Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Core of the Gospel

March 11, 2018 –– Fourth Sunday in Lent
2  Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4–10 / John 3:14–21
The Core of the Gospel

Today’s text from Ephesians: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and especially the well-know text from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life, remind me of Billy Graham.

Billy Graham’s recent death and funeral was a major news item spanning a couple of weeks. Of course it dominated the Evangelical media, but even the secular press gave it high priority. What particularly fascinated me were the numerous Catholic commentaries I read. [One of them was written by a convert-priest in South Carolina who I came to know in my own Catholic journey. His Evangelical background and college path through Bob Jones University had much in common with my personal history, so I resonated with Fr Dwight Longenecker’s comments about Billy Graham. I hope my lightly edited use of his article for this homily will be understood in the context of the esteem I have for what he has said.]

Someone asked why everybody thought Billy Graham was so great. It was because he preached the simple message of a human race locked in sin and in need of a savior, and that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all who believe in him might have everlasting life. That’s it.

I was brought up in a devout Evangelical home where Billy Graham’s model of Christian faith was assumed. We memorized Bible verses and believed that you had to “get saved.” We went forward in church and accepted Jesus into our lives as our personal Lord and Savior. That had a key role in making me who I am today.

Billy Graham’s message was often ridiculed. Intellectuals would sneer, and many religious people dismissed it as naive. Theologians said it was too simplistic. Unrepentant sinners would scorn it and laugh and turn away. But many, many ordinary people heard that simple message and had their lives forever changed.

I think our Catholic churches could be stronger if we took a bit of a lesson from Billy Graham. I know he’s not a Catholic. I know his theology was not as developed as it could have been. I know we do not preach his simple, easy message of eternal security–“Just say yes to Jesus and you can know you are going to heaven.” I know we stress the sacraments and membership in the Church. I know that being a Catholic is more complicated and full and abundant than the reductionist beliefs of  “pop-Christianity.”

But…. on the other hand, isn’t the core message still the same? Do we not call sinners every Sunday at Mass to repent of their sins and come forward in an altar call to receive Jesus? Do we not call sinners to come to confession, to say they are sorry for their sins and accept the forgiveness of Jesus? And if we do not say that people can know absolutely that they are going to heaven, we can certainly say that they can know today that they are on the road to heaven if they say “Yes” to Jesus and seek to live in a state of grace.

Could it be…. that churches have people who win prizes for humanitarian efforts while they vote for the dismemberment of unborn children…. that churches have people who seem more concerned to save the planet than to save souls…. that churches have far too many shallow (and worse) clergy…. could it be that the main reason churches (both Catholic and Protestant) have people modeling a faith that is not The Faith is because we have let the core of what it is all about get out of focus?!

What Christianity is all about is the core message Billy Graham preached so simply––a sinful humanity in need of a savior. That is the Gospel.

I have not walked away from the good things that came from my early Christian heritage––I have just grown in them and found there is more and more. If I had to choose a label it would be “Evangelical Catholic.”

I hope Billy Graham’s passing has reminded all of us who profess the name of Jesus what it’s all about: a sinful humanity in need of a savior, and God has given us his Son for that very reason. That is truly for all of us. It is our Catholic Faith.

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