Reformation Observed – John 8:31-36 – October 28th and 29th, 2017
In the Name of Christ Jesus +
In the Name of Christ Jesus +
What defines a Lutheran? Here we are on Reformation weekend, remembering how 500 years ago Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg – it’s a time for reflection, so what defines you? What makes a Lutheran a Lutheran? What makes this congregation different from all those other ones out there? Is it merely that this is where your grandma and grandpa went? Is it merely that this is where the nice, successful people happen to go? Or do you even think sometimes that you are a Lutheran because we Lutherans got it right, unlike all those other folks? No. None of that is what defines a Lutheran. What shapes a Lutheran, what shapes our worship here is this: we not only can be, but are wrong, and we know it. What shapes a Lutheran is the knowledge that we need to repent, that we need to be reformed and reshaped by God.
Consider our text. Here in the Gospel of John we have Jesus having a discussion with some pious Jews who believe in Him – and yet, there comes a hiccup. So Jesus said to the Jews who had 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.” A great statement, a famous one – the truth will set you free. And yet, the reaction of these folks is… off. They answered Him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ’You will become free’?” And here the trouble comes in. As a question – how did you define a Jew? What made a Jew a Jew? Too often they viewed things in terms of their birth – we are children of Abraham. Sort of like saying “we’re good Germans”. They viewed their family lineage with pride – same thing can happen today. But they missed the point, they forgot who they were. In fact, what they say here is utterly foolish. “We have never been enslaved to anyone!” They forgot who they were.
Think back to Exodus 20, where God gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai. He doesn’t just start with the first commandment – rather this is what God tells the Jewish people: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.” Who are you, Jewish people? You’re the people that God rescued from slavery in Egypt – that’s how you are defined. That’s your identity, that’s why you celebrate Passover. You are the people whom God rescued… rescued from slavery in Egypt, rescued from the Philistines by the hand of judges and finally by David the King, rescued from exile in Babylon. The Jewish people were constantly getting enslaved – in fact, even as they speak these defiant words to Jesus, they were basically conquered and enslaved to the Romans. And they should have had no problem admitting they were enslaved – because they were the people of the God who frees the slaves, who rescues them.
When Jesus brings up the idea of being set free, this isn’t anything new. It’s all over the place in the scriptures, it’s one of the major themes of the Old Testament. To “redeem” someone in the old testament was to buy them out of slavery and set them free. For a Jew to say “we’ve never been slaves to anyone” is as idiotic and bizarre as an American on the 4th of July saying, “Independence? Bah, we’ve never been under anyone’s thumb.” It is utterly stupid – I would say it makes no sense… but actually it does. Just a very sad sense. The Jews there who were talking to Jesus forgot who they were in relation to God. Rather than seeing themselves as poor people who often got into trouble but are rescued by God, they puffed themselves up, they elevated themselves. We don’t need God, we don’t need this truth to set us free, because we are great and good and wonderful and don’t need any help from anyone, thank you very much.
Jesus responds to them. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 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.” No, you are slaves, you are slaves to sin. And the same can be said of us. I used to think when I was little that if I just tried hard enough, maybe I could go a whole day without sinning. Yeah. No, not going to happen. Especially when you stop defining sin as just the big, bad, gross stuff. No, when we consider sin the way the Scriptures do, when we consider that we are to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect – and not just perfect in what we do, but perfect in thought and in word, as well as in deed now – eh. No, every moment of every day, we are sinful, we are full of sin. Even right now, sitting here in Church – have we done this perfectly? No, wondering minds, callous and cruel thoughts flittering in and out, distraction and disdain. Behold your sin. Understand that you are sinful. Accept that this sin is something you will have to struggle with and fight against your entire life – that’s Thesis number 1 of the 95 – “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
That’s where we as Lutherans start. The acknowledgment not just that we have happened to do some bad things (but we’re better now), not just that we sometimes sin; rather, we are sinful, full of sin, and that as long as we live, every minute of every day, our entire lives, we need to repent. That over and over again, we are wrong. We take sin, our sin seriously. And that’s what shapes and defines Lutherans. Our Roman friends – The Church is never wrong, when the Pope makes the official decree from the seat of Peter it cannot be wrong. Or our Eastern Orthodox friends – when the bishops gather in council and agree, they can never be wrong. Or the protestant folks who think that if they just keep growing in the Spirit they’ll stop sinning, or let's not talk about sin because it's depressing; let's just be affirming instead! All a denial of reality, all a denial of the fundamental problem. I have sinned in though, word, and deed by MY fault. And I can’t fix it. Of myself, I am a slave to sin.
