Two hundred and forty three years ago today, on June 17th, 1764, a hard-bitten, middle-aged Englishman knelt before the Anglican bishop of Chester and was ordained to the sacred order of priests in Christ’s holy Church. His name was John Newton, and he was no ordinary novice priest.
In eighteenth century England, the vast majority of new priests were men in their early twenties, recent graduates of the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. So it was remarkable for John Newton to be ordained at thirty-nine years of age. And the new Father Newton was no Cambridge man. He had spent his adolescence at sea, having become a cabin boy at the age of eleven. But John was quite an able seaman, and he quickly rose to become the master of his own ship at the tender age of twenty-five.
Of course, if you know John Newton’s story at all, you already know what kind of ships he commanded. Captain Newton was a master of slave ships. He made his living in the Triangle Trade, leaving England with cheap manufactured goods and trading them for a cargo of enslaved human beings on the west coast of Africa. These slaves were then exchanged in the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America for the sugar and rum so much in demand back in England. Newton later recalled that routinely a quarter of his captives, sometimes as many as half, would not survive the trip across the Atlantic. But there were vast profits to be made from the sale of those who did survive. And there was no shortage of Englishmen to finance and carry out this dismal trade, including the young Captain Newton.
At first he made little connection between the moral demands of his nominal Christian faith and his life as a slaver. As he later put it, “Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes.” But eventually God opened John Newton’s eyes to the horrors about him and the young captain’s conscience began to trouble him deeply. His responsibility for the wretched situation of so many fellow human beings was obvious. He took steps to ameliorate the harshest of conditions on his slave ships, but still his soul ached under the weight of his part in that inhuman trade. Finally he returned to England, resigning command of his last slave ship in 1756, and began a quest for forgiveness and peace in his heart and soul.
Of course, John Newton eventually found that forgiveness and peace in the grace of God. And through that grace he became in every real sense a different man. For forty-three years Fr. Newton was one of the most effective preachers and most highly regarded pastors in England. Thousands of people came to know Christ as Savior through his sermons and writings. He joined one of his parishioners, William Wilberforce, as a tireless campaigner to end the English slave trade, a goal finally achieved two hundred years ago this year in 1807, a few months before Fr. Newton’s death. And as you probably all know, John Newton penned some of the most beloved hymns in the English language, including the incomparable “Amazing Grace.”
When I realized that today was the anniversary of Fr. Newton’s ordination to the priesthood and placed that fact up against our Scripture readings today, I could not help but marvel at the providence of God. For John Newton was very like the unnamed woman in our Gospel lesson today. Like him, this woman was also a notorious sinner, not fit for polite company. And like him, her personal encounter with Jesus Christ provoked an astonishing response. Notice that she never says a word, and she isn't even spoken to until the end of the story. Yet somehow Christ’s mere presence draws her in and drives her to her knees, producing a flood of tears sufficient to bathe His feet before she anoints them. Something compels her so strongly to minister to our Savior’s needs that she uses the products of her own body—her tears and her hair—as if they were the wash water and towel of a household slave.
But what is the “something” that drives this “sinful woman” to act so dramatically? Forgiveness: a forgiveness so overwhelmingly powerful it does not even need to be spoken to be tangible. Christ tells his host, a Pharisee, a short parable about forgiven debtors in order to explain her perplexing behavior. The debtor who has been forgiven the most is the most grateful to his creditor. So this parable would explain the woman’s unusual conduct only if she was grateful of Christ’s forgiveness before she acted, despite the fact that the Lord speaks words of forgiveness to her only at the end of our passage: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Clearly the woman's first encounter with the amazing grace of the Living God in the person of Jesus so overwhelmed her with a sense of both her great need for forgiveness and assurance of that forgiveness that her response could be nothing less than complete surrender to the service of Christ, even before Christ's forgiveness was put into words. John Newton knew that same need for forgiveness and had received that same assurance from the risen Savior. And his response to God’s grace was the same as the woman in the Gospel lesson—he gave the whole of his life to the service of our Lord, surrendering himself completely to the will of God.
After his encounter with the gracious love of God, John Newton was in a very real sense not the same man he had been before he knew Christ by faith. Everything about him was changed. And our reading from St. Paul today speaks of that change. “I have been crucified with Christ,” the blessed apostle says. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That is the message that changed John Newton’s life, turning a slaver into a liberator. For death had stalked the heart of the slave ship captain as certainly as it did the fetid holds of his ships until by God’s grace Christ came and filled the dank places in John Newton’s soul with His own divine Life. For the Holy One who emptied Himself and suffered death on the cross in “the form of a slave” is the only source of genuine Life and Liberty in the Universe. That is the fact of God’s amazing grace that turned a wretched servant of bigotry and greed into one of the most beloved pastors and evangelists in the history of Anglicanism. That is the grace that led him home.
You and I, of course, have just as much need of the gracious forgiveness given through faith in Jesus Christ as did that sinful woman in Galilee, Saul the persecutor of Christians, and John the slave ship captain. We, too, would all still be lost in the grip of sin and death had not Christ taken our sin upon Himself and yielded Himself up to death on a cross on our behalf. Yet in as many of us as have been reborn in the waters of baptism and live a life worthy of repentance through faith in His precious blood, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. And as the lives we now live are in truth Christ’s own Life, may God give us the grace to live them in service to His loving will. Ten thousand years of such service in blessedness will hardly begin to repay our debt of gratitude for His gracious gift of Himself.
In his old age John Newton said to one of his friends these words: ‘I am a very old man and my memory has gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great saviour.’ May you and I always hold in remembrance these same great truths. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Amen.