October 28, 2018
Texts: Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Deacon Intern Alexandra Benson
Grace and peace to you, from the one who frees us from all sin and death, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The other night I was on the phone with my brother who is a freshman in college. I asked him how classes were going. In his characteristic cool guy who shows no sign of actual emotion way, he said “They’re all right,” he said. “Some of them are pretty hard but I like ‘em I guess.” Then a little later he casually asked, “So, um, do you know how you check your grades in college? Like I can see all my classes online but, I can’t see my grades. And I’m thinking it might be good to know if I should like really actually start trying or something.” Yet again, always the responsible and helpful older sibling, I suggested, “Well, you could email your professors and ask.” Horrified, he responded, “I don’t want to do that! What if it’s not good? I don’t actually want them to tell me if I’m failing out or something. I don’t really want to know. That’s just embarrassing.”
If I had been on my A game, I would have given him a nice scripture lesson and said something about how Jesus said the truth will make you free, but sadly I missed the opportunity and instead just rolled my eyes and moved on with the conversation.
It’s funny though isn’t it, how we long for the truth about ourselves and resist it so hard at the same time. What if the truth isn’t what we actually want to hear?
Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a day where we celebrate what is called the Protestant Reformation, a time in which whole series of challenges and changes and big questions were brought to the church in Europe in the 1500s. Martin Luther, the man for whom the Lutheran Church is named, was one of the key leaders who was determined to make sure that the church stood for grace and mercy and truth for all of God’s people. I think it can be easy to glamorize Luther and the other reformers’ work. It’s often reduced it to a few legendary events worthy of mic drops or tweets gone viral — like the epic nailing of the 95 theses or statements about the church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany or the tales of theological throwdowns and debates at universities across the kingdom with princes and bishops and scholars. However, the reality is that the Reformation was a long and probably at times tedious process of continually confronting hard truths about what the church had become. It required courage and stamina and deep conviction. For Martin Luther it involved long nights filled with intense self-reflection that brought him to tears and anxiety and arguments with God.
Luther’s reforms of the Roman church of the day came about because he confronted head-on the practices that he saw to be unjust and unfaithful. He examined the places where people were being excluded or taken advantage of and named outright the sin and harm that he saw there. Luther was never one to mince words (seriously, if you ever need some colorful 16th century insults, Luther’s your guy), and he saw no use in avoidance or denial. He was determined to call out evil for what it was – even when that was hard and painful, even when it resulted in excommunication and rejection from an institution he once held dear. Reformation Day, then, is not just a celebration of history, but a reminder of the hard truth seeking we are called to each day as disciples of Jesus. Luther confronted the hard truths he saw and was transformed when he encountered God’s love and freedom even in the darkest moments of his own life as well as the collective life of the church.
“The truth will make you free,” Jesus said. But what is this Truth? And what is it that we even need to be freed from – today, in this moment? It’s an age-old question, and the disciples in today’s gospel text were
wondering the same thing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget or deny the very real things that are holding us captive.
Even the disciples seem to be experts at denying their reality. For when Jesus tells them “the truth will make you free” their response is ironic at best. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying ‘You will be made free?’” This response doesn’t make a lot of sense because the history of the people of God (which the disciples should know) is one of constantly being under the rule of powers outside their control. There was that whole story of the Exodus, when God’s people were literally slaves in Egypt until God sent Moses to lead them to freedom. There was a long line of greedy tyrant kings that ruled over them not to mention a whole series of imperial powers that conquered the land where the people we read about in the Bible lived: The Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Persians and the Greeks and at the time of Jesus, the Romans. On the surface, it would appear that all God’s people had known was slavery and oppression. And here, whether out of forgetfulness or ignorance or an intentionally selective memory or shame, the disciples seem to have no idea what Jesus is talking about. What could they ever need freeing from?
