Isn’t this what the risen Christ was “opening up” in the scriptures when talking to those retreating disciples?  The history of the world, and of God’s mission in the world, is one of liberation and freedom.  This resurrection, the risen Christ mystery, is always calling us back to participate again, to engage in the struggle for justice, not matter how dire the circumstances, to do the work of justice in the kingdom of heaven. Not even death can stop Jesus from calling us to this kind of co-creation.

In this Easter season where we find suffering and death so close at hand, what if we think about the resurrection of Jesus not as some sort of cosmic shift in the fabric of the universe, but as the revelation of the universal pattern of death and new life that has always existed? A revelation of truth, rather than a change in it. Death is not the enemy, and never has been. Death is powerful, and Jesus has not taken away its power, but revealed in greater and greater depths the truth of that power not as a continued source of oppression but as an unstoppable force for liberation.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection revealed to us the impotence of death as an oppressive tool, we still are left with the question, what power is present in death?  For this answer, we turn from the transformation of the world to the transformation of the self.  Check in next week as we explore deaths power to transform us, and our power to transform the world in response.

This is part two of a three-part series.  Make sure to check back for part three!

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