“If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I can’t fix it, but Christ Jesus can and does. This too is part of your identity as a Lutheran – you are a sinner, but you are a sinner who hears the Word of God, and that Word makes you to know the Truth. Now when we hear Jesus say “the Truth”, He’s not just talking about facts that are correct and accurate. He’s not just talking about being able to win at bible trivia or what have you. Just a few chapters later, Jesus says, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Do you want, O Christian, to be set free from sin, do you want your sin forgiven, do you want everlasting life? Then there is only One who can do that – and that is Christ the Crucified. Christ Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who sheds His Blood for you upon the Cross – He alone, Christ alone can set you free and free indeed. But How does Christ set you free? He, Christ Jesus, is the Truth - “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” The Holy Spirit takes the Word, the proclamation of Christ Jesus and His death and resurrection for you, and with that Word He makes you to know Christ, and He sets you free from sin. It all happens by the Word of God. Just as in the beginning all things are created by the Word of God, so too, in your life now, forgiveness and salvation and eternal life are given to you by the proclamation of Christ and Him Crucified, and we look no place else. As Hebrews proclaims, Let us fix our eyes upon Christ Jesus, “the founder and perfector of our faith.” Christ Jesus, who starts our faith and preserves it, the Alpha and Omega as Revelation puts it, the beginning and the end, the all in all. Everything drives to Christ. The Word points us to Christ.
And yet so many care little for this Word of God that points to Christ. It’s what we just sang, “The Word they still shall let remain, nor any thanks have for it.” People will ignore the Word, they will ignore Christ. They will look to their traditions, or to their own thoughts, their own feelings, their own hearts. We're constantly tempted that way too. That’s the way things have gone since the fall – since we were first tempted away from the Word… “did God really say”? But here is the reality for you. God has come to you by His Word. That Word has been preached and is being preached to you right now. God took water and tied it to His Word of Truth and Life and washed you in it in His baptism. He will take His Word and tie it to Bread and Wine and give you His own Body that was crucified and His own blood that was shed for you – and why? Because He knows your sin, He knows your struggle, but He will not abandon you to sin and death. Luther’s hymn continues, “He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.” He is with us now in this battle plain of life, this constant struggle against sin, with us by His Word, by His Baptism, by His Supper, by the Spirit that makes us to hear and believe - I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him – of course not, for everyone who sins is a slave to sin… but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts of baptism and preaching and absolution and the Supper, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. He is by our side, now, even in the midst of this fallen world. And you know what – this world is hard and ugly, and we ourselves often act hard and ugly too. We need not deny it, or pretend otherwise. Why? And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife – though these all be gone – though everything in this life fall to pot, though we be shown to be the poorest and most miserable of sinners – our victory has been won, been won by Christ Jesus. The Kingdom ours remaineth. When you abide, when you remain in Christ’s Word – there is nothing that can be done to you or by you or against you which changes this truth. Christ Jesus is King, His Word is truth, He is Truth, and He says you are free and forgiven in Him. The world, the devil, our sinful flesh always strive to distract us, to tempt us, to lead us away from this truth, but God in His mercy and by the power of His Word and Spirit continually calls us to repentance, makes us to repent. Dare I say, He reforms us. That is what we celebrate this Reformation Day – that though we often are wrong, Christ Jesus is always right and pure and holy for us, and He is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. All glory be to God alone – in the Name of Christ Jesus. Amen.