Billys Last Sermon
Wee Kirk, Sunday August 8, 2010
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Paul, Galatians 614
Look around you, please, this morning. Tell me – what do you see?
Faces of friends? The color of trees and sky? The clothes people are wearing? And what else?
Of course. This rough hewn cross behind me – the only real symbol of our faith in this church … along with the communion table.
And what would a church be – what would communion be – without a cross?
Billy’s last sermon
When we visited my brother-in-law recently he told us he would like to preach one more time.
Where? In the Panthers football stadium in Charlotte. Which would be quite a challenge because his voice is so weak it’s hard to hear across a room.
And what would he want to preach about, we asked.
He pointed to a verse of Scripture hanging on the wall next to his big chair in the kitchen. Paul’s words to the believers at Galatia:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the
world. Paul, Galatians 6:14
Intriguing choice. And why would he choose that text and that topic?
And why would Paul choose to boast … or as another translation says “to glory” only in the cross?
Why not glory in the life of Christ? His teachings? His miracles? His compassion for the lost and the hungry and poor?
For that matter, Paul could have boasted about his own pedigree as a highly trained teacher, or his own conversion, or the way God had blessed his ministry.
But he chose to glory, “only in the cross,” and Billy, a latter day apostle, also chooses to go with Paul to the cross for his last sermon.
I don’t presume to preach Billy’s sermon. I do want to take his text today.
This text is more intriguing when we realize that Paul, like anyone else in those days, had seen men hanging from crosses which the Romans used to execute criminals. Crucifixion was one of the most cruel modes of execution ever devised, where the condemned hung in agony for hours.
And for a Jew death on a cross was especially shameful. The law said that anyone who was hung on a tree was under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23), so to them hanging and crucifixion were the same and both a curse.
For Paul the cross has gone from being a curse, to a glory. And for centuries now the cross has been the central symbol of our faith.
The controversial cross
The cross is still controversial – and it has been this year in the US. There’s a cross on a hill in California, placed in honor of veterans, which has been challenged in court as a violation of the separation of church and state. The courts ruled it could stay but then someone stole it. There have also been suits against crosses in Arlington Cemetery.
This may scandalize us. But the real scandal is not whether a cross can be barred from a public space, but if the cross is not at the center of the church, and the centerpiece of our lives.
For surely the cross of Christ is the mark of a true church.
Why did Paul lift high the cross?
The church in Galatia was made up of both Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus. When Paul started the church there he had told them that there was one God, that he had unveiled his plan in Jesus the “king-to-end-all kings,” that Jesus had been executed, but that through his death and resurrection God was building a new family, no separate races, Jews and Gentile alike.
But factions had risen. One faction said Paul had it wrong. That if Gentiles wanted to be part of the inner circle, God’s family, they had to become Jews first and be circumcised.
Paul’s answer: the gospel I preach comes from Jesus himself, and the message is that Jesus who was crucified has been exalted as Lord of the whole wide world and is building a single worldwide family.
So, says Paul: salvation is not Jesus plus the law, or the law plus Jesus. It is Jesus and his cross and resurrection plus nothing except to trust and follow him.
What did the cross mean to Paul?
Take time to read through this short letter of Paul’s. I think you will be struck as I am by his style. He writes as a scholar, a theologian, a historian, a debater and polemicist. Yet what is most striking is how personally he writes.
What does the cross mean to him? Why does he glory in it? Because, he writes
• The cross means Jesus for me
• The cross means Jesus in me
• The cross means Jesus through me
JESUS DIED FOR ME
He loved me, and gave himself for me, Paul writes.
This is the vertical stake of the cross – that slashing descent of God from heaven to earth to reconcile the world to himself.
As Paul says in another place
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself… For our sake he
made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21)
Here is the great question posed by sin and suffering: how can a righteous God both condemn sin and forgive sinners? And, how can a good and loving God be just and allow terrible evil – like child slavery and the oppression of women and grinding poverty – to ravage our world.
Only God can answer what must be God’s own question. And he answers not with sweet words and gentle thoughts but in the agony and blood of the cross.
There on the cross sin and evil was unmasked. The worst thing humans ever did was to crucify the best person who ever lived. In the mystery of the cross God took sin and evil on himself. “He became sin for us.” And God took the worst evil that was ever done and turned it into the best thing ever done, raising Jesus from the dead to be Lord of all.
And he did it not just for all, for the world, but says Paul,
He loved me. He gave himself for me.
Can you say that this morning?
Joe Cumming is a fellow of the Faith and Culture Center at Yale, who has a special interest in respectful Christian witness to Muslims, among whom he lived for many years.
He once had the opportunity to meet with the Lebanese Ayatollah, one of the most influential Muslim clerics in the Arab world. It was the day before the holiest day of the year for Shiite Muslims, so it was like asking for an audience with the Pope on Christmas Eve.
The sheik’s secretary said he could only five minutes – and at four minute and fifty-five seconds he should be standing to leave.
Joe prayed hard about what he could say in perhaps two minutes which would show respect and be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. On the way he saw a banner across the road that read in Arabic, “The victory of blood over the sword.” This meant that when Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, when enemies came to kill him, could have called on God to kill his enemies but instead lay down his sword, and was massacred, but became a sign of forgiving the sins of others.
So when the ayatollah asked Cumming what he had to say, Joe said, “Doesn’t that banner mean that Hussein won a greater victory by laying down his life?”
“Yes,” said the sheikh, “that’s what it means.”
