Themes: Lent Romans Mark

Keith Hitchman

Billy Graham died on Wednesday, aged 99.

'In terms of sheer arithmetic, Billy Graham was the most successful evangelist the world has known, a man who preached the Gospel to more people than any other person in history.' (Independent Newspaper, 22 February).

Billy Graham was a controversial figure. The obituaries, not all of which were complementary, reflected as much. His life raised as many questions as the answers he was so ready to give.

Was Billy Graham once a racist? Yes, he was. But then so were the majority of white people in America's southern states at the time. During the 1960's Billy Graham publicly repented of his racism, removed the cords that separated blacks from whites in the Southern Baptist churches he preached in, and became an early supporter of civil rights, forming a close friendship with Dr. Martin Luther-King.

Did Billy Graham make anti-semitic comments? Yes he did. At least once in a recorded conversation, which he later said he deeply regretted.

Was Billy Graham a homophobe? Yes he was. Again, for Conservative Evangelical Christianity, homophobia was a given. Part of the package. This doesn't excuse it of course, but it does contextualise it. It is only in recent years that homophobic attitudes have come under any real scrutiny within Evangelical circles. There is some evidence that as he got older Billy Graham softened his attitude towards homosexuality, unlike his son Franklin, who has fashioned a role for himself as a hardline social conservative.

So, Billy Graham was not always a 'good' person. Something he knew about himself and made no secret of. If Billy Graham was certain of one thing, it was this: Jesus came (as He himself said) not for the spiritually healthy, but for those who know that they need a doctor (Luke 5: 30-32).

Billy Graham was convinced of the sheer 'generosity' of God. He was convinced - as I am - by St Paul's argument in Romans chapter 4, that we are not 'justified' (made right) in God's sight by who we are (our status or position), nor by what we have done (our deeds or our 'goodness')...but only by the generous Grace of God received through faith.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law [religious rules] but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us).

Romans 4:13-16

Neither are we justified by the keeping of religious rules, despite of what much of the Church has taught down the centuries. The New Testament is a Book of Grace, yet we - the Church - have turned it into a Book of Rules, repeating the falsehood which claims that as long as you keep these rules, then you'll become a good person worthy of God's favour. Only it doesn't work that way. Because it can't. We can't. Keep the rules....

...which is the whole point of Jesus, His life, death and Resurrection .

The oft-repeated adage, "Of course I'm a Christian...I'm a good person", is possibly the greatest heresy of all. If you're into heresy hunting, hunt this one down, and kill it. But kill it in yourself first.

It was Jesus who said, "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10: 18). It is true that everyone has some 'goodness' in them. Any goodness we possess is a reflection of our godlikeness, created as we are in the image of the Divine. Yet, this in itself will not 'save' us. Consider Abraham.

20 No distrust made him [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4: 20-25

One of the problems with the Church in our age is that we major on the complex while neglecting the straightforward. As Jesus said to Peter in today's Gospel reading, "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mark 8: 33).

So, let us set our minds on the divine generosity of God. The immeasurable generosity which took Jesus to 'undergo great suffering, and [to] be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes [rule-makers], and [to] be killed, and after three days rise again.'

Now that's 'Good' News.