Friday, November 3, 2023

True Freedom

 This is the message I preached Sunday, at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was John 8:31-36.

Today's gospel reading is all about freedom. The whole 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, we are reminded 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. God's love 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. 

Over the years, many songs have been sung about the longing for freedom--from “We Shall Overcome” to the song, “People Got to Be Free,” by the Young Rascals. 

What does this have to do with the Reformation and today's gospel? Everything.

As a monk, Martin Luther struggled mightily to be free from the sin he was convinced permeated his very being. He took harsh measures to subdue his body and its desires. It wasn't until he read God's word in Romans that his eyes were opened to the way of freedom from sin and the power of the devil through Jesus. The word “free” appears throughout today's reading. Jesus is the word, the truth that gives freedom and the son. 

Today's gospel text follows Jesus teaching the Jews in the temple about his own identity. This passage begins a dialogue in response to the Jewish people who had believed in Jesus' message. However, these Jews did not understand what Jesus was talking about when it came to freedom. If the Greek was translated literally, it would say, “We have never by no means ever been slaves to no one.” But since that is bad English grammar, it was not translated that way. It is incredible that the Jewish followers would make such a claim! Certainly they had short memories when it came to their past: they were enslaved by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and others. In Jesus' time, it was the Romans who were occupying the Jewish homeland. In the history of the ancient Jewish people, they were enslaved more than they were free. What were these people thinking????

The Jews were centering on the biological connection between Abraham and themselves (v. 33) and their confession in one God (later in v. 41). But that is not enough. Jesus, the Son of Man, is a descendant of God! Jesus is reforming the thinking of the Jews of his day, but they just don't seem to get it. 

One's actions may be as slaves or as free children. The word free implies that one is no longer dominated by something or someone--one is not a slave. One can be free in Christ, even when dominated by society or a political regime. On the other hand, one can be in bondage even as he or she lives in a free country. Many Americans could echo Jesus' opponents, “We are already free! After all, we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

If we are in bondage to sin, we are anything but free. Sin enslaves, while Jesus frees. Luther expressed it in 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.” (Luther's Works, Vol 48, p. 281-282)

Another way to express Luther's statement about sinning boldly can be stated in a motto from the business world, “Make sure that you generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.” 

Luther understood sin as self-centeredness, being turned in on ourselves. Some people think of freedom as being able to do whatever they want to do. That definition of freedom, means slavery to one's self. True freedom means having our desires and centeredness turned away from ourselves. As a free response of love, as a result of being connected to Jesus' word, we can give of ourselves to others. We can honestly care only when we are free to not care. 

In modern literature, movies and TV, we hear the words, “the truth will make you free.” This occurs as a character is trying to decide whether not they should tell the truth about a situation, or whenever they feel compelled to explore the depths of a mystery to get to the bottom of it. This is a general truth, such as the truth about bacteriology and medicine, sets people free from superstitions about disease and makes possible cures. However, this is not what Jesus means by truth. In John's gospel, truth is personal and it is embodied in Jesus himself (14:6). It is the Word of God, present in Christ, that sets people free. 

The word “truth” is repeated several times in today's gospel. In fact, truth, and freedom are connected. Those who desire freedom, will not receive the kind of freedom Jesus expresses without the truth about him. Freedom is entirely dependent upon the truth. In New Testament times, truth was “what is firm or sure, and thus reliable.” A true friend is one who is reliable, genuine and trustworthy. 

What is the key to truth? It is the close and continual connection between the disciple and Jesus' word. In its original sense, disciple meant learner. Through welcoming Jesus' word, we know the reality of God, and this is what frees us. We are forgiven, as God's word assures us. 

The hard things in life that we experience matter. Whether it is illness, hurt or anything else, it does matter and may be true of us. But these things do not define us. God calls us his own beloved children, and that's what defines us. Our identity, freedom and truth are found in Christ.

The third verse of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” speaks of “hordes of devils” filling the land. What is God's response? He acts, but not in the way we would expect. God does not make his army bigger, but instead, “one little word subdues him.” It is the word of grace from the cross of Christ that defeats the enemy. The one little word is Jesus and the work he has done for us on the cross. This word frees us and it is in this word that we find the hope of the world. 

And so we are free. Free to risk and serve and help and care and try to struggle and laugh and love. We are free to love just as God loves us.




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