Sunday, October 28, 2012

Amazing Grace: Sermon, October 28, 2012

Now, we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth will be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works proscribed by the law.
- Romans 3:19-28, New Revised Standard Version

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
- John 8:31-36, New Revised Standard Version

Giving all glory and honour to God.

John Newton was born 287 years ago, in a part of London not that far from where I was born. His mother wanted him to be a minister, but she died when he was only six. John’s father was a shipping merchant, often away at sea, so the boy was raised without much love by his stepmother and in a boarding school. John went to sea when he was only eleven years old, although that wasn’t unusual in the 18th century. And his seagoing career was marked by constant disobedience, not just to his superiors on board ship, but also to God, because John would experience some life-threatening event at sea, profess his faith in God, and then relapse back into bad habits when the threat had passed.

If you watched the American presidential debate, there was an exchange about the Navy, comparing today’s Navy to that of 100 years ago. Well, back in John Newton’s day, the Royal Navy consisted of wooden sailing ships that needed hundreds of men to let out and take in sails and man the cannons, and if the Navy was short of men they could send parties on shore to round up civilian sailors and press them into service. That’s what happened to John Newton. But he was just as rebellious in the Navy. His naval service ended when he deserted to visit a woman, Polly, and he ended up in the slave trade.

Conditions on the ships that carried slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and America were terrible - beyond terrible - as thousands of slaves were packed into holds and many died on the voyage. You may have seen the slave ships depicted in the movie Amistad or read Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes. In this environment John Newton was just as disobedient as ever, getting the reputation as one of the most foul-mouthed men in a job that seemed to involve constant swearing, and disagreeing with his shipmates so often that he was put in chains and sent ashore to work on an African plantation.

In 1748 Newton was on the ship Greyhound when it sailed into a violent storm in the Atlantic Ocean. A wave swept away a crew member standing where Newton had been moments before. Newton proposed that he and another sailor be tied to the pump so they could empty water from the ship before it capsized, telling the captain, “If this will not do, then the Lord have mercy on us!” He and the other seaman pumped for several hours, then Newton took the wheel and steered for eleven hours straight. That whole time, he pondered about what he had said – would God have mercy on him, when his job was transporting other human beings to slavery, when he had mocked other people for their faith in God, when he had denounced the Christian story as false, when he had the worst language and attitude of anyone in a profession known for bad language and attitude?

Two weeks later the battered ship and starving crew arrived in Ireland. Newton was still thinking. Whenever he had encountered something like that storm in the past, he had found faith in God, but sank back into his old ways later. But this time was different. He came to believe that in that storm experience God had sent him a message and begun to work through him. Now, his behaviour didn’t change much, and he stayed on the slave ships, although he cut way back on the swearing. He managed to persuade the parents of Polly, the woman he had visited when he deserted from the Navy, to allow him to write to her, despite his bad reputation. He and Polly eventually got married, and he left the sea and the slave trade. On shore, the Newtons became so immersed in their church community and John so passionate about learning Biblical languages and theology that their friends said that he should become a minister in the Church of England. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was among those encouraging him. John Newton was initially turned down, because he was too friendly with the Methodists who were seen as too evangelical, but was finally ordained.

At that time, many ministers preached as if from a distance, and would never admit that they had personally known temptation or sin. Not John Newton, who preached from his own experiences. And in 1772 he wrote a poem called Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, from his own perspective: “I once was lost, but now am found.” And the poem Amazing Grace was published, and set to music, and picked up and sung at great revival meetings in the United States, and included in hymnbooks during the American Civil War. Amazing Grace became probably the most popular hymn in the English-speaking world.

When John Newton started on slave ships, it was seen as a respectable way to make a living. But he went on to write about the horrible things he had seen, and to join forces with a man named William Wilberforce to change public opinion and end the slave trade in the British Empire. There was a recent movie about that, called Amazing Grace.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Roman church, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. John Newton would agree wholeheartedly. He seemed to have hit rock bottom – whipped in the Navy, humiliated as a deserter, so badly behaved on a slave ship that he was starved, imprisoned, and forced to labour essentially as a slave himself, so caught up in swearing and scorning faith that he could have lost the woman he loved. Looking back, he saw himself as a wretch.

And, yet, Paul continues in the letter to the Romans, that while all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are all treated as righteous because of God’s grace because of a ransom that was paid by Jesus Christ. The words Paul uses come from the law courts - all are guilty, yet all are treated by God as innocent. All are justified. And Paul, and Jesus, use the language of slavery. Jesus says that anyone who sins is a slave to sin. But Jesus has redeemed us. All are delivered from slavery. All are free. Because of grace. Amazing grace.

In that storm at sea, when death was near, John Newton came to realize that God’s amazing grace was there for him too, no matter what he had done before. Romans says that, in grace, God passes over our previous sins. We do not need to live in terror of God because of what we have done wrong, and John Newton had done a lot wrong. But God is love, unfailing love. God is amazing grace. We know this because Jesus came to tell us, and Jesus died and rose again to show us. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Now, John Newton’s conversion wasn’t immediate. It took place over time, but he changed his life, and left us with his legacy of work against the slave trade, and this great hymn Amazing Grace. He wrote, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

Amazing grace. Grace that, as John Newton says, relieves our fears, brings us safe through dangers, toils, and snares, grace that will lead us home. God’s grace for us, through Jesus Christ, grace for us no matter how undeserving we seem to be. So then, Paul asks the Roman believers, what happens to our bragging? Paul says, it’s thrown out. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we consider that a person is treated as righteous, justified, by faith, apart from works.

This is the great theme of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers. Those 95 theses Luther nailed to a church door were, among other things, protesting the idea that grace and salvation could be bought through our actions. The church at that time believed that salvation was obtained through charity and good works. Giving money for a building in Rome would, basically, buy your way into heaven.

Luther said, no, return to what Paul tells the Romans: we have all sinned, we have all fallen short of God’s glory, and yet we are all put into right relationship with God by faith, not by what we do. Grace is God’s free gift to us. Luther refers to these words from Romans as he sums up his ideas in his Smalcald Articles:

First, Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again to justify us. He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and God has laid on him the sins of us all.

And here Luther refers to the letter to the Romans: that all have sinned, but are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by God’s grace, through the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, in his blood.

This is necessary to believe. This cannot be acquired or grasped in any other way, by any work, law, or merit. So it is clear and certain that faith alone puts us right with God.

Sisters and brothers, the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther and John Newton are telling us, nothing we can do could ever win for us God’s grace and forgiveness. Only what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ can bring us that grace. The way to a right relationship with God is not in our attempts to win God’s approval, for in God’s grace and love we already have that. Being put right with God comes in our humble acceptance of the amazing grace which God offers us in Jesus. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed. Thanks be to God.

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