Reformation Day, (Observed), October 27th, A + D 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, MT
Freedom from Slavery - John 7:31-38
One of my pastor friends amuses himself by keeping track of the ridiculous things that Jesus' opponents say to Him. In the Gospel for Reformation Day we have a truly magnificent example of this. Jesus says to a group of Jews who have believed in Him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The Jews answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free.'”
Oh really? You sons of Abraham have never been enslaved to anyone, huh? What about those ten tribes who never quite made it back from exile in Assyria? What about Judah’s 70 years in Babylon? Oh, and we’re not counting the 400 years the children of Israel spent in Egypt, much of that time spent building for Pharaoh, against their will? Come to think if it, what about right now? Why do you pay all those taxes to Caesar, and have all these red-garbed Italians marching through your streets and quartering in your homes? Did you invite them? Are you free to rule yourselves and do whatever you wish? No. The Romans rule you. They've conquered you, just like Pharaoh, and Alexander, Nebuchadnezzar, and more. And yet you say, “we have never been enslaved to anyone.” Truly classic.
Speaking of slavery is a touchy thing for us Americans, and not just because of our ugly history with slavery. Our primary values, supposedly, are freedom and self-determination, a nation of self-made men and women who pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And yet, we voluntarily give up many freedoms. Nicotine, prescriptions, alcohol and illegal drugs lead some of us around by the nose, preventing us from doing the things free people do, things like breathe deeply and think clearly. You and I may avoid chemical taskmasters, and yet still find ourselves bound to powers outside ourselves. How many of us are slaves to our work, missing out on the love of family and friends, missing out on the enjoyment of life, because we are driven to make a little more, to earn a bit more of the Almighty Dollar?
Or perhaps we are slaves to entertainment and recreation, living shallow lives, plagued by debt and meaninglessness, because our focus is all on what we’re doing next Friday night, or when the newest version of Mortal Combat will be released. Younger generations are increasingly enslaved to their devices, slowly losing the ability to hold a conversation face to face, or to listen to a sermon for more than a few minutes. In my youth, the ultimate status symbol, a cool car or pickup, also offered a modicum of freedom, if you could afford insurance and gas. Cars are still important, but what freedom does having the latest I-Phone really offer?
From the NSA to the IRS to the Department of Health and Human Services, we Americans are for the most part quietly accepting more and more intrusions on our precious privacy and freedom, perhaps because we are too busy trying to make a buck, or too busy watching the latest YouTube video on our smartphone. And yet, we still claim to be the land of the free. The Jews protesting Jesus’ promise of freedom are no more foolish than us.
We tend to think of our freedom in very human terms. Are we politically free? Are we free to live our lives as we see fit? As foolish as our thinking about these things may be, Jesus is unconcerned with such freedoms. Indeed, Jesus blows apart the usual way we think about freedom. Jesus want to know, “Are you free to worship God without fear?” “Can you laugh at the devil’s chains, because he has no claim on you?” These are the categories of freedom Jesus is talking about, and bluntly.
“Amen, amen, truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.” Ouch. Like the Jews in Jesus’ immediate audience, the American in us says, “I'm an American, I haven't been enslaved to anyone! I'm free! I can do what I want.” Jesus reminds us there are chains around our wrists, the chains of God’s righteous judgment, the chains of satan’s biting accusations. We are sinners, natural born sinners, and we cannot free ourselves from the chains of our sinful condition.
Now, we know this. Of course we know this. We’ve studied this, learning it from Catechism and Scripture. We confess this, regularly. We know that when we sin, we are slipping the cuffs around our own wrists. So, naturally, we who know the truth about slavery and freedom want to resist sin, to flee from sin, to live without sin. But our wanting doesn't seem to help, does it? The devil still yanks our chains, dragging us into sin without too much resistance from us. At the very same time, we look at world around us, a culture arrayed against us, openly hostile to our faith, and instead of pouring our energy into teaching the world the truth, we want to throw up our hands and let the world just burn. Indifference to sinners for whom Christ died is added to the list of our sins, wrapping chain around chain. The devil is having a field day.
