John was born in 1725—in England. His mother died when he was seven. She had been a strong woman, spiritually. Taught him how to pray, even saw that John memorized some scripture. But then she died. That left John’s dad, John Senior—in a quandary. What should he do? He had a thriving business—in the shipping industry—but it required that he travel— a lot. No time or inclination to look after a little boy. John Sr. did what he thought best. He sent John, Jr. to boarding school.
Only for a couple of years, though. John Sr. remarried and retrieved his son. John Jr., his dad and the new wife lived together under one roof. Then John Sr. and his wife had a baby boy.
Now up to this point, John’s life seems pretty heart-wrenching, right? Small boy having to wrestle with the grief of losing a mother, coupled with feelings of abandonment in boarding school. Probably he competed for his dad’s affections with wife number two and then his half brother. But John’s life was about to take a turn for the better. John Senior got it into his head that John Jr. should accompany him on his sea travels.
For the next six years—John Sr. and John Jr. sailed the Mediterranean—visiting exciting and colorful sea ports—Venice, Genoa, Valencia. Six glorious years!
We pick up John’ story again when he is eighteen.
John can’t get along with his dad. Just a normal, adolescent craving for independence, we might say. But, no-- it’s more than that. He has picked up some very bad habits, too—stealing, cheating, carousing, lying. Finally, against his dad’s wishes, John Jr. joins a merchant ship. While he is on leave from that ship, John is impressed into the Royal Navy. He serves on a number Royal Navy vessels, but he can’t get along with the captain and crew of whatever ship he happens to be on. He is punished severely—whipped, humiliated. Finally, he is forced off a ship in West Africa. He is sold into slavery and almost dies from starvation.
You on this side of the room know Mr. Bill. Do you? (point to other side). He was one of the stars of Saturday Night Live for gee, maybe ten years running. Mr. Bill was a clay figure, maybe six inches tall—each week SNL fans watched Mr. Bill suffer all kinds of injuries to his clay body. So for instance, in one sketch, Mr. Bill attempts to learn karate. He’s kicked and squished and karate chopped, and he even loses his head. Each time, just as he is about to take some physical insult, he says, “Oh NO.” That “Oh, no!” has become iconic, at least in some circles.
John was sort of kind of like Mr. Bill. “Oh No!”
John escapes from slavery, and signs on with yet another ship, to return to England. The ship he is on, encounters a storm. ELEVEN hours he and the rest of the crew fight to keep the ship from sinking. They tear off their shirts and use those to stuff up holes where water is leaking in. They try to mend broken planks, too, but there are just too many, and still the giant waves crash down. Energy-depleted and aware that he may be writing the last sentence of the short story that has been his life, (pause) he remembers his mother. The prayers they used to pray together. John prays earnestly to God that he might be spared.
As luck or some might say as God would have it, some cargo shifts down in the ship’s hold—and covers up the most gaping of the ship’s gaping holes. A brief time later the winds abate, the waters calm; John’s ship floats to safety.
John sees this last event in the context of his life story. God was knocking, indeed God had been knocking, his whole life long—he just hadn’t realized that until finally, finally, he opened the door to God and God’s grace. It was life changing for him. As he would later write, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come, t’is grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Yep. You’ve just heard the life story of John Newton. He’s the John I have been talking about. John Newton wrote the words to the hymn Amazing Grace. That hymn is his autobiography.
Just to finish his life story--after John Newton survives the near ship wreck, he begins in earnest to study scripture. He becomes a pastor; writes a lot of hymns, and some books. He marries; He doesn’t have any children of his own, but he and his wife raise two adopted girls.
You know I related that in his early years, John served on a number of ships? Well, for a brief time, he worked in the slave trade—buying slaves in Africa, packing them, and I do mean packing them—no room to even turn around, in the holds of ships, and selling them in England; at least selling those poor souls who didn’t die in passage. Beyond cruel, the slave trade.
Late in his life, John Newton tries to make amends for his participation in the slave trade. He and Prime Minister William Wilberforce, work to end the slave trade in England and they were successful. Just months before John Newton’s death, England’s Parliament voted to make the slave trade illegal. So, a poetic ending to a life that turned out to be very well-lived indeed.
John Newton’s life story is a real-life rendition of our scripture reading for today. Paul writes in Romans, “We boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope. In other words, there’s a progression to salvation—it goes from 1 suffering; 2 endurance; 3 Character, 4, hope— That’s exactly right. John Newton’s suffering was to good purpose—it taught him endurance, built his character, and eventually opened him to God’s salvation.
You note I use the word salvation. I use it judiciously. Salvation, or being saved, in the normal course of conversation, means rescue from harm. Christians use the word salvation, though, in the context of God rescuing a person’s soul from harm.
But sometimes the word salvation is misused by Christians. That’s why I am careful when I use it. I served as a youth pastor at a church in McLean, Virginia for a number of years. One of the young women in our group told me about a Christian Halloween event she attended—not affiliated with our church, thank goodness! It’s called Scaremare. Have you heard of it? Along with other young people she visited a haunted house and a cemetery. She watched a scary movie featuring chain saws—all scary movies feature chain saws, right?
After the young people, including the young woman I am speaking of, were sufficiently rattled, the Christian counselors at the event, gathered them together. The counselors assured them that IF they did not profess belief in Christ, their souls would suffer eternal torment. Some youth took that warning in stride—the event was scary, yes, but also great fun—and that religious stuff was just silly. Other youth, though, were terrified. Some cried. The young woman who was part of our youth group was one of the ones who cried. She was almost out of her mind with terror. And so, right there at that Halloween event, along with other young people, she gave her life to Christ.
Just so you know, that’s not salvation—yes, there was a brief time of suffering, but there was no endurance, and no building of character. What these young people experienced was human coercion and manipulation!
John Newton, though. He experienced the real thing. His was a life time of growing closer, ever closer to God.
I think YOU are in the process of experiencing the real thing, too. At least that is what I took away from our visit to your school a few weeks back. Toward the end of our visit, as you remember since you were there, we gathered in a circle and you shared some of YOUR life stories. As you shared those, that’s when I started thinking about John Newton. Your stories are so similar. You’ve had your own near shipwreck moments. To a one, though, I heard you say that you have endured; you are now in process of building character; AND you are looking to the future—you have hope. I will be bold to suggest that what you are now living through, is real, honest to God, Christian Salvation.
Now, I want you to turn your heads and look at the folks who are sitting to you left. These folks haven’t had the privilege of attending the Discovery School, but to a one, I can affirm that they have suffered and endured shipwreck moments. Me too! We have been saved. And that is why we are here today. Every Sunday we give thanks to God for God’s rescue—God’s salvation.
Let us give thanks to God, then, through Christ Jesus, for bringing us to this moment. Amen
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”