The Festival of the Reformation, 31 October 2004
John 8:31-36 [Text from Eugene Peterson’s The Message]
31Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. "If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. 32Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you."
FREEDOM FOR OTHERS
“If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”
It was her 18 th birthday, and she was more excited than she had been in years. In just a few months she would be moving out of her parents’ house. In just a few months she would be in her own place with no one telling her when to come home and no one telling her to clean her room and no one asking if her homework were done and no one asking what’s that she was wearing and no one asking how old that boy was that wanted to take her out. Ah, free at last!
At the breakfast table she announced to her parents that she was an adult now. She said it in a way that her parents could see that she regarded this announcement as more important than Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – more important than Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. She was an adult now -- living in anticipation of that day when the family home would be in the rearview mirror – living in the sure and certain confidence that she would never again be told what to do by anyone.
Now a smarter father would have smiled to himself, not wanting to spoil the moment. A smarter father would have said to himself that she will learn the truth soon enough. A smarter father would have let the moment go. But this father was younger and more reactive. Filled with emotion, he just couldn’t bridle his tongue.
With all the grace of a prosecuting attorney, he responded to his only daughter: “So…you’re an adult today? Well, who pays for the roof over your head? (“You do, Daddy.”) And who pays for most of the clothes you wear? (“You do, Daddy.”) And who pays for your car, your gasoline, and your insurance? (“You do, Daddy.”) Good answers! When you’re an adult, you pay your own way. (“Yes, Daddy.”) So…Happy Birthday, sweetheart, you’re 18…not an adult!”
Now he was right, of course. But his timing was awful! No separation anxiety there! No fears of his little girl going into the world on her own there! This was truly a man of reason…just like all parents of teenage daughters. It’s tough to let them go.
Fast forward five years. The daughter is married, pregnant with her first child, working full-time, and working on the degree she put aside for a while. She phones her father. “Daddy! (“Yes, darling.”) “Remember when you said that you’re an adult when you pay your own way?” (“Yes, sweetheart.”) “Well, I’m adult now.” (“Yes, you are, and I’m very proud of you.”) “Is it OK if I wish I weren’t an adult anymore?” (“Yes, honey, we all have days like that.”) “And somebody is always going to be trying to tell me what to do?” (“Yes, darling, that is indeed the truth.”)
There is always someone trying to tell us what to do. Sometimes it’s your so-called friend who tries to get you to join in something you know is wrong. Sometimes it’s the person you’re dating who tries to pressure you into being someone you’re not ready to be. Sometimes it’s your coach or your boss trying to get you to do something you know is illegal. Sometimes it’s your spouse trying to get you to buy something you can’t afford. Sometimes it’s your government trying to get you to agree to something that goes against the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus. And that’s just the external forces that you’re dealing with!
The greatest battles rage inside of us. It’s easy to give in to the sweet siren song of our old selfish self. It’s easy, in the moment, to forget about the consequences of choices. We easily pretend that freedom means never having to think about our choices. Who ever thinks that blowing off studying to go play will result in losing the chance at a scholarship? Who ever thinks that saying yes will result in an even greater loneliness and lower self-esteem than before? Who ever thinks that you can die the first time you try some drugs? Who ever thinks that going to that party will end up with being arrested? Who ever thinks that giving in to a troubled child is like handing the child a gun and some bullets? Who ever thinks that dumb financial choices today will haunt us for years to come. And so we lie to ourselves. We pretend that our actions have no consequences.
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. That’s what Jesus is telling his opponents then and us opponents now. Because we don’t like to be told what to do, we ignore the good and gracious will of our Heavenly Father. Because we think that freedom means no authorities other than our own self-serving consciences, we stumble foolishly into heartaches – while God weeps over His stupid broken creatures that flutter and flail in the very net of sin in which we have become ensnared.
