Reformation Sunday, ‘17
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-36
Freedom is a theme in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. And that makes sense because this is Reformation Sunday and freedom was a major issue for Martin Luther and the other original reformers,. In fact, one of his most famous writings is called “The Freedom of a Christian.”
But “freedom” is one of those words that can end up meaning many different things to many different people. We certainly see that in our country today. Football players should have the freedom to kneel during the national anthem. Football players should not kneel for the national anthem because it show disrespect for the freedom so many have fought and worked for. Freedom of speech is central to our democracy. Everyone has the right to say what they believe. At the same time some are saying they should have the freedom to no hear or listen to opinions they don’t like. We are free to choose from hundreds of different boxes of cereal at the grocery stores. Others go hungry. Freedom can mean many things.
The freedom that Jesus is talking about is something quite different. And it is something that Martin Luther wanted people to know. When Luther understood the freedom Jesus was talking about it was a turning point in his life and in his faith.
It might be comforting to know that the people who first heard these words of Jesus were confused, too. When Jesus was explaining that the truth would set them free they responded by saying they had never been slaves to anyone. Apparently they had forgotten the whole thing in Egypt when they were in fact slaves of Pharaoh.
But that’s OK because what Jesus says is challenging to understand. Scholars are still trying to peel away the layers of the meaning of freedom. Our response could be the same. We have never been slaves to anyone. Not in this day and age. And Jesus’ suggestion that the truth will set us free is no clearer than what freedom is. Truth can be many thing things to many people. Climate change is real. Climate change is not real. God is real. God is not real.
Put the two together – truth and freedom – and you have a very confusing explanation to deal with.
But if we look at all of Jesus’ words here we get some help in understanding this. And it has to do with sin. “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Jesus is not talking about being slaves to another person, but rather slaves to sin.
This is where a little grammar might be handy. And since we are interested in “the truth” this is important. We often think of and talk about sin in the plural when we really should think and talk about sin in the singular. That one small letter, that one small ‘s’ makes a difference.
When we talk about sin and are imagining it in the plural we are usually thinking in terms of the bad things we have done. Things we have done that have hurt someone in some way. The Ten Commandments name some of these – stealing, killing, gossiping. But, sin throughout most of the Bible is not about actions. Sin is about a state of being, a condition, a condition in which we are trapped. In Jesus’ words, a condition we are slaves to. It’s not so much a thing as it is a force or a power that robs us and the world of the full life that God has given us.
The condition of sin is kind of like an overarching sense of insecurity that we are never good enough, never worthy of love, that we are simply never enough. And if you think about it, if you think about it in your own life – that sense of never being enough, never being loveable enough – is what often causes us to do those hurtful things that we do. Those things we name as sins, plural.
If someone says something hurtful to us, there is something in us that is questioned and we respond in some way we lash out, maybe we say or do something even more hurtful. Or we triangulate and let someone else in on how awful that other person really is. We hold on to our money, not really believing that God will provide what we need. Or we fill our homes or our lives with stuff and things and activities, afraid of an emptiness that lurks just beneath the surface. So many of our actions, our sins, if you will, come from that power, that insecurity, that sinfulness that we can’t quite admit is a part of us.
The thing about sins, plural, is that our first instinct is to punish the person. Prison, a reprimand or some other negative response. The problem is punishment never really changes anything or anyone.
What Jesus is offering is some thing very different. Jesus reminds us that God’s love and forgiveness do not depend on us at all. That God’s grace is a gift purely out of love.
Which is a very good thing. Because we could never work our way to heaven or to God’s grace. We just couldn’t do it. There would always be that nagging insecurity that we have never been enough. No matter how hard we try, no matter how perfectly we behave, it would never be enough to know that it is enough. And if, by some miracle, we don’t get this message on our own we only have to look at all of the messages we get from the world around us. We are never enough – we don’t wear the right clothes, drive the right car, eat the right food or get the right grades.
So, that’s the first thing to get from today’s reading from John. We are slaves to sin. We can get the best grades possible, eat at all of the right restaurants and wear the right clothes and even earn enough money. We can pretend we’re OK when someone asks how we are. But none of that changes the reality that we do fall short when it comes to believing and trusting and living in God’s love. And that’s the truth. And as Gloria Steinem said, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Or maybe it will depress you. Or make it all seem hopeless.
But there is another truth for us today. And maybe it’s the clearest in the words from Jeremiah in our first reading. You might not expect that from the Old Testament. But Jeremiah tells us that God will make a new covenant with the people, with us. We might not be able to forget those things that we have done, those sins. But God says clearly, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Period.
We might not be able to forgive and forget all those things that keep us awake at night. But God does. God’s love is so complete, so all-encompassing, so unlimited that God forgives and forgets everything, even what we cannot.
Which is impossible to believe. Those things we hang onto can seem so big, so serious. Central to who we are. It’s not that they don’t matter. They do matter. They are all a part of what makes us who we are. But they do not define us. Nothing we have done or not done captures the whole of we are.
Only God’s love ultimately defines us. God is the only one who knows us completely. And God, knowing all of that, has chosen to call us beloved children. God has chosen to call us holy and precious in God’s own sight. That is what defines us.
And that is what frees us. Frees us from all of those things that tell us over and over again that we are not enough – good enough, smart enough, rich enough. Because God loves us just as we are. In God’s eyes we are enough. Just as we are.
We’re free from all of that. Free from the past. Free from fear. Free from regrets. Free from mistakes. Free from it all. Whether it seems possible to us or not.
Which, it seems to me, is one of the most reforming things possible. This being the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the thing that is the most reforming of all is God’s grace and love.
We may never understand it, or believe it, for that matter. The amazing thing is that even that is OK. God’s grace does not even depend on us getting it right or believing the right thing. That is not what faith is. It is not being sure to believe or do the right thing.
Faith is trusting in God’s love and that is where our freedom comes from.
We’ve come this far by faith, trusting in God’s grace.
So, let’s ponder that this week. Let’s try to let it sink in.