Made Free in Christ

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Honesty, confession, repentance… this is the fertile soil from
which new life springs.   When our life has gone off the rails… when we
have made a mess of our lives, we need to be able to see ourselves
clearly and say to ourselves and others… honestly, “I know this is not
what God wants for me.  I know I wasn’t created for this.  I know God
calls me to be something else… something better… something healthier.”


Reformation Sunday

October 28, 2012

Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 8:31-36

Peder Stenslie

Look around the chancel here.  I want you to notice what is
different today?  The chancel is decorated in red.  There’s red on the
altar and red banners hanging in the back.  Red is the liturgical color
that adorns the church on this Sunday of the church year… Reformation
Sunday.  I want you to think about what significance the color red might
have for today. 

When people see red, they tend to get all dramatic.  “It must
symbolize blood!” they think.  Well, that is not the case today.  Red is
not about blood.  Red, today, symbolizes the Holy Spirit.  We celebrate
this day as a day of church renewal and transformation… a day we
remember that the people of God always have to be ready to let go of old
ways of thinking and acting that are no good… that are false and hurt
us and others… and find new ways of thinking and living that are
truthful and healthy and life-giving.  And we remember that it is by the
power of the Holy Spirit that these difficult changes are possible for
us. 

The promise of new life that comes through Spirit-driven growth
and transformation is heard in the words of Jesus today:  “If you
continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the
truth, and the truth will make you free.”

It’s a beautiful promise for a rich and wonderful future.  It
echoes the words of the Old Testament lesson.  There Jeremiah tells the
people of God that the painful mess that their lives had become will not
be the final word.  Jeremiah promises that God will pour the glory of
his will into their hearts and into their lives:  “I will put my law
within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their
God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one
another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know
me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Having the “law of God” written in our hearts means that we
don’t have to be coaxed into to doing good by a desire for reward or
threat of punishment.  We won’t have to be shown how to be good; because
it will be natural for us to do those things.  We will simply live as
we were meant to live.

What a beautiful vision of our future that is!

Listen again to the simple promise of Jesus from today’s Gospel:  “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

How strange it is that Jesus’ listeners (in today’s Gospel)
completely ignore this promise of a rich and wonderful future and
instead fixate on what they think Jesus is saying about their past. 
They seem to take it as an insult.  “We are descendants of Abraham and
have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will
be made free’?”

One wonders… why are they stuck on the past, when Jesus is
trying to point them to such a wonderful future?  Even more curious… why
are they fixed on a picture of their past that is simply wrong?

They insist that the descendants of Abraham are, and always
have been, free!  In truth, the people of God hadn’t been free for
nearly 800 years.  They had been slaves in Egypt for a couple
centuries.  Later they were conquered by the Assyrians, and then by the
Babylonians… who sent them into exile for 70 years.  After that, they
were ruled by the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. 

For nearly half of their long history, the people of God were
not free at all.  And yet they insist:  “We are descendants of Abraham
and have never been slaves to anyone”?

The verses that follow today’s Gospel lesson reveal that Jesus’
listeners never do look to the future as Jesus is calling them to do. 
They stay stuck on asserting their false view of who they are and who
they have been.  They just can’t break free of that.  Their small, old
delusion of awesomeness holds them enslaved.

Why they are stuck in this way, I cannot say; but I do know
that when we are unable to see or say the truth about who we are or what
we’ve been, change or growth is impossible for us.  We are not free to
move into a future of hope and promise.

Honesty, confession, repentance… this is the fertile soil from
which new life springs.   When our life has gone off the rails… when we
have made a mess of our lives, we need to be able to see ourselves
clearly and say to ourselves and others… honestly, “I know this is not
what God wants for me.  I know I wasn’t created for this.  I know God
calls me to be something else… something better… something healthier.”

And we need to understand that the freedom and new life we are
called to demands that we let go of the old.  God aims to transform all
that we are, not just bits and pieces of us.  We can’t have new life
inside or alongside our old life.  We have to let go of the old to
become the new. 

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ famous statement:  “No one puts
new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins,
and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into
fresh wineskins. (Mark 2:22)

The promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson contains an
important leading phrase:  “If you continue in my word…” Jesus says. 
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will
know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“Continue in my word.”  Christ makes us free.  Our job is to
cling to the word of God… always.  Let it teach us.  Let it comfort us. 
Let it convict us.  Let it guide us.  Let it mold and shape us.  It is
while we cling to the Word of God that God’s power is at work in us.

The Word of God is a living thing that weaves the Holy Spirit
into our whole being and works us over, inside and out.  This process of
transformation and emerging new life take time.

 “Continue in my word…” reminds us that the journey to a new
and hopeful future is not a quick or painless one.  There is not a
switch that we can flip and everything changes.  New life takes time. 
It takes persistence.  It takes struggle and “hanging on” when various
powers… including our old life and our old lies… would pull us away. 
The journey is a messy one… but it is a journey that ends in the promise
of Christ:  “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Red is the color for this Sunday… Reformation Sunday… and there
is something a little unsettling about red.  That’s why we often go
right to “blood” when we see it. 

But red is also unsettling as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. 
Holy Spirit red represents fire.  And the work of fire is scary stuff. 
There’s fire that purifies, called the refiner’s fire.  It refers to the
process of putting metal into a furnace until it melts.  Impurities in
the metal then separate and are skimmed away, leaving behind purified,
precious metal.  There’s also the fire that burns away the chaff… the
worthless part of the grain… so that the valuable and useful kernel is
all that remains. 

The “fire” work of the Holy Spirit is scary stuff because it is
about changing, separating, throwing away what once was part of us, so
that something new, useful and beautiful can come forth and be free. 
What was once part of us… has to go… so that we can be free to become
what God calls us to be.

We’re going to sing a wonderful old song… a spiritual… that
tells the story of the people of God, held in slavery and sorrow by
destructive powers, called and led to new life by the Spirit of God.

It was a difficult and scary transformation for the people of
God.  It involved fire… as you will hear; but it proclaims for us the
movement… the change… the transformation to freedom and new life that we
are all called to.

The final verse proclaims the great hope we all share this Sunday and alwaysOh, let us all from bondage flee… and let us all in Christ be free.

Amen.