Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” is a tremendous and powerful work, well worth reading in its entirety today. (You can read a PDF of an early version here or pick up a copy of Strength to Love.) Interestingly, later versions include an alternate ending that focuses on the grace of God. I’ve transcribed the parts of the audio that differ significantly from the YouTube version at the bottom of the post, which unfortunately doesn’t give the date or location that this version of the sermon was delivered.
I think this portion is especially crucial in a day and age when there is a great deal of moral effort put forth in fighting racism and other forms of structural sin. Such work often inspires a great deal of despair as people encounter strongholds of sin, both within themselves and in others. I think the grace Dr. King describes here is the unique piece missing from a lot of “the work” going on today– and anyone committed to a life of good works and service.
But just before leaving, let me say this to you, America. I’ve said a lot to you about loving. I’ve said a lot to you about being moral and living noble principles. I know that you often try to do that. But I want to say something to you about the meaning of the Gospel.
In trying to live up to the high and noble principles of this religion, you’ll often fall short. And I know that you’ve felt sometimes that you’ve tried to live up to it and you didn’t quite make it. Sometimes you felt like you could do it alone but the more you tried, the more you discovered that you couldn’t do it alone. And I know how you were caught up in the tragic dimensions of sin, both individual and collective. I see how, as you live life, on every level of your life you are confronted with sin and you’ve had to cry out as I’ve had to cry out, “The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do!”
Then as you try to follow the law of love you find yourself saying, “Oh, wretched man that I am!”, you discover somehow that the more you try, the more that you discover you can’t do it alone. And oh, you end up in despair. You end up in a tragic state. You feel that you have lost out.
Yes, I have been like that. When I came to that point– when I came to the point of feeling like I couldn’t make it alone, when I came to the point of realizing that I was too weak to make it– I discovered something else. I reached out and saw breaking out of eternity and into time the powerful dimensions of God’s grace. And where sin abounded, grace abounded even more exceedingly.
So I want to say to you, America, reach out! If you reach hard enough you will discover God’s grace. It is that grace that can lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. It is that grace that can lift you from the midnight of sorrow to the daybreak of joy. It is that grace helps you to see that by the grace of the Almighty God you can live in this world and you can live this life. You can see the face of Almighty God with all of his eternal principles. In the midst of man’s tragic sin stands God’s amazing grace.
I must say goodbye to you now. I may not see you, but I will meet you in God’s eternity. To God in the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit be with you today, tomorrow, and even forever.