I. Introduction –
Emancipation Proclamation – September 22nd, 1862
Declaration of Independence – July 4th, 1776
95 Theses – October 31st, 1517
Good Friday – 14th of Jewish month of Nisan, around 33 A.D.
What do all these dates have in common? Freedom. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed all the slaves in the confederate states. Of course the Declaration of Independence announced our freedom from England’s reign. The 95 Theses showed that forgiveness couldn’t be purchased, but was given freely. And of course, Christ’s death on Good Friday set us free from sin. Freedom is an important idea, not only for us modern Americans, but for many who have gone before us. Even the ancient Jews had their own ideas of freedom.
On this Reformation day, in which we celebrate the freedom of the Gospel, and give thanks for those who re-discovered the truth of God’s teaching, let’s consider the Gospel reading from St. John, and see how the truth sets us “free indeed”.
II. Unknowing Slaves
“We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been slaves of anyone!”
What were these ancient Jews thinking? They have never been slaves to anyone? For certainly they had been slaves. The greatest day in their history was when they left their slavery in Egypt – it was their day of national independence, still celebrated with a Passover festival. They were too slaves – who had been set free.
And now, they were not slaves per se, but they were under the thumb of the Romans. They were not free, at least the way they wanted to be. So how can they stand there and tell Jesus they have never been slaves of anyone? Were they trying to say to Jesus, “we see the deeper reality here, that even though foreigners rule over us, we are free in our hearts. We are free, in our own minds, from these oppressors. We understand the greater reality, Jesus. We’re thinking deeper.”?
But Jesus always sees deeper, and understands better. Whether free or slave according to earthly government or economic condition, whether free or slave in one’s own mind – none of that matters when it comes to the slavery of our sinful nature. “Anyone who sins is a slave to sin”, and therefore since everyone sins, everyone is a slave to sin. At least from where we start. This is the deeper reality that the Jews were blind to. This is what God’s law is always driving us to see.
At times, we know our slavery to sin well. Other times, we are deceived. At times the guilt and shame of sin are clear to us – strikingly so. Other times, we feel self-righteous or simply are not mindful of such things. When this happens, we need a wake-up call. We need God’s terrible anger at sin to be made known. We need to hear the law.
John Tetzel, a Dominican monk in Germany, was very good at awakening in the sinner the fear of judgment. He would preach to the German peasants about the fires of hell, the closeness of death, the anger of God at sin. Tetzel made people aware of their sorry state. But his solution was not from God. It was from Rome. He sold indulgences, documents offering forgiveness from sin’s punishments. This is what bothered the young monk Martin Luther and lead the posting of 95 statements for debate, and eventually, to the entire protestant reformation. It was the effective preaching of sin by Tetzel, but the wrong answer on sin’s solution.
But what is Jesus’ idea of a solution?
III. Holding to the Teaching
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples”
Some would hear this statement of Jesus as further telling us “what to do”. “Hold to my teaching” must mean “moral living”. And it’s certainly true that Jesus had a lot to say about morality. How we treat our neighbor, how we handle our money, how we show humility, even how we view marriage. Jesus’ teaching included excellent teaching on morality and holy living. But if all Jesus taught was that we should “be good”, then he wasn’t all that different from John Tetzel. Jesus taught more.
“Son your sins are forgiven”, “I am the Good Shepherd… I know my sheep”, “The Son of Man will die… and on the third day rise again”. These are not moral directives, but they are teachings of Jesus. When he speaks of himself and what he does for us, Jesus has Good News to tell. We call it “Gospel”.
And the heart of the Gospel is that Jesus died on Calvary’s Cross to set sinners free from their slavery to sin. “Holding to my teaching” means “Holding to the Gospel”. It means knowing and believing that Jesus Christ died to save you, and you can do nothing, NOTHING, to add anything to that.
No good works, not giving enough money to church, not helping little old ladies across the street, not holding the door for the other person, not tipping the waitress well, not donating your kidney, not adopting a troubled child, not joining the peace corps, not working at a soup kitchen, not sacrificing things for your children or being faithful to your spouse, not even coming to church every Sunday. NONE OF THIS frees us from sin. Only Jesus’ blood shed for us can do the job. That’s the gospel. That’s the teaching of Jesus.
IV. The Truth Will Set You Free
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”
In a sense, the truth is the good news of the Gospel. But the truth is also Jesus himself. The two are inseparable.
The same St. John who records these words of Jesus, also tells of a time when the risen Jesus announced, “I am the way, and the TRUTH, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Only in the truth of Jesus and his Gospel can we be free from our old master, sin, and come to our Heavenly Father.
In Luther’s day, the truth was obscured by those who taught that you had to buy or earn your way out of sin’s slavery. In Jesus day, some Jews couldn’t even see their slavery to sin until Jesus pointed it out. Both are forms of blindness that exist even today.
But today, truth itself is even under attack. Instead of one truth and many lies, today we have many “truths”. What’s “true for you” may not be “true for me”. Each “truth” is given equal value and respect and honor, and you are not allowed to disagree with anyone else’s truth, because “that’s not very open-minded or nice”. What would Jesus say to that?
He didn’t say you will know “a” truth, but “the” truth. He didn’t leave the door open for many ways, but only one way. And he is the way. He didn’t allow for many truths, but only one truth, and He is that truth. And only in Him can we find freedom and life.
Martin Luther is quoted as saying something like this, “Truth at all costs. Peace if possible”. In a day when so many have exchanged the truth of God and the Gospel of Christ for a shallow, outward peace, Reformation Christians who know the only truth that sets people free – we must hold to his teaching.
For it is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen that sets us free from the guilt and shame of sin, from the wrath and punishment of God. It is that same Gospel that empowers the Christian to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, and to do good works for the sake of Him who has already saved us. Yes, Jesus does want us to “be good”. But he wants sons and daughters, not slaves. He frees us to serve him in joyful response to his great love.
Freedom. It comes in many forms, doesn’t it. On this Reformation day let us thank God for the most important freedom we could know – freedom from sin. That freedom which is found only in Jesus Christ, who is the way the truth and the life.
Lord, may we always be your disciples, holding to your teaching, for you have set us free indeed. Amen.
The Reformation was about freedom – freedom to hold to the teachings of Christ, to know the truth, and to be free from sin. As sons and daughters of God through Christ, we are free indeed!