Here’s the sermon I preached on Reformation Sunday:
Texts for Reformation Sunday
- Jeremiah 31:31-34
- Psalm 46
- Romans 3:19-28
- John 8:31-36
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Recently, the topic of Christian freedom has become a popular topic of conversation in many Christian circles. Many books have been written on the topic as well and they all ask the same sorts of questions: What does it mean to be free? Where does our freedom come from? Everyone seems to have an answer. Or do they?
As Pastor Sorensen pointed out last week, one of the difficulties we, as twenty-first century Christians, have is understanding the first century context of the Bible. This is especially true of today’s gospel; we are told very little of the context in which Jesus is speaking in today’s text. All we know from the text is that he was speaking to “Jews who had believed in him.”
If we flip back to the seventh chapter of John, we see that Jesus was in Galilee around the time of the Jewish Festival of Booths. The Festival of Booths was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, when Jews living outside of Jerusalem were required to come to the city. It was the Jewish harvest celebration that commemorated God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness sojourn from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.
Jesus, speaking to a group of Jews “who had believed in him” said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Freedom, for the Jews at that time, had its root context in the Exodus, the major event that defined Jewish history. What Jesus is saying here is that freedom is not bound up in some historical event, rather, freedom is bound in truth. In essence, Jesus is reinterpreting the exodus context. The truth about the liberating power of freedom is that it is unknowable without being Jesus’ disciple, without knowing the truth of the Gospel.
Notice how the Jews respond to Jesus, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Here they are in Jerusalem, celebrating one of the festivals that commemorates the Exodus and they have the audacity to say they had never been slaves. Never mind that the Jews were slaves in Egypt. Never mind that the Jews were sent into Exile by the Babylonians. Never mind that the Jews were currently under Roman occupation. They were slaves to no one. But we know that this isn’t exactly the truth. As one early church father put it, the Jews were lying. I would say these Jews are revising history to fit their needs. At the very least, they misinterpret what Jesus says because they are speaking about historical, and very earthly, notions of freedom while Jesus is speaking of something bigger.
It’s important to look at how Jesus then responds. He doesn’t call the Jews out for their rewriting of history, he doesn’t call them liars. He doesn’t even point out that they completely missed the point of what he was saying. Jesus is not talking about physical slavery here. Jesus is talking about spiritual slavery. “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Freedom, true freedom, is a gift of God. Just as God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God can and will deliver His people from slavery to sin.
Jump ahead 1500 years to when a young priest posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In the period leading up to the Protestant Reformation, the church became a slave to the doctrine of works, that is that one could earn eternal life by good deeds and lots of them. One of the ways people could earn some credit against their time in Purgatory was to buy an Indulgence, a piece of paper saying that one’s sin was forgiven.
The way the indulgence system was originally designed to work was one was given the indulgence after one made confession and received absolution. By the sixteenth century, however, the system was so distorted that a person did not have to confess their sin. Instead, they could simply buy an indulgence from a priest.
Just to illustrate how corrupt the indulgence system had become, there is an apocryphal story of one of these traveling priests who would sell indulgences. While he was out selling indulgences one day, the priest was approached by a man who asked if an indulgence could be bought for a future sin, to which the priest responded yes, it could. The man bought the indulgence and left. That evening, the priest was attacked and robbed by the same man who had bought the indulgence for his future sin.
In essence, people believed that they could buy their way out of eternal judgment. They were slaves to bad doctrine and, as Luther saw it, the church needed to be reformed, to be brought back into alignment with what the Bible says, “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” The law cannot save, only Christ can.
We live in a strange time. We have many freedoms that those in the first or even the sixteenth century did not have. But are we truly free? We live in a time where fear and hatred run unchecked. This air of fear and hatred causes us to do one of three things: Either we can give into our fear and do nothing, we can join in and perpetuate the fear and hatred, or we can stand up and proclaim the truth. Do we know the truth, or are we a slave to sin?
There is good news for all to be had. We know how to be truly free. We know what true freedom is. The Truth will set us free. The Truth breaks the bonds of slavery. The truth is we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But Jesus Christ has set us free. Christ bore the full weight of our sins for us. Christ suffered death on a cross for our sins. Christ died so that we don’t have to. This is a gift given freely by God – by the grace of God. But free doesn’t always mean there is no cost attached.
The twentieth century theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about costly grace in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son…and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.”
We thank God that Christ’s life was not to high a cost for our salvation and freedom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.