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)