Nineteen years ago, I heard a conservative, stadium-revival evangelist invade the liberal ivory tower.
Billy Graham was set to speak at the Harvard Memorial Church, and I waited with hundreds of other people outside the red bricks and columns of the old church before the doors were opened.
Graham packed the place out. I don’t know why everyone else was there. Harvard University isn’t exactly Graham’s natural terrority. He was a Southern Baptist preacher after all, not a don of the academic pulpit. But wherever there were ears to hear and souls to save, Graham could be found preaching.
I was there because, well, it was Billy Graham, the legend from my childhood. At this point in his career, Graham was getting on in years. I don’t remember the details of his sermon. It was evangelistic, calling people to make a decision for Jesus. He talked about the benefits of following Jesus, how knowing Jesus changed his life. He said that Jesus made his life more meaningful. What’s more (and this is the part that stuck in my mind) Graham said that following Jesus even made sex with his wife better.
The crowd sniggered like eighth-graders. I don’t know what I did. I probably squirmed and tried to look ivory-towerish.But why not make that claim? Though Graham was best known for calling people to make a decision for Christ, he also said that “being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” The gospel isn’t just an idea that we accept. Or not. The gospel is an ongoing relationship with Jesus that leads to our transformation. It’s not just about the life to come. Through the gospel, human life is irradiated with Christ’s presence. Food. Home. Work. Play. Why not sex?
The Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:17, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” That verse has become my motto. There are things that cannot be done in the name of Jesus, things that do not orient us in thanksgiving to God. We stay away from them. But more importantly, we begin to live with an attentiveness to the love and presence of Christ.
It was that presence Graham testified to in his sermon at Harvard–the way knowing Jesus opens up a hidden depth to life. For those who have never known Jesus, all these sorts of convictions are laughable. I doubt Graham was much concerned. He was an evangelist after all, little interested in preaching to the choir. Billy Graham’s mission was to cast the invitation to know Jesus. He knew where he stood. How the rest of us responded was up to us.