But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.
I guess the dinner party to which Isobel and I went last week in Hermanus was no exception to what was happening elsewhere around the country and even beyond. We were discussing the Oscar Pistorious trial, going over each bit of the drama as it was unfolding in the media, helped by the presence at the table of a judge and a lawyer. Whatever the gory details of the case, or its rights and wrongs and possible outcome, we were saddened by the tragedy that had led to Reeva Steenkamp's brutal killing, and sad that a sporting icon's life was in tatters. It was all too horrific to discuss dispassionately. But the question was asked: can we discern anything redemptive in such a tragedy? Are Reeva's death and Oscar's demise the last words on the subject? Or to put it more broadly: can anything good come out of evil? Is it possible to discern something, anything, redemptive in situations which, humanly speaking, seem beyond redemption?
I know that cynics will say that there are events that are so evil that it is impossible to discern anything redemptive in them, and that there are people who are so evil that they are beyond redemption. The Holocaust and Hitler immediately come to mind, but they are not the only examples we can think of. Unbelieving cynics for whom there is no God don't really have a problem in this regard for this is just how things are. Christians have generally thought otherwise. Even if there is no redemption in this life or on earth, perhaps there is afterwards. But there is disagreement even amongst Christians, some of whom believe in a hell in which people suffer everlastingly for their sins, and others in the annihilation of unrepentant sinners.
In my book Led into Mystery I have dealt with this problem in some detail so I am not going to repeat here what I have said there. But let me say this: I have far less difficulty with the idea that evil along with evil people who have no remorse will simply be extinguished than I have with the idea of everlasting punishment in some kind of hell. What kind of a God would inflict that on anyone, even someone as evil as Hitler? Yes, I do believe that in the end this is a moral universe, or to use biblical images, there is a judgment, that justice will be done, and evil destroyed. But I also believe that God's justice is not punitive but restorative -- God does not desire the death of the wicked, the prophet Ezekiel tells us, but that they should turn around and live; God does not want the prodigal son to remain in the pigsty, but prompts him to return home and runs to embrace him. Or, in the words of our text this morning: "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ."
Isobel tells me that when I get into a discussion, such as we had the other evening about the Pistorious trial, I use the little word "but" in virtually every sentence, like in the following. "Yes, I think you are right in what you say, but..." And, of course, my "but" qualifies or even contradicts what the other person has said, even while affirming him or her! So I decided to check out and see how often the word "but" occurs in the Bible and discovered, in my very large concordance, that it occurs far too often to list! I often tell students to avoid overusing the words "but," "nevertheless," and "however," because in doing so they lose their significance and one's argument is killed by too many qualifications. Yet these words, judiciously used, are sewn into the very fabric of Scripture. And often when they are, they contradict the cynical and assert the conviction that God's redemptive love and power is at work even in the worse case scenarios. "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ."
We saw a wonderful French movie last week at Volmoed entitled Intouchables (The Untouchables). Within weeks of its release in 2011it became the second biggest box office hit in France, then attracted large audiences world-wide, winning many awards. The movie is based on a true story of friendship between a very rich white man of culture. Philippe, a quadriplegic as a result of a paragliding accident, and Driss, a black former criminal who is hired to look after Philippe. Driss does not want the job; all he wants is a signature to prove to social welfare that he is looking for work. But Philippe hires him because he is the only candidate for the job who does not treat him as an object of pity. I won't tell the whole story, but as I watched it, now for the second time, I kept on thinking of the dinner party question about discerning redemption in unlikely situations. Who would have thought that this former jailbird and member of the drug underworld, could become the unwitting instrument of redemption for a quadriplegic in upper-crust Parisian society? He was no saint; he was just being himself -- a swearing, fornicating, gangster through whom somehow -- to speak as a believer -- God worked a miracle of redemption. For through Driss, Philippe experienced genuine love and friendship, and in the process got a new life, met the woman of his dreams and, according to the true story on which the movie is based, now has two daughters! "Can you believe it?" is the only response I can think of, because the story beggars belief!
The truth is, God's way of redemption does beggar belief! It quite literally reduces us to silence or stuns us, as the phrase "beggar belief" suggests. Who could have thought this? It goes against all that we think is normative, all that common sense teaches us, and a great deal of religious thinking as well. "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ." Who could possibly have seen on that terrible day when Jesus and his companion criminals were crucified that somehow written into the plot was a divine "nevertheless," "however," "but"? This is the good news of Christian faith, and it always begins with a word of contradiction, a divine "but." If it were not for God's interjection "but!" humanity would be a lost cause, without hope of redemption. God's redemption may happen in strange ways, even through a blaspheming ex-con like Driss, but that is sometimes how God's love and grace breaks into our lives and the situations that confront us that seem beyond any redemption. We may feel drowned in our sorrows, burdened by our sins, overwhelmed by the woes of the world, "but God..." You can complete the sentence for yourself.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 20 March 2014