Maybe, as we ponder the same question, like in the case of the Reformation or like my brother’s need to actually confront his academic reality head-on, things might need to get a little ugly before they can get better. Because I think the first part of the truth that Jesus talks about involves facing the reality that we are all kind of a mess. Or as the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
“Sin” is a little word with a big and complicated meaning. Theologians have wrestled with the concept of sin for a couple thousand years now, but the way Martin Luther understood sin was putting your ultimate trust in anything other than God. So often we don’t trust God to take care of us or we don’t trust that God actually loves us or that God has really set us free from evil and death, so we do all sorts of things to try to make up for that. We might instead put our trust in ourselves or our relationships or money or power or our job or reputation.
We each live out our realities of sin and brokenness differently. Sometimes this looks like total over-confidence or conceit or thinking that we’re better than others and sometimes this looks like a total lack of confidence – we become fearful and anxious and shy and totally passive because we can’t seem to trust that we are loved or good enough. Either way we become really self-centered in the process and can become so trapped in our own egos or insecurities that we lose sight the people right in front of us who God is calling us to love and serve and care for.
Instead we’re too busy scrambling trying to build up a solid reputation or protect our vulnerabilities because heaven forbid anyone finds out that we aren’t as cool or brave or confident or tough as others might think. Maybe we’re totally wrapped up in work or money or our education – we think we’ll finally feel secure and good enough once we get a raise or promotion or just one more degree. Maybe we’re obsessively looking for peace in finding the perfect relationship, sure that once we find “the one” our lives will simply fall into place. Maybe our lives have been de-railed when we’ve tried to find ultimate peace and belonging in drug or alcohol use or gang life. Maybe we’ve gotten sidetracked by clinging to people who seem to be powerful and successful, in hopes that we might taste that same power and success. Maybe we’re desperately seeking ultimate peace and satisfaction in trying to pull off the perfect family life or a well-maintained social calendar or the perfectly curated Instagram account. And not all of these things are
bad things. Work, education, family – those are all very good. The problem is when they become our ultimate source of identity or trust.
The reality is we’ve all sinned against others, both in the things we’ve done to them – sometimes on purpose and sometimes without even knowing it – and also in the times we’ve chosen not to help or care for others when we could have. And others have sinned against us too, leaving us hurt and angry and afraid.
I don’t know about you, but when I start to think for too long about the realities of my own sins and the sins of the world, I start to get really overwhelmed. Things start to feel impossible and hopeless. We’ve got a total mess on our hands, and no matter how many good things we do for other people and how hard we try to get our own lives in order, we’re still going to mess up. It’s part of being human. And yet, like the disciples, we often go to such great lengths to try to hide or deny this reality.
Maybe we’re afraid that if we look the reality of our sin or brokenness or things that others have done to us in the eye, the guilt and shame and fear will simply overtake us. But the thing about freedom is that in order to truly, deeply, experience it, we have to understand and name what it is we’ve been freed from.
We need to take a good hard, honest look at the messiness of our lives to grasp the profoundness of the real truth of the Gospel. And the Truth is this: You are forgiven. You are loved beyond measure. Even in the midst of your sin and brokenness and fear. In fact, it is at our lowest points, those moments where we feel the weight of our bondage to sin, our slavery to sin that we finally hear Jesus’ voice the most clearly: The Son has set you free and you are free indeed.
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” writes Paul. But now, you have been justified by God’s grace as a gift. Not because of anything you’ve done but simply because God loves you too much to let your sin define you.
Addict. Criminal. Trouble causer. Loser. Loner. Shy. Small. Afraid. None of that carries any weight anymore. We can look each of those labels, each of the things we’ve done to others and the things others have done to us and boldly claim that God’s love is stronger and more powerful and that this love is what gets the last word and the final judgment.
And nothing – not bad choices, broken relationships, failed attempts at getting sober, not things that have been done to you or misplaced trust or an obsession with power or wealth, not all the things we try to do to make ourselves seem good or important, not even death itself –can take away Christ’s declaration of love and mercy for you. Jesus has already taken all of the complicated webs of sin upon himself, putting them to death, giving us new life and hope and freedom in return. We’re free to be in relationship with God and with each other and with the world around us without guilt and shame and fear. We can face where we’ve been and what we’ve done and what’s been done to us without guilt because we know that these things don’t get to define our future. Only God’s love can do that.
So, take heart, brothers and sisters, because the Son has made you free, and because of Christ, you are free indeed.
Thanks be to God.