Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost and now am found, was blind but now I see.
We have just sung a hymn that is beloved to many, for many different reasons, and one nowadays that is almost universally known. Its author was a man named John Newton. He also wrote many other hymns, including “Glorious things of thee are spoken” (#522), but Amazing Grace, and the story behind it, is the best known.
John Newton was born in England in 1725, went to sea with his father at age eleven, and by the time he was twenty-three years old he had been forced into service in the British Navy; abandoned in Sierra Leone, West Africa and been sold into servitude to African royalty; freed by an agent of his father’s and returned to England; and become master of a slave-trading ship. On his way home to England, Newton survived a near-shipwreck, which began his process of turning to faith in God. At age twenty-nine he had a severe illness and gave up his life at sea and his work as a slave-trader, although he continued to invest financially in the slave business.
Ten years later, after years of trying to follow God’s call and being turned down by various Anglican bishops and leaders in other denominations, John Newton was ordained a priest in the Church of England; he became known for his gifts in preaching and pastoral care. In 1779 he moved to a parish in London: St. Mary’s, Woolnoth where he became a pastor and advisor to the young Member of Parliament William Wilberforce.
In 1788 Newton published a pamphlet titled “Thoughts upon the slave trade”; he paid to have it sent to every Member of Parliament. In the pamphlet he broke his silence on the experience of his work in the trade, making "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." Newton’s support and guidance for Wilberforce and others over the course of thirty years resulted in the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, abolishing the active slave trade on British soil. John Newton died within the year, at the age of eighty-two.
This is the story not only of John Newton and the background for his hymn, but it is also a real-life expression of the grace of God. Grace is God’s gift to us, God’s generous initiative that we do not earn or deserve. Paul says in his letter to Jesus’ followers at Ephesus: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Our salvation, Paul says, is by grace, through faith and not the result of efforts or anything we have done to impress God or to make a deal with God.
Newton would certainly agree with that. He knew himself to be wretched before God, especially in light of what he had done and what he had lent his name and money to in his younger years. He certainly had not earned God’s favor and goodness toward him in any way. In fact, we know from Newton’s writing that he marked that start of his conversion to active faith in Christ as March 10, 1748; this weekend marks the 280th anniversary of that turning to God.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
What about your own turning to God? It may have happened swiftly, suddenly, or you may have struggled over a long period of time to be willing to trust Christ with the leadership of your life. For some of you, I know that faith has always been a part of your life – but even then, we all have ebbs and flows, and there always comes a time when you can look back and see the traces of where the Spirit has led you to embrace God more fully, making Christ more and more the center of your life, even as John Newton was able to look back and see the way Christ’s salvation in his life had unfolded over time.
But neither Newton nor Paul leave it there, with God’s gift of grace; there’s a response, and an answering call, a responsibility, just like in the covenants we have been reading and hearing about this Lent. Paul goes on to say: We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. We are made for good works, to live our lives as agents of God’s goodness and blessing, Jesus’ representatives in all aspects of life. When William Wilberforce first sought out John Newton’s spiritual counsel it centered on the question of whether the younger man should leave politics and pursue the ordained ministry. His mentor’s response was to stay in Parliament, “serve God where he was.”
That is, in fact, what we are each called to – serving God where we are. There is nothing intrinsically more sacred in being a priest than there is in being a politician…or a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a business person, a plumber. We need people with all of these skills and abilities if we are to be a whole and healthy society; and all of these gifts and skills can be brought to bear in the service of God. If we are each members of the Body of Christ, rooted and grounded in the love and grace of God, then God will indeed be able to use us, and we will be able to serve God where we are – whether our work is as dramatic as Wilberforce’s in abolishing the British slave trade, or as quiet as caring for children in a world that is riddled with fear, anxiety, stress, and a push for over-achievement.
In this season of Lent, one of the spiritual practices we engage in particularly is confession – acknowledging our failures, our “manifold sins and wickedness”, to ourselves and to God. It means taking stock of where we are, where we have been, and the foreseeable trajectory of our lives. Sometimes that examination reveals a pretty bleak picture, and we, like John Newton, know ourselves to be wretched. Other times the picture is less stark, but we see all the missed opportunities, the failures of kindness, generosity, and love – these are the sins of omission. Even those can cause us to be discouraged, disappointed in ourselves. But whether our sins are large or small, it does not matter. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, God’s best purpose and intentions for us.
And we sinners have all received grace – grace upon grace – from the loving and generous initiative of God in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And by his love and grace we are saved, each and every day. Our response is to turn and be gracious to those around us, so that we may all be drawn together in God’s circle of life and blessing and joy.
Let us pray.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come; ‘tis grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018