There she was, on the third floor of the mental health center. She had been a resident for as long as anyone could remember, and as a student chaplain I was assigned to visit her. As we talked about her life, she began to cry, as she often did when she spoke of her past. She looked at me and said, “I feel so hopeless!”
“What makes you feel that way?” I asked.
“I just look back on my past and get so depressed,” she said.
Here was a woman haunted by painful memories, ashamed of what she had done, and unable to find healing in her life. She literally punished herself repeatedly for the way she had lived by recalling the same events over and over again as if they would never fade away.
That’s a tragic way to go through life, isn’t it-to feel guilt and shame without any relief or comfort? It’s the little voice that whispers in our ear, “Remember your failures, remember your foolish decisions; remember how you hurt people; remember the awful things you did.” Nobody should have to live that way.
Several years ago there was a movie starring Antonio Banderas called Desperado. The protagonist was a man who had fallen from grace. He was leading a hell of a life, and found himself in the clutches of violence and evil. At the point at which he is utterly broken, he falls to his knees and prays, “Lord, make me the man I used to be; forgive me for what I am.”
I think of the many pained-filled times when in so many words I have uttered that same prayer. My guess is that everyone in this church knows that prayer: “Make me the person I used to be; forgive me for what I am.”
You know the struggle. It’s the struggle of the soul: the interminable, bone-tiring battle against the self. Somehow we want to rectify the wrongs of our lives, repair the damage we have done to others and to ourselves, redeem those terrible moments forever trapped in the dark corridors of our memory. But we feel powerless to do anything.
You know that struggle. It’s one of the reasons you come to church. We are here because we know the pain of being human. And sometimes, even the best of us feel terribly ashamed of what we are.
St. Paul knew that struggle. As a devoted Pharisee, he persecuted Christians with a vengeance. He was there, looking on approvingly, at the execution of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians, he had this life-changing experience in which he encountered Jesus in his life. It changed everything about him. Eventually he took on the mantle of leadership in the church and became the greatest evangelist in Christian history.
Paul had to make peace with his past even as he pushed forward into the future. How did he do it? After describing life before becoming a Christian, Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved…” And to emphasize the point he repeats it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God-not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Most commentators believe that this sums up the whole of Paul’s message, which is the unearned, undeserved and unmerited love of God given to us in Jesus. We call it grace.
We know that grace in our own lives, don’t we? Things happen which we don’t expect, don’t deserve. Your spouse whom you deeply hurt still forgives you. Your friend says the right thing at the right time just when you most need to hear it. The job you never expected to get somehow comes your way. Your son or daughter who seemed to struggle in high school turns out to be a mature and responsible adult. The cancer you thought was going to kill you goes into remission and you become a survivor. You’ve lived alone much of your life, when by happy chance you meet someone you love and who loves you dearly. You wonder how you will get through an especially difficult time but somehow you do – and you are a stronger, better person as a result.
It happens, doesn’t it? Grace comes to us in ways we least expect when we least expect it – and it changes everything.
On September 12, 2001, Genelle Guzman-McMillan became the last person to be rescued alive from the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York. No one has ever understood how she was fortunate enough to survive when more than 2,800 people died.
What do you do when you were supposed to die, but instead live? How do you live your life in such a way that shows gratitude for the gift of life given to you? Before the attacks on the World Trade Center, Genelle was living with her boyfriend, Roger. She cared a lot about her appearance, about going out to dance clubs with friends. But while she was trapped for 26 hours in the rubble of the World Trade Center, Genelle experienced the power of God upholding her life. After her release from the hospital, she and Roger married. They now attend church. She reads her Bible more often and believes that God saved her for a reason. What is obvious to her friends and family is the peace and strength she has gained from her faith in Jesus. (1)
I think Genelle’s experience is summed up in John Newton’s beloved hymn Amazing Grace. Newton, a man, like St. Paul, personally and profoundly understood that he was, by the grace of God, a forgiven sinner called into companionship with Jesus.
John Newton was born in 1725. His father was a sea captain, his mother a devout Christian. She took her young son to chapel and read the scriptures to him daily. They also sang together the hymns of Isaac Watts, one of the great hymn writers of the time, who happened to live near John Newton’s childhood home. But John’s mother died when John was only six years old. Just a few years later, at the age of 11, he went to sea with his father.
As a young adult, he was forced to serve in the English navy, where he had a dismal record of rebelliousness, blasphemy and eventually, desertion. After he deserted, he was recaptured and publicly flogged and humiliated. Later, Newton transferred to a merchant ship with slaves as the cargo. Eventually, John Newton became captain of his own slave ship. The unimaginable cruelty of the slave trade hardened and brutalized Newton’s spirit still more.
On the long voyages there was a lot of empty time to fill, and any book was regarded as a blessing. John had two books that were a legacy from his mother: the Bible and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Driven by boredom, he read the books during the long days of voyaging from Africa to the colonies.
On one voyage, a mighty storm sprang up. It seemed as if surely everyone would perish, but somehow, miraculously, the ship survived the storm. Suddenly, the words of Thomas a Kempis and the Bible took on real meaning for John Newton. He saw himself in the story of the prodigal son. Like the prodigal, John “came to himself” as he experienced God’s unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness. Out of that experience he wrote his famous hymn Amazing Grace!
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.
‘Twas grace, that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
God’s amazing grace-the grace that saved John Newton and Genelle Guzman-McMillan, the grace that transformed the life of St. Paul- that amazing grace is yours and mine this very moment.
The good news is that God wants you to experience amazing grace in your own life. I tell you, there is no greater joy than being in relationship to a God who could not love us more and will never love us less. This is a God who loves us always and forever, without qualification or condition.
Do you understand what this means for you and me? None of us has to live with the burden of our guilt or the stigma of our shame. We can make peace with our past and look forward to our future because Jesus has taken all our sins upon himself when he died for us on the cross-for there on the cross Jesus showed us just how much God loves us. God loves us so much he would even die for us, bleed for us, and suffer for us. Yes, God loves us that much! It’s called grace, amazing grace.
John Newton would go from slave trader to parish priest where he would inspire a young British Member of Parliament by the name of William Wilberforce to lead the fight to stop the slave trade and eventually to abolish slavery altogether. As he lay dying on his bed, and looking back upon his life, John Newton remarked, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great saviour.”
By grace you have been saved through faith. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.
Text – Ephesians 2:1-10
1. “A Miracle’s Cost” by John Cloud, Time, September 9, 2002, 32-39