This sermon was preached on Reformation Sunday. The text was John 8:31-36
Please pray with me
Lord God, by your Spirit open our hearts and our minds to receive and engage your Word. Grant that we who believe in you may be filled with your Spirit and may know the truth indeed. We ask this through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What would you do with freedom if you had it? What would you do, if you were truly free? I realize that some of you right now, may be sitting there thinking to
Others of you might be thinking to yourselves, “I don’t even know what being free would look like.” You are the ones who feel bound and even overwhelmed by schedules, responsibilities, the demands of families, or your career, and like a hamster on a wheel, you feel like you are endlessly running, endlessly trying, endlessly working to achieve the perfect balance, be the perfect parent, spouse, child, friend, student or worker or whatever, and feeling like you never really measure up. You may be confined by illness, by bodies that are betraying you, or by financial constraints. So the pastor’s words and this gospel’s message of true freedom for you feels out of reach and unrealistic, and more than you can possible hope for. And to some degree, you might be right.
Still others of you are sitting there right now, wondering what you might make for dinner, or thinking ahead to Thanksgiving and forming plans in your heads for the holidays. Or noticing the colors in that window or simple looking around and appreciating how fine this church looks when it is all decked out in red like it is today. Because you are among the ones who may think to yourselves, “Since I believe in Jesus, and I know that I am saved by grace alone through faith alone, I’m good.” And of course, you are partially correct as well.
But I have to tell you, whichever of those you are, this gospel message is for you. It is for all of us.
When we hear the word free or her sister, freedom we often think like the Judeans in John’s gospel today likely did, in the literal or political sense: Freedom as release from oppression or forced servitude; freedom as the removal of externally imposed restrictions or freedom as unfettered enjoyment of life. Like the 21st century Americans that we all are, we think of freedom in terms of the vast number of choices that we may have. And like the Jews in this gospel text from John, we tend to hear what Jesus is saying in this text in its more literal sense. We assign meaning to this passage based on a concept of freedom as liberation from, rather than invitation to.
But as often happens in the gospel of John, there is some kind of misunderstanding here. Because while in verse 32 Jesus has just let these listeners in on this wonderful secret, this awesome this life-affirming gift, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” in verse 33 the Jews he’s talking to get hung up on the freedom part. They take a literal interpretation of “freedom” and “slavery” and argue that they have never been slaves to anyone. Those were their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, their ancestors who suffered captivity in Babylon, not them; no one in this generation had ever been a slave.
But they just missed what came first. They missed the invitation. They missed the part in verse 31where Jesus invites them to life as a spiritual reality if they continue in his word – be my disciples – and then you will know the truth – and be made free.
There is some kind of flaw in their understanding of who Christ is and what he does. They don’t know and can’t see the whole story. They only see in part, as in a smoky mirror, as through a gauzy veil. They haven’t yet learned that without Jesus, we can never be truly free. And it’s not the Egyptians, or the Assyrians, or the Romans that they have to worry about freedom from. It is the enslavement of sin that haunts us all. Yet Jesus has the antidote. Jesus, in fact, is the antidote.
In today’s text, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” That word translated from the Greek as “continue” may also be translated as “abide”. Abiding in the word is having a deep, intimate, ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ; abiding in Christ means living as a disciple; dwelling in and with Jesus, means having your whole being focused on Jesus. Abiding this way, will open your heart, it will change your life, and, Jesus tells us, you will know the truth, and that is what makes you free. The truth that makes you free is Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Believing in Jesus doesn’t consist of saying the right creed or confession, rather believing in Jesus shifts our attention away from ourselves and to the one who is Light, the one who is truth, the one who offers us true Life. Believing and abiding leads us down the path of “The Way” to Christ-like living.
The kind of freedom Jesus is talking about in this gospel text for today is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was all about as well - Because understanding the righteousness of God as a gift for those who believe in Jesus Christ, also means knowing that you are invited into a new kind of life and relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, and that your faith is the first gift you have been given.
My friends, the fact of the matter is that we are all in need of saving. What Luther recognized about himself, is that if anything about his own salvation depended on his own character or ability, he was lost. The same may be said for us. But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is not up to us. Our salvation is both dependent on and is all about what Jesus did. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus freed us once and for all, from slavery to sin and from death.
Theologian Paul Tillich said that we are saved from, are death and fate, guilt and condemnation, meaninglessness and despair. And what are we saved for? Tillich claimed that freedom from the power of death leads us to live life abundantly; freedom from guilt (through the forgiveness of sins) frees us to live by grace; and freedom from despair and meaninglessness makes it possible to live for Christ and for others in friendship and in service. In deep, meaningful ways. In loving relationships.
The Reformation that we remember today was and is about shifting our attention away from ourselves and to God; because God loves us and delights in our wellbeing so much, God takes on the entire responsibility of our salvation. The Reformation was about helping people to know that no one is out of reach of freedom, of healing, and of experiencing God’s love. It was about opening the door to a relationship with Jesus Christ that leads us into a new kind of life. Abiding in Christ is relationship building, and in it we are empowered to love and serve others as we ourselves have been loved and served.
Trusting in the true power of God’s grace to save, we are freed to take chances for the sake of the gospel. We are freed to embark on true Christ-like living, letting go of our fear of failure. In a letter to Philip Melanthon during the Diet of Worms, Luther advised his friend to “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” Luther wasn’t encouraging Melanthon to go ahead and lead a debauched life, but during a time of trial he wanted his friend to take heart, to have faith, and not to fear, trusting that ultimately God would prevail. The same applies to us, today.
To us, Luther would (and did) say, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
At the beginning of this sermon, I asked you all a question. Do you remember it? I asked you, what would you do, if you were truly free? Perhaps you are among the ones who thought to yourselves at the beginning of this sermon, “The pastor is nuts. We are free. We’ve never been slaves to anyone.” To you I say, remember the God-awful truth. The truth that we are sinners; that on our own we cannot become righteous; the truth is that we are not free – on our own. We are slaves indeed, enslaved by the brokenness of our sin. Remember the truth that we need God’s help even though it is highly likely that we will rebel against it, that we will reject it. Yet God is persistent and never gives up on us. Know the truth. Abide in Jesus, and find through your relationship with Christ that you are engaged in new life.
Perhaps you are among the ones who felt that this promised freedom is out of reach for you, or that it is more than you can possibly hope for. You know what? You are absolutely correct. The grace of God and the kind of freedom that God grants us is way more than any of us could possible dream of or hope for. It is beyond our comprehension. And it comes to us as sheer grace.
Knowing the truth can free us to love boldly, to care for others unabashedly, and to act with Christ-like compassion and service to others unashamedly.
Belief in Jesus Christ changes hearts, changes minds, and changes lives.
What would you do with freedom if you had it? My brothers and sisters in Christ, by the grace of God alone, you are free. What do you plan to do about it?