But that field day is an illusion. A lie. How can I say that? Am I not just fooling myself, to say that the dominance of the taskmaster satan is not real? No. I’m not lying, because it isn’t me saying so. No, Jesus Himself says so. “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And the Son has set you free. Christ has come and given us freedom, true freedom, not the self-indulgent nonsense our culture glorifies. You may be an addict. You may be foolishly spending your life chasing money or popularity or escape. But the devil has no real hold on you, because the Son has set you free. Only your unbelief can give satan power.
Only unbelief can bind you, so stop doubting, and believe the Good News! Freedom has come to us as a person, a man, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, come to free humanity from sin and satan. The Son of God has made us free by suffering, dying, and rising again. All of the sins satan uses to accuse you and me have been paid for, in full, by Jesus. So sin's hold is broken; the devil’s chains are shattered; the light of freedom is shining upon us.
That's hard to believe. We are plagued by our ongoing sins, and shackled by our sinful perception. Little Trinity Erickson has just been baptized, and we rejoice. But sad to say, Caleb and Jonetta will still have to discipline her, still have to deal with her sinfulness. So also, we are baptized, brought into God's covenant. Freedom has been promised to us, yet we see few signs of it. Instead we see sin reigning in our members. We see our failure to resist the devil's temptations, and our sin screams that God is lying when He says we are free. But that screaming is just another lie.
Listen to Jesus: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The truth. That word in itself is scandalous enough to us, because we proud humans like to reject all truth that we cannot fully grasp, to deny any truth that is truly bigger than us. But Jesus is very clear and specific about His truth, so our sin can only slam its head against it. Jesus is the end of sin. This is the truth. There is no other. Which means that all things that contradict that truth, including the voices in our heads, are lies.
Christianity presents truth not as some kind of platonic concept floating out there in form-land, but as a person, a man, who sweat, hurt, ate, and drank. This Jesus gives Himself to us as the truth. In the upper room, as His disciples wallow in the slavery of doubt, the resurrected Jesus comes and presents His crucified flesh to the disciples and says, Peace be with you. Do not be afraid. Believe in Me. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, testifies that the whole of the Scriptures are pointing to Him, directing us to Him, to Christ alone.
This truth, that Jesus Christ has come, and has taken our sin and destroyed its power, this truth sets us free. No matter how the devil jerks us around, no matter what the voices in our head yell at us, no matter how our sin bogs us down, the truth, the divine truth, does what He was prophesied to do. He takes the devil's head and crushes it under His boot. How? By letting the devil kill Him. Even more, by suffering the punishment from His Father that our sins deserve. Truly, the ways of our Lord are mysterious.
The Reformation is all about recovering and proclaiming this Truth: Jesus, the truth made flesh, was crucified and resurrected, to rob satan of all his power, thereby setting sinners free from sin and death. Apart from this Truth, the Church has nothing. With this Truth, the Church has all things. From this Truth we live. We do this living sinfully, to our great shame, and yet also joyfully. Sometimes we drag ourselves, and sometimes we come leaping with joy, coming to gather together, around font and Scripture, coming, confessing our sins and kneeling at the altar, to be fed forgiveness by our gracious Lord, the One who lived for us, died for us, and by His resurrection frees us from the devil's enslavement.
That's freedom. It's a curious kind of freedom, one that often leads to earthly suffering and even imprisonment for Christians. It’s a curious victory, because we who have already been declared victorious still must fight the sin inside of us. But thanks be to God, we are free to fight it by His strength. When we lose a skirmish, we come to Him, who has already won the war, coming to Jesus, to be set free again, so we can go out and fight some more. This is the Christian life on this earth.
But one day, when we die, or when our Lord returns, we will be free, fully free, forever. The death of the Christian is the end of his struggle with sin; the souls of the faithful rest in peace with the Savior. And, when Jesus returns, the souls at rest with God will be reunited to their bodies, their formerly sinful flesh, which will be resurrected pure, holy, and eternal, just like Christ's glorious resurrected body.
In the meantime, we abide in the Word of the Son, which makes us free, even now, and forever and ever, Amen.