“That’s what I believe about Jesus,” said Joe Cumming. “He could have killed his enemies but instead he laid down his life for them in love, and prayed for their forgiveness. I believe that is the key to break the cycle of violence and revenge in the world.”
The ayatollah turned to his followers and said, “I totally agree with every word this Christian man of God has just said.”
Joe stood to leave. His five minutes was up. “Where are you going?” said the sheikh. “There’s a lot more I want to talk about.” He kept Joe for two hours.
At one point the ayatollah brought up the tragic death the day before of two little boys on the West Bank killed by a misfired missile as they played soccer.
“What do you have to say about this as a Christian?” he asked.
Joe replied, “I look at the suffering of all innocent victims … through the lens of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. I might wonder at times if God has abandoned the human race. But in the suffering of Jesus Christ I see the sign of God’s solidarity with all innocent victims of violence and suffering.
The sheikh turned again to his followers and said, “I agree with every word this Christian man of God has just said.”
What a powerful thing to be able to say, in light of the cross. “If Christ be for us who can be against us?”
JESUS LIVES IN ME
Not only did Jesus give himself for me, says Paul, but Christ lives in me.
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
This became the center point of Paul’s whole life. As James Stewart described him, he had become “a man in Christ.” From the moment Christ arrested him on the road to Damascus he had a whole new identity. Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle of grace and love.
This is the central crux of the cross – the place where the vertical and the horizontal meet.
To be a follower of Christ is to lead a de-centered life, no longer with self at the center, but Christ at the center.
A Christian is a “Christ-in” person, a person who in the most profound way is identified with Christ.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
Could you introduce yourself that way, the next time you meet someone. Not by what you do, “I am a lawyer, doctor, business person, volunteer,” nor by where you live, “I am a resident of Linville, or Charlotte or Atlanta or Dallas,” not by where you worship, “I am a Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian” but by this relationship: “I am a woman, a man in Christ.”
JESUS LOVES THROUGH ME
It’s fascinating to read how Paul ends this rather edgy letter. Again he is very personal.
“See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” (6:11). He is signing with his own hand. He wants them to know it really is he, Paul, and he is really an apostle.
Then he writes,
From now on, let no one make trouble for me: for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. (6:17)
“Stigmata.” That’s the word. Perhaps as he writes he glances at the scars on his body, the places where he has been whipped and lashed.
These marks are my brand, he says, the brandmarks of Jesus. They are my I.D., the marks of what I have suffered in preaching the gospel. These stigmata, not my arguments, should convince you that I am living what I preach. I have taken up my own cross to follow Jesus.
But I don’t think he was just thinking of the beatings he had endured. Remember that he also wrote, “If I give my body to be burned and do not have love what profit is that?” Of all the marks of the follower of Jesus – faith, hope, love – “the greatest of these is love.”
And here is the horizontal bar of the cross – a love with open arms to all – a love that reaches from the center to the circumference – a love that reaches all, welcomes all, offers grace to all.
Is this the “brand” of the church today? In a world marked by exclusion, is the church of Jesus marked by embrace? Not that we embrace sin, but that we embrace all who are sinners as Jesus does.
In the 1950s a Christian church was built in Kabul, by a special arrangement President Eisenhower made with the Afghan authorities. The pastor was a Presbyterian missionary pastor, Dr. Christy Wilson. The time came when the authorities decided to knock that church down. When the bulldozers came (and they dug deeply to try to find the “underground church” they heard was there!) what did the believers do? They served tea to those who were destroying their church. That was the brandmark of Jesus!
A “cruciform life”
So the cross calls us to a “cruciform” life – a cross-shaped life
• A grateful life for the One who gave himself for us
• A centered life in Christ, dying and living with him
• A branded life, embracing as Christ has embraced us
So may we not boast, except in that cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That may be Billy’s last sermon! May it be our lasting commitment!
An after story
Many years ago Billy Graham was preaching in Toronto, Canada. I was sitting on the platform and when people came forward at Billy’s invitation to commit themselves to Christ Billy turned and motioned to me, and said, “My friend Robert Goulet came down. I want you to go and welcome him and speak with him.”
So I went and stood beside the well known singer. I asked him what brought him forward, and he said, “I like Billy and I wanted to encourage him”!
Then I asked what it mean to him.
“I go to a Presbyterian church in California,” he said. “The pastor is a wonderful Christian. I know when we get to heaven he and Billy will be up front and center. I will be way off on the side and I just hope I can wave to them.”
“What do you think it will take to get there?” I asked.
“I think God has a big pair of scales. He puts our good deeds in one side and our bad on the other and if the good weighs more we get in.”
“Robert,” I said, “if that’s the way Billy’s not going to make it. Your pastor isn’t.
He looked astonished and said (using some theological language) “Then who the ________ can make it?”
“No one,” I said, “if it depends on what we do. But that’s not grace.
“You’ve been to London to sing I know,” I continued. “As you look across the Thames at the city what do you see? The halls of justice, Old Bailey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. On the top of Old Bailey is a figure of justice, blindfolded, with scales. On the top of St. Paul’s golden dome is a cross.
“And, Robert, Christianity is not a religion of the scales, but of the cross. It’s not our works that count but God’s grace.”
He listened carefully. A week later I was back in Charlotte. The phone rang. It was Robert Goulet calling from Hollywood.
“I want to read you a poem I wrote,’ he said.
And the only words of hi poem I remember were:
There’s only one man I want to see. That’s Jesus.
I believe Robert Goulet did get it right.