Rev. Fr. (Dr) Anthony Mario Ozele, PhD
A young man asked an old rich man how he made his money. The old guy fingered his worsted wool vest and said, “Well, son, it was 1932, the depth of the Great Depression . I was down to my last nickel. I invested that nickel in an apple. I spent the entire day polishing the apple and , at the end of the day, I sold the apple for ten cents. The next morning, I invested those ten cents in two apples. I spent the entire day polishing them and sold them and sold them at 5:00pm for 20 cents. I continued this system for a month, by the end of which I did accumulated a fortune of $3.50. Then my wife’s father died and left us ten million dollars.”
There’s a lot to be said for hard work and perseverance, but in this man’s case his wealth had less to do with his own character than with the generosity of his wife’s father.
St. Augustine once wrapped a powerful thought in vivid imagery when he said, “God always pours His grace into empty hands.” No one’s hands could have been emptier than John Newton’s About 250 years ago, John Newton composed one of the most popular songs ever written. It’s called AMAZING GRACE. Sing that first verse with me again: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found, I was blind but now I see.`
John Newton’s father commanded a merchant ship and was always at sea. His mother raised him as best she could, teaching him the Scriptures and sacred songs. Sadly, his mother died just before his seventeenth birthday and it would be his father’s footstep in which John would follow. By the time he was seventeen, John Newton’s world was the open sea. The world of the Spirit, as lovingly taught by his mother, had vanished over the horizon and was lost as sea – much like Newton’s own soul. In his own words, john’s “delight and habitual practice was wickedness,” and he “neither feared God nor regarded men.” In short, he was “ a slave to doing wickedness and delighted in sinfulness.”
After a short stint in England’s wartime navy, John was dishonourably discharged and then made his way to Africa abroad a freighter. In the shadow of the Dark Continent, John Newton was finally hired abroad a slave ship, where African men, women and children were treated like cargo and shipped across the Atlantic as salves.
Then, in March of 1746, somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic, grace arrived. The hand of God rescued a shipwrecked soul. A violent storm had engulfed the small slave ship. All hands were awake. Voices were shouting with urgency. Water was beginning to flood the hold. Newton wondered if this was how it was all going to end – entombed on the ocean floor. Then something remarkable happened – John Newton began praying. Later, he would surrender his life to Jesus and eventually become a pastor. He preached the Gospel until the venerable age of eighty-one.
Style, crosses every border, and reaches any and every ear. When it’s announced at church, people stand a little taller too sing it. They lift their voices a bit higher. Some feel that, just for a moment, they are catching a glimpse through the gates of heaven.
Literally hundreds of hymnals have been published and gone out–of-print, yet Amazing Grace can be found in every single one of them. I believe that one of the reasons that this hymn has been so singularly loved and enduring is that every single verse conveys some powerful element of God’s truly amazing grace.
THE CAPTIVATING PRESENCE OF GRACE
As much as the song, Amazing Grace, has captivated the hearts and minds of worshippers for generations, I don’t believe, however, it’s the melody or harmony that is so inspiring. It isn’t really the song itself; rather it’s the presence of God’s grace within it that captivates us and compels us to listen. The first words of this enduring hymn declare: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” As Martin Lloyd-Jones has said, “There is no more wonderful word than grace. It means unmerited favour of kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving … it is not just a free gift, but a free gift to those who deserve exactly the opposite.”
Someone once said that grace is a five letter word often spelled J-E-S-U-S. Jesus was and is the once –for-all, prefect human image of grace, love and truth. The Bible says that Christ “Became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14-17 NIV). Jesus constantly demonstrated grace to the people around him. He showed grace to a thirsty woman at the Samarian well (John 4). He lavished grace upon a woman at the Temple courtyard who had been caught in adultery (John 8). He showed grace upon Peter who had abandoned him in his hour of need. These moments of grace scattered throughout the pages of the Gospels command our attention – not with a shout, but with a still small voice.
To capture a deeper understanding of this amazing grace, we have to go to what has been called to Magna carta of God’s grace, Ephesians 2:1-10. In this passage the Scripture, the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians of the great work God has done in their lives. Listen to Paul: “you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of hid grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.
Paul’s words tell us that grace is the centerpiece of God’s salvation. There are five words that we key to understanding the Christian gospel. They are (a) grace (b) truth (c) faith (d) love and hope. Paul says that grace is the key ingredient. All God’s salvation is for us begins in grace. Everything else in the gospel else in the gospel flows from and builds upon our understanding of grace.
