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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Freedom, Truth, and Luther

 Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

There is a television program called “This is Us” which has become quite popular in the past couple of years, but until recently I had never watched any of its episodes. Lately, however, curiosity has had me watching the first couple of seasons through a streaming app. This week I watched an episode in which one of the characters talks about the first time he got glasses with corrective lenses in them.
Before he could get the glasses of course, came the exam with what he calls the “Better Machine.”
Anyone who has had optical refraction is familiar with that machine. (Refraction is what they call it when they check to see how much – or how little correction your eyes might need to attain your best possible vision).
So, the “best machine” is the one where the doctor or optical technician flicks through combinations of varying strengths of lenses on a machine that you look through to read the chart on the wall. As lenses are changed, the patient is asked over and over, “Which is better, one or two?” click, click, “now which is better – one or two?” click, click, “two or one?”
The patient goes through a series of trial lenses in this way, while the world goes from blurry to clear and back to blurry again, until you finally arrive at the combination that provides the best correction you can attain to see the world.
I remember walking out of the optician’s office with my first pair of glasses when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I was amazed that the grassy lawn contained millions of individual blades of grass – and was not just the sea of green I had become accustomed to seeing. That’s what I remember most of that first step out into a vision-corrected world – individual blades of grass.
Today we commemorate Reformation Sunday, when we remember with gratitude the work of Martin Luther and the rest of the reformers, who gave us a clearer vision of God’s grace through their work with the Scriptures. We celebrate how, through the Reformation, our faith came to contain millions of beautiful blades of grass as we see God’s presence throughout our world, no longer a simple one-or-two-dimensional sea of green.
Luther and his friends never intended to split the church, or to create a new denomination in the Christian faith. They simply wished to share with the masses what they, through the power of the Holy Spirit, had come to understand more clearly; that what God has done in Jesus Christ, on the cross, is to pour our grace sufficient for new life for us all.
They wanted to devise better ways to teach the faithful that God’s unmerited, perfect grace is already accomplished for us all. They were, in a lot of ways, like the “better machine.”
They kept writing, studying, arguing and debating with each so that they could best understand and then convey the truth of Christ’s Word that is life-giving and not oppressive, as Jesus himself is life-giving and liberating.
In so doing, they looked through a variety of lenses and asked the question over and over, “which is clearer, one or two? two or one”? As they worked, their vision went from blurry to clear, back to blurry again, and then clearer than ever before, through reading Scriptures like those ones we just read.
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you keep on living in my truth, you are really, truly my disciples; and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free.”
The disciples answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”
Somehow, I don’t think the disciple are on the same page as Jesus.
·         Jesus is speaking of spiritual truth; of eternal truth; of divine truth. This is the truth that will outlive every human-constructed world or cultural reality. He is speaking of truth and freedom as infinite possibilities that are known only through him – through God’s almighty grace.
·         They are relying on the finite history and stories of the path trod by their ancestors.
·         Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love and mercy to all the fallen world, but despite having recently declared that they believe he is the Messiah, they still identify themselves through their traditional Jewish heritage, where their identity is found in Abraham, the father of the faith. The trouble is, in this way they give their association with Abraham priority over their relationship with Jesus.
·         Jesus challenges them to own their new identity as Christ-followers, saved now by God’s grace apart from any Law that has bound them in the past, but they worry that he is equating them with slaves.
·         They associate freedom with the physical removal of the shackles of enslavement in Egypt, while Jesus is talking about a much more profound and lasting liberation, where the heart itself is set free from that which binds it so that it can grow in the new, unalienable life that God gives us.
As Lutherans commemorate the Reformation, we remember that freedom was a crucial element in faith for Luther and the other Reformers. The big question they were driven to answer was, where and how are truth, freedom, and new life to be found? What is the truth about our salvation? What is necessary for eternal life?
Those questions burned for those who live in the Middle Ages of Luther’s world. There was an urgency to such understanding that is lost to those of us living in the 21st century.
          Their world was dark and dangerous, with death from plague, starvation, disease and poverty literally just around the corner in a way that we comfortable Americans cannot fathom; life was beyond hard.
          The desperate hope and desire of the people therefore, was that the life that awaited them when they departed this mortal coil would be better than the one they traveled in this life.  They were desperate to know that they and the loved ones who had passed on before them would not languish in a continual cycle of suffering, but that they had believed correctly or done enough or lived a sufficiently good life to be assured that they were heaven-bound. They desperately needed the assurance that God would judge them worthy of a sweet eternal life after this world of infernal suffering.
As the reformers studied and debated the Scriptures together, the core belief that God’s Word of forgiveness and grace won through the cross of Christ alone as the ultimate power to save us, became their battle cry against the forces of darkness.
They were convinced that this essential truth had been lost in the medieval pietistic teachings and indulgences of the church of their time. Determined to share the Word that only belief in Jesus Christ could save, that only God’s grace could save, and that on the cross, God’s determination of salvation was accomplished for the whole world, they turned to passage like the ones we read today.
This Word of God has the authority to grant perfect vision to all people by conveying to us the truth and light of God’s steadfast love and mercy for all God’s creation.
The world today may be different from that of the reformers of over 500 years ago. Faith is no longer deemed as essential to life as it used to be. The conviction that our salvation comes from God alone has been lost to the masses – even the need for salvation by Christ is questioned by so many people around us.
The thing that hasn’t changed is that there is still vast suffering in the world. The past week has exemplified this truth: children senselessly die and people are maimed in car accidents, bombs sent through mail terrorize us, faithful worshipers and first responders are gunned down in a worship place – a synagogue; millions of children suffer the evil and pain of starvation in a war-torn land, and gang violence drives thousands from their homes to seek the refuge which just a few of them will receive in time. There are times when the dimness of our vision may be fueled by our despair and hopelessness.
Yet, here we gather today, by the will of the Holy Spirit. Together we confess the faith of our baptism, the same faith that four young people will affirm during the Rite of Confirmation.
We are so much like the disciples – while we may not locate our identity in Abraham any longer, our faith and our trust in Jesus’ words still need to be clarified so that our vision of God’s grace might be renewed, and we might be freed to live in the light of Christ.
The lenses our world offers us can blur our vision. But God restores it. As Lutherans we confess that we are at the same time sinner (by our response to the temptations and pull of the world) and saint (by the sweet gift of God’s grace).
We are not saved by our own understanding but by the mercy of a God who loves us so much that despite our blurry understanding, despite our indistinct vision of grace, despite our frequent blindness, God forgives us and renews us over and over again for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Jesus makes it possible for us to grasp the new life we are given at baptism – the new life our confirmands claim as their own this day.
And so today and every day, let us offer our thanks and praise to God for the “better machine” of our faith – for the corrective lenses that give us not perfect faith or perfect life – only God can to that – but the best vision of which we are capable, until that day when God perfectly restores our vision and our understanding with the fine heavenly vision given all the saints in light. Amen.