Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the
Reformation, a movement that not only impacted the church of that age, but all
What one word would you use to describe the distinctiveness of
the Lutheran movement? Is it grace, justification, the good works we do through Lutheran
Disaster Relief, ELCA World Hunger, or something else? These are all good
answers, but they are not unique to us as Lutherans.
The word freedom is the one most celebrated by Martin
Luther. He was in bondage to a view of God as judge and went to great lengths
to try to appease God by bringing his body into submission by extreme
deprivation such as intensive fasting and beating himself with a whip. It was
not until reading in the book of Romans of salvation by grace through faith
that the burden of working to be saved was lifted from Luther’s shoulders. This
is the freedom about which Luther wrote most frequently. In fact, he wrote a
short pamphlet called “The Freedom of a Christian,” specifically about that
Had is such a little word, but it packs a punch in today’s gospel
reading. Jesus was addressing the Jews who HAD believed in him. They were not
addressed as disciples, as current followers because they had not continued in
Christ’s word. If they had, they would have been disciples who would have
experienced the truth that would set them free.
These Jews, like all of us, needed to come face to face with the
truth that we must come clean about our need. Can we receive freedom if we do
not understand that we need to be set free? Freedom in Christ is only good news
if we know our need.
Notice that Jesus’ audience declared they had never been slaves
to anyone! Wrong! At the time, their land was ruled by the Romans. Earlier in
their history the Jewish people had been enslaved by the Babylonians,
Assyrians, Egyptians and others. They could not face the truth about their
history or themselves.
Luther wrote, “For truth does not consist merely in hearing
Christ or in being able to blabber about him at length but also in believing in
your heart and in experiencing with your heart that Christ wants to set you
free. This is what makes a true Christian.” It is this kind of person that
experiences God’s freedom.
The kind of freedom Jesus speaks of has two aspects to it. First
there is freedom from meaning liberation from all spiritual bondage. We
are freed from saving ourselves and having self as center of the universe. This
liberates us from estrangement with God and with one another.
The second aspect of such freedom is freedom for. In
Christ we are set free for loving and serving others. It all boils down to
relationship with God and one another.
Freedom in Christ is scandalous because it is not based upon who
we are or what we have done. The scandal is that it is based on unconditional,
not propositional grace.
Luther put it this way, “…if grace is true, you must bear a true
and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious
sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even
more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world…Pray boldly—you
too are a mighty sinner.” In other words, we are not to sit on our hands for
fear we may do something wrong. It’s like the business world’s statement, “Make
sure that you generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.”
Today’s gospel reading is all about freedom. The Reformation is
all about freedom as well. From Paul’s declaration that we have been justified
by grace to Luther’s hammering his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church door to
remind us of the supremacy of God’s grace—what the Reformation tells us is that
there is nothing we can do, say or accomplish to earn God’s love. It is a free
gift. We have problems when we forget that we already have love as a gift from
God and try to earn it on our own.
Our futures are not determined by our regrets and failures, but
by what God has done in Jesus’ resurrection—giving us new life and hope and
yes, freedom. “So if the Son makes [us] free, [we] will be free indeed” v.
36)—free to love just as God loves us.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the
Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C.
Oswald and Helmut T. Lehman (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing
House, 1999, c: 1959), 23:400).
____________, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48, pp. 281-282.