So what is grace? Websters defines grace with such words as “unmerited divine assistance, approval, favour, mercy, pardon and privilege.” Those are all nice words, but it doesn’t quite ring the same when we say “ we are saved by God’s divine assistance,” and it leaves something left unsaid, because if we are saved simply by God’s assistance,” that communicates that we help God in the saving act, but that is exactly what Paul says isn’t the case. He says that God is the actor – it is all God to us. For some unknown reason that is rooted in the nature of who God is , God gives himself to us, attaches himself to us , and acts to rescue us .
In the definition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “grace is favour, the free and underserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”. Grace means a generous benefit freely given. The sense of it in the New Testament is that it means a favour bestowed by God through His power to transform a person’s life starting at salvation and going on from there. And how much of transformation do we and our world need today!
Because of His mercy and love, God saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. Paul is clear – wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. If grace is God giving Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, then we are given significance, and find our value is God’s relationship to us. But listen, the attention is not on us, but upon the one who loves us so deeply. So grace moves us to worship and humility.
A lady shared a story about a moment of grace that will forever remain in her memory. One icy November afternoon when she was in high school, a carload of teenage boys were on their way to a basketball game. This lady was a cheerleader and had already arrived at the game along with most of the other basketball [players and dancers who rode in the bus. But these four junior varsity boys choose to carpool together, rather than taking the bus with the rest of the students. They never made it to the game. On the way, garbage truck came sliding through an intersection on a patch of black ice and broadsided the boys’ car. One of them suffered a broken arm. Another was in a coma for a week. And one boy, was killed instantly.
The driver of the garbage truck wasn’t injured; at least, not physically. He wasn’t the devil. He was just a guy trying to do his job. Maybe he had one too many late nights. Maybe he was driving a little too fast. But in the blink of an eye, he had the injuries of three young men and the death of one on his hands and in his heart. One can only imagine the guilt and remorse that kept him up at night. Then, not long after the funeral, his phone rang. The parents of the boy who died, anted to meet the man who killed their son. You can be sure he had no desire to look them in the eyes, but he conceded anyway. What would he see in their eyes? Hatred? Anger? Worst of all, pain? But when the door opened, he saw none of those things,. Instead, he saw compassion. They hugged him and welcomed him into their house. They served him dinner. And he must had choked back tears when they assured him, “We forgive you.”
“I once was lost …. But now I’m found” in that phrase, John Newton was referring to some Biblical stories Jesus told and he was using those stories to explain his own conversion experience.
In Luke 15, Jesus told the stories of three people who has lost something valuable. A shepherd lost one of his sheep that had wandered away; a woman lost a coin from her dowry; And a man lost his son – the prodigal son who gave up his home/family for bright lights and loose living. Each story told of the anguish these people had experienced in having lost something of value and each story ended with a peculiar phrase…
- The shepherd say ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep‘ Luke 15:6
- The woman says ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’ Luke 15:9
- And the father of the prodigal son say “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Luke 15:32
The sheep, the coin and the son – they had all been lost … but now all were found. And Jesus was using these stories to tell about how God seeks and saves the lost. But there is an “oddity” about these stories … one significant difference between the three that stands out to me
- The shepherd loses the sheep – and what does he do? He leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one that wandered away
- The woman loses one of her coins – what does she do? She vigorously sweeps and searches through every room until she finds that coin
- A father loses one of his sons – and what does he do? He sits home and waits for his son to come to his senses and come home.
In two of those three stories, God is shown as searching for that which was lost. BUT in the third story God is shown as waiting on the porch eagerly watching for the moment his wayward son changes his mind and returns home. Theologians down through the ages have struggled with this question of how much influence or choice people have in their salvation. Certain theologians have even gone so far as to say that we have NO choice in our salvation. God does it all. He chooses who will be saved and who will go to hell and we don’t have a say in the matter.
Now, if Jesus had only told the stories about the good shepherd and the woman with the 10 coins you might actually believe that. I mean, the sheep didn’t have any choice in whether it was returned to the flock, and the coin didn’t get to vote on whether the woman picked it up off the dirt floor. Thus, if those were the only stories told by Jesus, you might come to believe that we play no role in our salvation. God seeks us and picks us up and like the sheep and the coin we’d have little choice in the matter
But then Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son and the father sits at home. The prodigal son returns because he decided to. If that had been the only story Jesus had told about being lost and found you might come to believe that your salvation all depends upon you.
But Jesus told ALL THREE stories so that we’d realize that
- God IS actively involved in seeking you for salvation
- That God ISN’T going to force you or I to become Christians or to retrace our steps.
We have to make that choice ourselves. We are not sheep, and we are not coins. We are men and women created in the image of God.
A moment of grace can change a lifetime. In fact, a moment of grace can change an eternity.