Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sermon: Reformation Day

31 October 2004 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 8:31-36

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Freedom is very important to us Americans.

Our country was founded on the concept of freedom – freedom from oppressive government, as well as a commitment to individual liberty. Mark Twain once said, “In our country, we have those three unspeakably precious things: Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.” To my high school students, freedom is represented by summer vacation, a set of wheels, and rock and roll cranked up loud. To most adults, freedom is personified by job security, the ability to take a vacation, and the capability to buy nice things from time to time. It is the power to decide where to eat, where to go for entertainment, what kind of car to drive, and what movie to see.

Of course, freedom is also much more. Freedom includes the ability to worship without the government breaking into our church with AK47s. Freedom means not having to worry about a dictator’s thugs knocking down our door in the middle of the night to transport us to concentration camps.

Many people view the Lutheran Reformation as a great moment for political freedom. In the world’s view of history, Luther defied the pope and the church in order to empower the individual to think and worship as he pleases. Luther liberated us from the clergy, freed us from the burden of sacraments, and gave the individual the right to converse with God on his own terms. Luther rejected the old church and gave us a new one, where the individual is free to think for himself without the constraints of dogma and traditions of the past. So they say, anyway.

But the freedom Jesus speaks of in our Gospel text is something entirely different. It is something our culture cannot understand. It has nothing to do with human or civil rights, democratic government structures, individual choice, or even Harley Davidsons. Jesus speaks of a freedom that comes from the Truth, from the Son of God himself.

Just three verses before today’s Gospel text begins, Jesus explains his relationship to the Father – but does so in relationship to the cross. He says: “When you lift up the Son of man,” (that is to say, “when you look up and see me hanging on the cross,”) “then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as my Father taught me, I speak these things. And he who sent me is with me.” In a tribute to the power of our Lord’s words, St. John testifies: “As he spoke these words, many believed in him.”

Our text picks up here, with Jesus preaching to the Jews who believed him. Jesus is not preaching to those who do not believe him. Rather our Lord preaches to the believers. But notice how they react to him. Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Our Lord tells his hearers – us included – that his Word is powerful, and if we abide in his Word, the truth – that is Jesus himself – will make us free. Jesus speaks of the release from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus, through his Holy Word, liberates us from our broken fellowship with God. Jesus frees us to escape this body of death, being transformed into new creatures who will live forever! But notice how these believing Jews misunderstand: “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone.” Look at how sin deludes us! These descendants of Abraham are also the descendants of Joseph, who was taken to Egypt in chains. Joseph’s descendants labored for Pharaoh for four centuries. These believing Jews are the descendants of those who were taken captive to Babylon. And even closer to home, these people are, like us, descendants of Adam, held captive by sin, and enslaved to death itself. And ironically, that slavery to sin makes them think they are free.

Our Lord cuts right to the chase: “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” There is no more powerful preaching of the Law in all scripture. For we all commit sin, because we are all sinners. And Jesus tells us that we are all in chains, we are all property of someone else, we are all rotting away in a dungeon unless a Redeemer comes and bails us out. Slaves don’t live in the house, but sons do. And the son of the slave master has the power to grant the slave his freedom. As our Lord testifies: “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Our Gospel text ends here – with this magnificent statement of the Gospel itself. However, the rest of the conversation goes downhill. The Jews (and remember, these are the ones who believe in him!) are still angry at his characterization of them as slaves. Their pride has been wounded. Instead of humbly accepting the key to their fetters, and thanking the one who brings them freedom, Jesus’s listeners arrogantly deny that they were ever bound in the first place! Furthermore, they curse the one bringing the key! By the end of the conversation, Jesus’s listeners accuse him of being demonic, and try to stone him. Usually, we speak of people killing the bearer of bad news, but in this case, they are attempting to kill the messenger with Good News, the very Best News in all of history!

And this is the hardest thing for preachers to accept. We give out the Good News to all who will listen. Yet most will ignore it, and some will even become hostile and hateful. It is a symptom of our sinful nature that we are too proud to admit we’re in need, and too haughty to accept help. We think we can do it on our own. We think we can overcome any obstacles by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, with good old American ingenuity and elbow grease. If we just roll up our sleeves, we can do it all the old fashioned way: by earning it. We don’t want charity. Like old Blue Eyes, we like to do it “my way.” Why? Because then we call the shots, we get the credit, and we owe no-one. This is the monster of original sin itself – and that part of us hates Jesus and cannot abide the Gospel.

This is probably why this text was chosen for Reformation Day. While our sinful nature wants to earn God’s favor and merit our own salvation, Jesus tells us we are passive recipients of the gift of freedom, given to us by the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the flesh himself. It is by grace, not by our own striving. And just as the ancient prophets were rebuked and tortured for their proclamation, just as our Lord was crucified for speaking not merely the Law but also the Gospel, the 16th century Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther likewise became a target. His rediscovery of the Gospel in a day and age when the church was content to grow fat and rich off of folks who had been misled into believing they could earn, or worse yet, buy their freedom, set off a slew of events – some good, and some bad.

We rightfully celebrate the proclamation of the Gospel – which includes the reforms of Luther and his courageous colleagues at Wittenberg University. It is meet and right to bring out the red stoles and sing the familiar Lutheran anthems. We honor these beloved saints of the church who refused to compromise with those who hated the Gospel, with those who made money off of the captivity of the people. But we also mourn the divorce that the Reformation brought. While the Reformation brought peace to individual sinners, it brought a sword to the churches.

We have been “separated brethren” in the Western church for five centuries now. Hundreds of thousands of Christians died in the wars that followed the Reformation. And Luther’s conservative movement gave way to radical expressions of Christianity that to this day deny the power of Baptism and reject our Lord’s presence in the Holy Supper, and even some who embrace women’s ordination, homosexual unions, and the right to abortion.

As Lutherans, we must remember what Luther’s mission was: not to create a new church, not to introduce newfangled teachings, not to give people the “freedom” to replace divine worship with entertainment. But rather Luther’s mission was to bring back true Catholicism, true Christianity from those who held it captive. The freedom Luther proclaimed was not the freedom of the individual, nor the freedom of the mind of man, nor political freedom from tyrants, nor even the freedom to preach – but rather Luther championed the freedom we have in Christ.

We are freed from sin, death, the devil, our flesh, and hell itself. And we are free to worship using the forms and rites the church has always used. We are free to receive Holy Communion – in which the Lord’s saving, precious, holy, divine, and miraculous Body and Blood are physically present – under both kinds, forgiving our sins and uniting God’s Flesh and Blood to our own, every week. We are free to hear the Word of God preached in our own language – not mere information, not simply pious God-talk, not puppet shows and dancing girls – but rather the saving reality of the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. We are free to have pastors absolve us of our sins in private confession. We are free to remember our baptisms with the sign of the holy cross. We are free to do good works, not out of a greedy sense of “what’s in it for me,” but rather out of gratitude and love – the fruits of repentance and sanctification.

Dear brothers and sisters, we are free! The Son has proclaimed it, and sealed it with Blood and Water – the same Blood and Water that flowed from his side comes to us in the font and from the chalice. When the crucified Jesus cried out “It is finished,” we were freed.

And as our Lord tells us, “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” And we are free not because of Luther, not because of the Book of Concord, not because of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but only because of Christ, only for the sake of Christ, only through Christ, and only by Christ. We celebrate Luther only because he pointed to, pleaded for, and preached only, Christ. Solus Christus – Christ alone. The Son has made us free, and we are free indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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