In the spirit also [Jesus] went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to bey in the past, while God waited patiently in the days when Noah was building the ark; in it a few people, eight in all, were brought to safety through the water. 1 Peter 3:19-20I once heard someone who, in answer to a skeptical question whether grace was akin to electricity responded by saying, "No, it's like vulnerability." That has stuck with me for all these many years as I have tried to come to terms with grace, the call to holy living, the ethical life, and other such matters.
If God could be said to have a weakness, it's us. Oh, I don't mean "us" as in "us Christians", or "us Americans", or some other subset. Rather, "us" includes all of creation. Karl Barth was correct; God is the God who loves in freedom. As Terry Eagelton points out, that there is something rather than nothing at all is a sacrament of God's superabundant, prodigal capacity for love. Creation is a sign that God chooses to be with, with us, with creation. With rocks and planets and stellar clusters and blue whales and E. coli and even Germans. The unfolding meta-narrative of the Bible, buried beneath all the confounding tales, the brutality, the contradictions, the fantastic stories, is this simple reality - God wants nothing more or less than two things: to be loved by those God has created; for God's creatures to love and care for one another as God has loved and sustained them in being through love. As Jesus himself said, all the Law and Prophets is summed up here.
So, we are the unhealed wound in God's heart, the source of Divine pain and rage and long-suffering, and finally decision to join us in the vicissitudes of this life, going the full mile to death, only to take up in the Divine life this ending of all things so that the terror it holds over us could be broken. By breaking death's capacity to instill fear, we no longer need worry about such fleeting things as power and riches; we need no longer be concerned whether we have enough to sustain us through tomorrow. This worry is rooted in the fear of death, and in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we now know that death's victory is fleeting, momentary.
In 1 Peter, we hear of the dead Jesus, preaching to those trapped - in hell? in Sheol? In limbo? In Wyoming? - because they rebelled against this profligate love. Even the dead hear the Good News so they, too, can escape the natural cycle of fear and death, and the silence the grave imposes upon all our hopes.
Could this story be true? I honestly have no opinion. What this story tells me, regardless of whether or not "it actually happened" is this. God never gives up on us. Never. Never. Never-ever. Even in death, these who so long before had rejected the pleas of God embodied in Noah building the Ark are offered the opportunity to hear of real salvation, of God's never-ending love and grace poured out for all creation. Even the dead.
Grace is like vulnerability because God is willing, freely, lovingly willing, to make a fool of God by going to the dead who long before rejected God's pleas for love and community - with God and one another - so that they, too, can join the blessed community.
When dealing with moral scolds who insist that God's law entails certain narrow understandings of human behavior, or social conformity, or what have you, I think about who God is as testified in Scripture. God was more than willing to demean the Divine Persons in order to rescue even those who are dead; how on earth is it possible that I, or anyone else, can make any judgments about who is in and who is out of the running for Divine grace?
The year after my wife and I were married, the state of Illinois executed John Wayne Gacey. Even now, I shudder when I consider the horrors this man visited upon the lives of so many families; I want to weep when I consider the fear, the pain, of the boys he tortured and killed.
My wife, who had been a child, and grew up not far from where Gacey preyed on young boys, turning his suburban home in to a grisly combination of mausoleum and abattoir, was adamant that she did not want to see Gacey executed. I was dumb-founed. Back then, the few folks I thought were deserving of this last full measure of state justice were people like Gacey. Yet, Lisa told me that, by stating that some people, even those who committed acts as foul as Gacey's, we were making a claim that some people existed outside God's grace.
Over the years, I have thought about this again, and again, and again. I realized that Lisa was right. The Biblical meta-narrative concerns a God who, quite simply put, never gives up. Those whom God does not surrender to the cruelties of apathy are . . . everything. All creation. There is a fungus that uses the digestive systems of birds to survive; in part of its life cycle, it invades the bodies of land snails, and set off a chemical reaction that make the snails both visible and edible to birds. There is something horrible about this. There is also something awe-inspiring about them, too. That some creatures have evolved to propagate themselves in this extreme way shows how powerful is the force of life, that same force that God redeemed in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
It may be true that there are individuals so broken in this life they need to be removed from society. People like John Wayne Gacey. This does not mean, however, they exist in some way outside the grace of God, while the rest of us are embrace to the Divine bosom. All of us - every single individual human being, all creation that is either apathetic to existence, or participates in the great alimentary canal/reproductive act of life - are invited by God, no matter how far we may have wandered, no matter how broken our lives, no matter how adamantly we refuse to hear of God's prodigal love for us, nevertheless to reconsider our decision in regard to God's insistence that we are all precious in the Divine sight.