This past week, Billy Graham died.
Graham was an incredibly influential preacher and evangelist throughout the many decades of his life. Many of us may have heard him, or even seen him, at one point or another in his long ministry career, and people from around the world are both mourning his death and celebrating his life as they remember him.
Whether or not we agree with every point of Billy Graham’s theology, we can nonetheless give thanks for the life that he lived and the courage that he often demonstrated at critical moments in American history, not least of which was his clear decision, in the 1950s and early 1960s, to refuse to speak to any segregated event, not only in his own country but even in other parts of the world, including any events in South Africa in which the rules of apartheid were upheld. For a white Southern Baptist preacher to take such a position, at the time, was a noble example of how his understanding of the cross influenced his public life. Graham would famously state that “the ground at the foot of the cross is level” as a way of emphasizing his profound belief that racial harmony and equality were essential to an understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In passing, when I was looking up the exact wording for that quote, I also read another quote from Billy Graham with which I, personally, could fully agree. “The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.”
One of the things that I have found interesting about Graham was that, through the course of his life, he sometimes would admit when previously stated convictions and beliefs that he had held were wrong. He was able to change his mind and to publicly admit when he had been mistaken.
And, as we have all been reminded, over the past few days, one of the most controversial moments in Graham’s public life concerned comments that he made about Jewish people, during a conversation that was recorded, in the Oval Office, with President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Graham later apologized for those comments, and tried to work diligently for peace and good relations between people of different faiths, and particularly for good relations between Christian and Jewish believers.
But Graham’s controversial – and, by his own admission, unacceptable — statements remind us that the relationship between Jews and Christians has not always been a good one, and that Graham was neither the first nor the only Christian leader to have adopted troubling perspectives on the relationship between Jews and Christians. Even Martin Luther, the influential German theologian whose writings sparked the Reformation, wrote a horrific treatise, later in his life, entitled “On the Jews and their Lies”. In the past century, the horrors of the holocaust come quickly to our minds when we consider how the Jewish people have been treated, even in nations that were nominally Christian, but sadly even those atrocities were not as unique as one might hope. Persecution, exclusion and oppression have often marked the relationship between Jewish and Christian believers.
From its earliest days, the Christian church – which has proclaimed its conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed-for, promised Messiah – has sometimes found it difficult to know how to understand the Jewish reluctance to accept that messianic claim. But at far too many times in the course of Christian history, these differences of belief and thought about the person of Jesus have become tainted with toxic words and feelings.
The history of the relationship between Jewish and Christian believers has not always followed a noble or smooth path.
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, however, invites us to reconsider the way that we should view this relationship – and how a different understanding of this relationship can actually help us, as Christians, to come to a deeper understanding of the good news that has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – the One who we claim as the Christ or the Messiah.
The theme of the relationship between Jewish and Christian believers is woven through many parts of the Letter to the Romans – and in today’s reading, this theme is at the heart of the author’s reflections on the faith and righteousness of Abraham. Since the story of Abraham and Sarah predated the giving of the law, in the time of Moses, there could, therefore, be no claim that Abraham’s obedience to some set of divine rules could have been the basis for Abraham’s relationship with God. Rather, it was Abraham’s faith, his willingness to trust in God, that was at the heart of Abraham’s response to God.
And according to Paul, in Romans, rather than supplanting or superceding or rendering obsolete God’s relationship with Abraham’s biological descendants, we as Christians are now invited to join with them, by faith, in the worship and service of the God of Israel. Our baptism into Christ ushers us — Gentiles though we might be — into a covenantal relationship that is not founded upon our biological ancestry nor upon our adherence to a specific set of rules or laws; it is, rather, founded upon our willingness to trust in the God in whom Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam, and the poets and psalmists and prophets, and in whom Jesus of Nazareth placed their trust.
But what then, we might ask, is supposed to be the result and the consequence of this relationship? Is the point of faith simply to save ourselves from some real or imagined spiritual fate? Is the point of faith to reassure ourselves that we are loved and somehow “special” in God’s eyes?
Not really. In order to understand the point of faith, it is necessary to go right back to God’s original call to Abram. After all, if we, as Gentiles, are welcomed into a relationship with the God who was revealed to Abram, it is good to remind ourselves what this calling was all about.
Our suggested reading from Genesis 17 recounts the reassurance that God offered to Abram and Sarai that they would become the ancestors of a great nation, even though they were already old.
But that reassurance was only a restating of the original promise that God had made to them, when they first stepped out in faith.
And the original promise, the original call to Abraham and Sarah, is vitally important for us to remember if we are going to live out the type of faith that Abraham demonstrated.
The words of that original promise are found in the opening verses of Genesis 12. Listen carefully to them, because they reveal to us why God established a relationship with Abraham, in the first place – and what it is supposed to mean for this world, and for each one of us.
We read, “now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
So often, when we hear those words, we focus our attention on the promise that Abram and Sarai would have many descendants. Which is good.
But we also need to ponder – and even to embrace – the divinely intended consequence of the establishment of that community.
In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Which, actually, points us towards the good news that is revealed in Jesus Christ – but it is not just good news for those of us who claim him as Messiah and Lord of our lives.
In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Because to embrace such faith, and to thereby find our place in this ancient story, is to accept our God-given and God-empowered calling to be a blessing to this world. The people of Israel were entrusted with the Law so that they could form a community that would be a light and model to all of the nations on earth; the followers of Jesus were sent out with the vision of the kingdom of God so that that they could join with the children of Abraham and Sarah in seeking a way of being in this world that would provide blessing to all of God’s beloved children and to the very ends of God’s beloved creation.
Faith is not, primarily, about trying to win intellectual arguments about the existence of God; nor is faith, primarily, about reassuring ourselves of our own salvation or getting the rules right; nor is faith primarily about delineating lines between those who believe like we do and those who do not – rather, what lay at the heart of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, and to Israel, and to Jesus and his followers, and to each one of us, is this – in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
By way of our baptism into Christ, we who are Gentiles by birth are invited to join in this great and noble calling – to be and to become a blessing to this world that God so dearly and so desperately loves.
Of course, we do not always get it right, which is why we must, ever and always, remain open to the possibility of correction, and the need for confession. But when we set this vision before our eyes – that through Christ, we can join in the calling to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants in the task of seeking to be a blessing to this world – well, that becomes good news not just for ourselves, but for this world. To the poor and the weary and the hungering, be a blessing. To the grieving and the despairing and the marginalized, be a blessing. To those who are treated unjustly and who are oppressed, be a blessing. To those who have lost any sense of joy, or hope, or encouragement, or peace in their lives, be a blessing.
And in so doing, live out your faith. Because in you – descendants of Abraham by birth and descendants of Abraham by faith — all the families of the earth will be blessed.
Those ancient words were intended to be good news for this world that God’s Son was sent to save.
May they become true in us.