Preached October 26, 2017 Reformation Sunday
Jesus said to some Jews who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
By his own admission, the people he was talking to believed in him, which probably meant they accepted on an intellectual level that he was the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for. But that did not quite make them disciples. To be truly his disciples, they had to, as he said, continue in his word. That expression, to continue, is related to the word abide, which means to make someplace or something your abode. Your home. It implies permanence and continuation and relationship. To become a disciple of Jesus requires something more than intellectual belief in him. It demands a commitment to a relationship to him that shapes all our other relationships and determines our choices.
But it was what he said next that left his listeners a little puzzled and possibly, more than a little indignant. The part about coming to know the truth, and the truth making you free.”
“What do you mean, The truth will make us free’?” they said. “We’re already free. We are descendants of Abraham and we’ve never been slaves to anyone!”
Abraham was the forefather of the Israelite nation. Long ago, God had made a covenant with Abraham, promising that his descendants would be God’s chosen people. By claiming to be sons of Abraham, these Jewish believers-in Jesus but not yet quite disciples-of Jesus, were stating their faith in the sufficiency of those promises made to Abraham. Being descendants of Abraham, and heirs to the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham their ancestor, was all the truth they needed. Thank you, very much. They saw no necessity for any new truth that Jesus might be selling to set them free, because they were satisfied that all they needed to be right with God was theirs by birthright.
Through Moses, God had provided them with the Torah — the Law and Commandments – to live by. The Law measured a person’s righteousness before God. Generation after generation of Israelites had continued in God’s word to Abraham and God’s word through Moses. Those were the truths that had been their lasting abode.
Anyone who comes to Worship Connections on Wednesday mornings is used to me pointing out that whenever Jesus starts a sentence with the words, “Very truly, I tell you…” watch out, because he is about to lay a heavy truth on someone. And that someone always includes us, who are reading his words two thousand years later. So, after these guys tell Jesus that they are not slaves to anyone and therefore do not need Jesus’ truth (whatever it may be) to set them free, Jesus answers them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Let’s start with the ending of that statement and work our way backwards to understand what Jesus meant.
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
It seems that Jesus is implying that people can and do live under the impression that they possess a freedom which they don’t actually have. You can only be truly free –free indeed – if the Son makes you free.
If who makes you free?
Not Abraham. Not Moses.
Not diligence in keeping the Commandments.
Not your religion or your church membership.
Which is spelled here with a capital S. Just so we know whose Son we are taking about.
This Son is a permanent resident in the household. He abides there. A slave’s place in the household is dependent on the work he or she does. Their place is not unconditional. It is performance oriented. But the Son holds the power to upgrade your status to that of a permanent family member.
Then there’s this: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
Now, we gain a clearer picture of what kind of slavery and what kind of freedom, Jesus is talking about. I think we can agree with the first part of that sentence. Everyone commits sin. We have other ways to express it to take the edge off those words.
I’m only human. Nobody’s perfect.
We are less comfortable with the label “slave to sin.” That sounds pretty depraved. But sayings like, “I’m only human” and “Nobody’s perfect” are themselves acknowledgements of the inevitability of our missing the mark that God sets for us. Despite our best intentions, we repeatedly – as even the Apostle Paul confessed in his Letter to the Romans – do not do the things we want to do, but instead do the things we know aren’t right.
In the Bible sin is usually addressed in the singular. As “sin,” not “sins.” Not as individual acts of immorality, but as a force which we succumb to that turns us towards choosing to do our own will rather than God’s will. All the public attention given this week to the opioid epidemic offers a helpful metaphor to what being slaves to sin means. The crisis was declared to be a “national public health emergency.” It was not named a moral emergency.
Although an addicted person will do whatever it takes to feed their addiction – including committing crimes and other immoral acts – it is commonly understood that the underlying problem is the addiction that overwhelms the willpower of the addict.
And the first step to any hope of freedom from the addiction that enslaves people is the admission of one’s own bondage and powerlessness, coupled with a reliance on a power greater than oneself.
“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Five hundred years ago this Tuesday, the Protestant Reformation started with a 16th century Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther. Although Luther dedicated himself to the monastic life of doing good works to serve God, peace with God constantly eluded him. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness. Luther finally found freedom from this bondage in the pages of scripture.
His study of the Bible led him to conclude that the Church had lost sight of certain central truths. The most important of these lost truths was that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, received by faith and trust in God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross. Good works were not a way to earn salvation, but a grateful response to God’s grace, culminating in a lifestyle that cooperates with God in becoming people of love and mercy ourselves.
The truth that set Martin Luther free came through passages like Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
One of the worst grievances facing Luther was that the Catholic Church was raising funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome through the sale of what were called “indulgences.” Indulgences were certificates that could be bought and which, it was claimed, absolved deceased loved ones of sins that kept them trapped in Purgatory, delaying their entrance into heaven.
You can see how the Church’s practice of selling indulgences conflicted with the Biblical truth of salvation by grace alone. If salvation is a gift received by faith, and not by doing good deeds, Christ’s sacrifice alone sufficed to obtain eternal life. Salvation could not be earned, or in the case of indulgences, could not be purchased. There could be no Purgatory, where one had to do penance for sins, because the slate was wiped clean once and for all by what Jesus had done for us.
Luther nailed his arguments against the practices and doctrines of the Church to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral in Germany. He challenged the Church to a debate on the issue of indulgences and other grievances. That debate was the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation.
Recognizing the power of the Biblical word to bring truth to light, Luther worked to translate the Bible for the first time from Latin into German so that it could be read by all people, not just priests. That is one of the great freedoms that comes to us from the Reformation: the freedom of an accessible Bible. The freedom to go directly to Jesus’ words for ourselves.
That is how the Reformation began, 500 years ago in Germany. But the Reformation is still going on, today. Or, at least we better hope it is. We still need the Truth that sets us free from the complacency of our current illusions. Jesus himself is still the Truth that sets us free. Free from a religion based on rewards and punishments instead of grace. He frees us from the consequences of sin and from self-deception about the power of sin in our lives. He sets us free for relationship with God and with one another. The freedom that Jesus gives is the freedom to experience the gift of God’s unconditional love, and with it, the freedom to be all that God meant for us to be, but which is always beyond our power to achieve on our own. And, that is why we celebrate Reformation Sunday around every October 31st. Not to get a history lesson on something that started 500 years ago. But to receive a reminder that the need for reformation never ends. We cannot claim that we are free from the bondages that lurk about us today based solely on anything that Luther and other Reformers did five centuries ago, any more than the people Jesus spoke to could in this passage could rightly claim to be free based on their being descendants of Abraham.
The Church always needs to be reformed because it is a household of people who are continually being reformed through their relationship to the Son who invites us to be part of the family.
As we say in the UCC, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
Cpoyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros