The text of a sermon, based on Acts 4.32-35, videotaped and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021.
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.
On a Sunday morning, years ago, in another place, as our closing hymn, we sang Amazing Grace. I stood at the door greeting departing parishioners. Sarah, one of the congregational matriarchs, approached. Sarah worshiped faithfully every Sunday, knew the prayer book and hymnal by heart; reciting every word of the liturgy, singing every hymn from memory. “Good morning, sister!” I exclaimed. Sarah, usually cheerful, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, was unhappy. Holding up her cane, she proclaimed, “I will never sing that song! I am not a wretch! Amazing grace, indeed!”
I understood Sarah’s distaste for Amazing Grace. The hymn was written by the Englishman John Newton. His life-story containing a chapter as a slave ship captain. During a storm, Newton heard God’s voice. The tempest passed. Newton, delivered from the angry sea, convinced of his wretchedness, confessed his faith in God and God’s amazing unconditional grace. But Newton’s conversion did not compel him to abandon the slave trade until later. Although he was kinder to his human cargo while transporting them, those who survived, to their lives of captivity and servitude.
Sarah’s grandparents, born in captivity, saw the end of legalized, institutional slavery. With that familial legacy, Sarah, deeply bitter about Newton’s life-story, found no personal favor in his words.
I thought of Sarah as I reflected on our text from the Acts of the Apostles; who, early on, practiced a form of collectivism: No one claimed private ownership; everything was held in common.
This characteristic of communal living aside, what caught my attention and brought Sarah to mind are these words: With great power, the apostles testified to the resurrection of Jesus and great grace was upon them all and there was not a needy person among them.
Notwithstanding Sarah’s denunciation, we are wretched. Wretched in our sinfulness, which, I hasten to add, is not about being bad. For, if so, the temptation is too great for us to fall (and we will and do fall!) into the trap of comparisons: Who’s bad? Who’s not as bad? Who’s really bad? I’m not that bad!
Sinfulness is about being human. The chiefest manifestation of our sinfulness, our humanness is our self-interest. We, inherently and, surely, as Americans culturally, are not given to function corporately. Life for us, much of the time, is about us. In a word – and speaking always and only for myself, I confess – given a choice between your way, even God’s way and my way, I want my way.
We need no more proof of this. Nevertheless, in our political realm, we stand increasingly distant from any semblance of bipartisanship; a crucial element of our system of governance. And in our behavioral responses to the viral pandemic, now, having entered our second year, day-by-day, we are less-and-less national and more-and-more individual.
The wretched excess of our self-interest exposes this inescapable reality of human living: Individuality, being one’s self v. Communality, being with others.
Yet there is something, I believe one thing that makes possible our holding, bearing in our bodies this constant tension so not to be torn apart. The grace of unconditional love, received and given.
How do we get grace? Does it only come, as for Newton, from on high in the midst of the storms of life? No, I don’t believe so. Grace, as Acts teaches us, also comes through practice: The apostles testified to the resurrection of Jesus.
To testify. To witness. Both words derive from the Greek, martus; from whence also comes the word martyr. The apostles, in testifying, in witnessing, acted. They didn’t merely talk about the resurrection (which required the crucifixion), they did it; daily dying and rising. They didn’t simply proclaim it, they performed it; being as Jesus is and doing what Jesus does. In their everyday self-sacrificial acts of giving, sharing, loving grace grew. Thereby allowing all to give, to share, to love, so that no one was in need.
Today, I testify, bear witness that you, we, St. Matthew’s, as the people of God, do this, are this faithfully, freely, fully. And I am privileged to share my individual life in our community.
Amazing grace, you are, indeed! Thus, may we say:
When we’ve been here ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
© 2021 PRA
 Words (published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807).
 From A Collection of Sacred Ballads (1790); (my modification)
3 thoughts on “Amazing God, Amazing Grace!”
I remember that story about the parishioner being upset about the word Wretch in Amazing Grace!!!
When we were little and someone called a bad child a wretch, my grandmother would stop them in their tracks and say it takes years of practice to learn Grace and we needed to give them a chance instead of calling them a wretch…but she’d always close by saying God loved the wretches too!!
You would have loved my grandma Paul!!
Always, my dearest Loretta and Karen, I thank you, aye, my soul is indebted to you for your reception of my writing(s) and, more, for your depth of reflection and willingness to share your ruminations with me.
And, yes, Loretta, I do love your grandmother (for I know her through you) and, surely, I would have been blessed to have known her in the flesh.
Karen, there are moments (I confess when I, necessarily, in my individuality, but not necessarily beneficially, am wrapped up in the small cocoon called “Paul”) when I, having thought and aired once again what I consider to be a fairer view of the nature and activity of human sin, bump up and rail against what you aptly (for so many bear this perception in mind and heart) describe as sin “as discrete actions and attitudes.” There are moments when I think that this application of sin “works” for so many of us much of the time, for it is a way of distancing ourselves from our native disfunctionality (which, biblically, I think, is a misapplication of Paul’s “it is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells in me” [Romans 7.17], which I consider Paul’s way of testifying to the elemental, thus, inescapable tension within him between perceiving and desiring to follow God’s will/way and, in his innate humanness, resisting God’s will/way).
And, as I wrote a moment ago to you and Loretta via email, referencing Konda Mason’s provocative and, I consider, searingly clearsighted vision of our humanness, when will…can “the other” become “another” to each and all of us; thus, no one against us whom I must stand or who stands against me, but rather (and only) one whom I embrace as a kindred (stardust-made) soul?
And, yes, I have heard Wintley Phipps’ rendering of the creation story and his analysis of “Amazing Grace”, particularly the sense and substance of the tune (which, interestingly enough, is called “New Britain”, clearly, I think, tied to John Newton’s national origin). Also, interestingly enough, Newton’s vocational trajectory, post-slave transporter, in part, included becoming an Anglican clergyman.
I thank you for your identification of sin as a product and characteristic of our human nature and not as identified behaviors. And further, I so appreciate your linking sin and the state of being an individual and unaware of our unseverable bond with God, with our fellow human beings, and with nature itself and the cosmos. We have grown so accustomed to thinking of sin as discrete actions and attitudes, when it is simply part of who we are as creatures. Life is the epic struggle to reclaim, reanimate, and celebrate the bonds that enfold us as children of God but that are stretched and misshapen by our perception of ourselves and separate and independent. This is, I believe, the sin that Jesus faced and conquered on the cross, as example and truth for all of us. As the speaker in the video I forwarded yesterday pointed out, every atom in every one of us who ever lived, as well as in everything we have ever known, is made up of atoms and molecules formed from stardust from the cataclysm that heralded Creation. We are kin. We are one in ways we haven’t begun to understand. That we don’t know that as a people, as a species, is the blindness that we are so in need of grace to overcome.
As for the song “Amazing Grace,” I have heard the Reverend Wintley Phipps, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor who is also a wonderful singer, tell his version of the story of its creation. Perhaps you have also. The words were indeed written by John Newton, but according to Phipps, the Library of Congress attributes the tune to “unknown.” Phipps’ analysis is that since the melody of “Amazing Grace,” like the melody of many if not most Black spirituals, is based on the African pentatonic (black notes of the piano) scale, he believes it was a melody that Newton heard being sung by enslaved people on his ships and took as the setting for his words. I always loved the song, but it took on deeper and more complex meaning when I heard that analysis. There was certainly sin in the sense you offered in your sermon in that song’s beginnings, but grace entered the picture somewhere along the way. And now we have the song that has blessed and blesses so many of us struggling with the same sin.
Thank you, Paul, for guiding us down this road (or across this ocean) today.