“One thing I do know, that though I was blind,
now I see.” (John 9:25)
The man didn’t know much else, but he did know that. He didn’t know who Jesus was; he didn’t know where Jesus had come from; he didn’t know how Jesus had used the dirt and spittle to make him see. All he knew was that the man Jesus had given him sight. He had lived his whole life in darkness and now he was bathed in light. He had been reduced to hopelessness as a beggar and his blindness had branded him as a sinner. Now he was somebody—he was a human being. He had gotten a life, thanks to that man Jesus. No matter how much the Pharisees pestered him and questioned him and accused him, he simply stuck to his story, the one thing he knew for sure: “Though I was blind, now I see.”
A man named John Newton read that story in the Bible one day, and he realized that it was the story of his own life. He had never been physically blind, but for the first twenty-three years of his life he was caught up in the worst kind of spiritual blindness. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a sea captain who took him out of school at the age of eleven and forced him to work aboard his ship in the Mediterranean. At nineteen he was pressed into naval service on a British man-of-war as a midshipman. As the vessel lay at anchor one day off the city of Plymouth he tried to escape but was caught and publicly flogged and degraded. His next venture took him on a ship bound for Africa where he became involved in the notorious slave trade. He rose in the ranks of the traders and went back to sea in 1747 as the captain of his own slave ship, transporting helpless human beings of African birth, bound in chains, in deplorable conditions, to their new owners in the American colonies. Newton’s image became well established as that of an uncouth, unbelieving and thoroughly disreputable seafarer.
But in 1748, in his twenty-third year, in the middle of a ferocious storm, in mountainous seas, John Newton’s life changed forever. The Spirit of the same Lord, who long ago had healed the man born blind, had been at work in the soul of this disreputable sea captain. As the enormous waves broke over the ship and the wind-driven spray washed over his face, it was as though, like the man whom Jesus had told to wash in the pool of Siloam—it was as though suddenly he himself had been washed clean. He was borne out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of a new day. Soon he gave up the life of a ship captain and slave trader and took up work as a maritime clerk in the city of Liverpool.
It was in Liverpool that he came under the influence of two of the eighteenth century’s greatest preachers, John Wesley and George Whitefield. Such was their effect upon him that Newton felt himself called to the ordained ministry. But because he had been deprived of further education as a youth, he had to engage in years of study to make up for it. This he did gladly and with great devotion. When he finished, however, his past came back again to haunt him, and he was turned down by his bishop, the Bishop of York, because of his misspent earlier life and his terrible reputation. But Newton persisted, so sure was he of his call to the priesthood, and in 1764, sixteen years after his conversion in that tumultuous storm at sea, he was ordained finally by the Bishop of Lincoln. He served for several years in a rural parish and then was named rector of a large London church, St. Mary’s, where he became a leader in the campaign to abolish the very slave trade by which he had once made his living.
You and I know John Newton best through his most famous hymn Amazing Grace which we’re singing this morning. “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.” And this is just one of a number of hymns written by this remarkable man who likened his conversion to the healing of the man born blind in today’s gospel. As his life drew to an end, ironically he himself became physically blind. But the beauty of his Christian faith, the humility with which he acknowledged his past, and the depth of his devotion to his Lord shone through the epitaph he composed for himself before he died in 1807: “John Newton clerk, once an Infidel and Libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
As I read over again the life of John Newton in preparing for this morning, I picked up a bit of common ground between us which I had forgotten: We were born on the same day of the same month, the 24th of July. But my feeling of kinship with him goes far beyond the coincidence of our birthdays. It is that sense of spiritual blindness and spiritual healing with which I most identify. How blind I was for so many years in not recognizing my own self-centeredness—and at the same time not recognizing how persistently God was knocking at the door of my heart! Let me give you an example. I’m not proud of this; indeed I’ve been ashamed of it ever since. But Lent is a time to be honest with God and one another. Where I went to college, fraternities in those days were a must if you wanted to be socially accepted, and I was proud to have been chosen by one of them. But the next year, during fraternity rushing, an individual of color was proposed. And I spoke out and voted vigorously against letting him in. And he was rejected.
To this day, I remember an uncomfortable feeling deep inside, even as I spoke my piece. And I know that that was God knocking at my door. But I had been raised to look down on racial minorities and I was very much caught up in that world. Furthermore, I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was far too protective of my own status with the “in” crowd. So I kept God out of that department of my life. (And, mind you, I was going to the local Episcopal church on Sundays, and even singing in the choir.) But I was blind, you see. I didn’t comprehend or acknowledge any disconnect between my racial attitudes and my Christian affirmations.
I can’t say that my conversion happened in as dramatic a setting as Newton’s, in the midst of a harrowing storm at sea. What I can say is that for me the blinders came off when two things happened: I couldn’t stand myself any longer; and God swept me up in a love that was so forgiving, so understanding, so nurturing, that I was totally disarmed. I couldn’t hold out any longer against it. My release from blindness was so stark that I saw hugely before me my shallowness, my insensitivity toward the feelings of others, my cowardice in not standing up for justice, my headlong rush to gain wealth and material things. But God loved me anyway!
And God is still working on me. I’m a work in progress, as I think most of us are. John Newton the infidel didn’t become John Newton the preacher and hymn writer in an instant. There were those sixteen years in between. And the experience, the ecstasy, of God’s love came to him before he ever began studying theology. And surely the same is true of us: Only after we know that unconditional love, only after our blindness begins to give way to the light, do we become hungry to discover who this God really is, how this Jesus who spent thirty-three years among us and was hung up on a cross to die, and yet abides among us—how this Jesus changes everything and gives us hope and joy. “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see,” declared the man in today’s gospel. The one thing I want you to know, this morning and forever, is that God loves you beyond your wildest imagining! See that love! Know that love! Trust that love for ever!