“Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
The words of this hymn are well known and well loved, but you may not know that the man who wrote these words was John Newton, an English sailor who served in Royal Navy and was a slave trader carrying women, men, and children from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean in what was called the middle passage. Thankfully, that’s not where his story ends.
When he was 25 years old, his ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank. Newton woke up in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, he called out to God.
Incredibly, the cargo shifted and stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton marked this experience as the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. He would go on to become an abolitionist and work to end the slave trade.
His hymn, Amazing Grace, is powerful to many people because it recalls the ways God has given us new ways of seeing in our own lives and promises that he will continue to give us eyes to see the way forward.
The story of the man born blind in the ninth chapter of the Gospel According to John tells us Jesus has the power to heal, but even more this is a story about how Jesus gives us a new way of seeing.
There are things that can prevent us from seeing God’s presence in our lives and in the world clearly, but Jesus is always coming to us and coming to the world so that we might see who we are and who we belong to.
The man in the gospel story was born blind and I think it’s hard to begin to imagine what that must be like, but imagine that you have never seen your parents’ faces. You have never seen you own face in the mirror. You’ve never seen the face of a friend or stranger or any of your loved ones. You’ve never seen the spectrum of colors from red to violet. You have never seen the blue ridge mountains or the James River tumbling by. You’ve never seen sunlight streaming through the swaying trees and making shifting prisms in the grass…You‘ve never seen anything!
And so, imagine you have been begging all the days of your life. You have nowhere to go, and nothing to do, and the crippling boredom isn’t nearly as bad as the hopelessness of just being stuck, standing by the roadside, begging day after day for just enough bread to eat to keep you going.
Imagine this and you have the life of this man born blind.
And now imagine in the dark of your blindness, this man called Jesus comes up to you, speaks kindly to you, puts mud on your eyes, and tells you to go wash. And you go and you wash. And as the mud comes dripping off of your face the blindness comes with it. You see the world drenched in light for the first time and it is so bright it hurts. All these shapes, and all these colors, and all this specificity comes flooding into your mind through these eyes that can SEE! You come back from the pool of Siloam, where Jesus told you to wash…
But what happens next for this man? We might think people would be happy for him and rejoice with him, but Instead of people saying: let’s go see your parents and celebrate; come with me I want to show you what the clouds looks like, come this way and see what the grasses and flowers looks like; let’s walk through the city market and look at all brightly colored clothes, and foods, and spices, and drink in what they look like, the neighbors and the people who know you are skeptical. They have questions. They want answers.
All of a sudden, it seems as if this man born blind is thrust into an episode of CSI: Jerusalem. That’s where this is all happening, and it is as if this man has found himself to be the central character of a Crime Scene Investigation.
No one is happy that he can see. No one stops to marvel at this miracle. Instead, everyone is on the case: asking questions, taking notes, comparing data, formulating theories; cross-examine him, they bring in his parents for questioning, they ask him what he knows about this man Jesus. They ask him to repeat his story. But no matter what he says, they won’t believe. Ironically, they are the ones who cannot see what has happened.
So, they put the man out of the synagogue. He has been healed but it’s come at a heavy price: he has become an outcast in the community.
In an episode of CSI, at the end of the story, you find out what really happened and how it happened, and just like an episode of CSI, at the end of this story we find out what really happened:
On the day this man was begging beside the roadside and Jesus came and healed him he was sent, still blind, to wash his eyes clean. Now, at the very end of the story, Jesus hears that no one has believed the man and that he has been driven out, and so he comes and shows the man his face. This is the first time the man born blind has seen Jesus’ face. And when he sees Jesus face to face, he sees the source of his healing and health.
All of a sudden, the man realizes and we realize we don’t have a crime scene investigation. We have a Christ scene investigation.
The man is healed because Jesus is the light of the world that defeats the darkness. Jesus is the truth of God that illuminates our blindness. In the end, we get the answers everyone wanted so badly: The healing didn’t come from the mud, it didn’t come from the spit, it didn’t come from the special water of the pool of Siloam, it came from Jesus. Jesus is God’s healing touch – for this man, for you and me, and the whole world.
Christ is alive in the world today and if we do some investigating we can see him turning up in or lives again and again.
Yesterday, many of us gathered at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison around Pastor Chris and Terry Price and Megan and Robbie and Stella. We gathered to support the family, and to remember and give God thanks for Katie Anne Price and for her life.
At the service, Bishop Mauney gave us a message from Pastor Price. He said people had asked him wasn’t he mad at God? And Pastor Price said no, that just the opposite, he and his family have felt God’s presence in the many prayers and cards and the love expended to them though the saints and angels of God. When we wonder how on earth they could even stand up and get through that day, they wanted us to know that is because of the love of Christ and the love of Christ extended through the community, through all of you, and your love and prayers.
Christ is alive in the world today, and it didn’t take too much investigation to see him living in the lives of our Lutheran youth this weekend at the Hunger Rumble. In Norfolk, youth and adult leaders gathered for Bible study and singing and fellowship, thinking together about how God calls us to be aware and attentive to those in our community who are hungry.
I have seen people, and you may have, who look a lot like what the man born blind must have looked like, standing on the side of the road begging, sometimes holding a sign, asking for help. I admit I often don’t know what to do. Our youth know. This weekend they made bags to give out to people – bags which include socks, snacks, sunscreen, and lip balm. And inside each bag is a note which reads, “May the Lord’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.”
We can see evidence of Christ at work in the world through our whole community collecting supplies for school bags for Baker Elementary, in serving at Crestview Elementary at their Spring Carnaval, and in giving blood this morning.
Today at this table, Christ comes to us, to heal us and to forgive our sins. He comes to us in a way that we can see and taste and touch, so that we know God is real and God’s love for us is real.
While we receive communion today, we will sing “Amazing Grace;” the words of John Newton that point to his close-encounter with God and the new way of seeing he received as he began to have sympathy for the African slaves.
Later he published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” in which he described for the first time the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. He apologized for what he called “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
He had copies sent to everyone he knew and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required many reprintings, and contributed to passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the slave trade.
Jesus gave John Newton a new way of seeing, and we will sing words these words that celebrate John Newtons’ new sight, the man born blind’s new sight, and the new sight Christ gives to us.
Come to our Lord’s Table today and see the healing Christ given for you.
Come to our Lord’s table today we and see we have been given a community to celebrate with, which stands together in the times we cannot stand on our own.
Come to our Lord’s table today, and look up and see the cross of Christ, which is healing for you and for me and for the whole world.