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. In the Garden of Eden the serpent is the forerunner of all those scholarly experts that keep trying to convince us that wrong is right. In the Garden of Eden both the woman and the man are the first of God’s people to choose an alternate reading of God’s expressed will. With the tempter’s encouragement and their own self-centered hermeneutic, they re-imagine God as an all-loving Friend who could never say “No” to disobedience. They silence their own troubled consciences with serpentine taunts: “Don’t be such a silly fundamentalist. God is far too loving, welcoming, and inclusive to say ‘No’ to disobedience!”
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Like the first parents, like Israel in the wilderness, like Jesus’ religious detractors, we tell ourselves that we are the people of God permanently held in God’s mercy and thus once saved always saved – nothing can separate us from the love of God – there is now no condemnation – we are free – no one’s slaves. These scriptural slogans sound so irrefutable coming straight from the mouths of smiling heretics. But these famous expressions of the Good News have been severed from their moorings. They are a disembodied gospel – nonsensical theology – because there is no need for a Savior when we pretend that our only bondage is to the worn out prejudicial orthodoxies of the past.
The weeping God threw the first parents out of the Garden and signed a death warrant drafted by the disobedience of the same creatures that He previously called “very good.” Doubtless the tempter was still whispering in their ears while they were dying that formaldehyde is the river of life. Doubtless they were still telling themselves up to the end that death was a beautiful gift from God.
The weeping God left the disobedient people of God in the wilderness until every last one of them, including Moses, was dead. Doubtless the tempter was still whispering in their ears that the desert was just a Promised Land waiting to be developed. Doubtless they were still telling themselves up to the end that God wasn’t really saying “No.”
The weeping God left the falsely confident people of God in their magnificent houses of God to celebrate themselves to death. Doubtless the tempter was still whispering in their ears that he knew just the place where they could celebrate and theologize for eternity (as C.S. Lewis depicted in The Great Divorce). Doubtless some are still telling themselves that heaven and hell and even Godself are interesting metaphors for a greater truth. Doubtless there are marvelous multicultural denominational strategies to expand the circle to welcome and include even more into such a dynamic community of (what else) love.
Yet the weeping God so loved the world – including you and me – that He became human in Jesus Christ in order to take His own death verdict upon Himself.
Not content to do nothing about His tragically self-deceiving creatures, He took His own judgment – his own No – upon Himself. The only way that we slaves to sin can be freed from the net of sin, death, and evil is by the gracious Sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son. The only way that we slaves to sin can be saved from ourselves is to be buried with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism – not once, not twice, not partially, not metaphorically, not symbolically – but buried with Christ today and tomorrow and the next and the next and the next until we finally draw our last breath in this body of death! He is the Truth that will free us.
If the Son of God, Jesus Christ, doesn’t set me free, I can’t be free. If I insist that I am not a slave to sin, there is no Truth in me and Christ can’t free me. If I insist that God doesn’t really mean “No” then I can never hear the “Yes” spoken to those who claim no righteousness of their own, those who come to God with empty hands and broken hearts knowing that we deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. When I die today with Christ, confessing my sin and crying out for the resurrection of my broken life, the Welcoming Father will raise me from the dead as He has longed to do from before the foundation of the world. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God will live in me and I in Him. He will make of me a new creation.
What does it look like when Christ lives in us? It doesn’t look like an 18-year-old’s fantasies about freedom. It doesn’t look like me getting all of my selfish needs met while doing no earthly good for others. The new life in Christ doesn’t look like an MGM-style celebration of ourselves with all the materialism and pleasure we can grab along the way. The new life in Christ doesn’t sound like the tempter’s lies that God doesn’t really mean “No” when you’re disobedient – just so long as you’ve been baptized. The new life in Christ looks like a cross – like the freedom to stick with this, living out all the things He tells us, by giving our lives away in service to others and in joyous harmony with our Master.
Parents have such selective memories. We often forget those amazing moments when Christ shows that He is living in a teenage daughter or son.
The teenager didn’t have to be asked. She woke up her little brother each Sunday morning and saw that he was showered, dressed, and fed. Then she drove him to Sunday School and to worship. Despite the fact that he could be such a little jerk, she adored him and gave away a lot of her life for him because it was the right thing to do.
Each Wednesday afternoon she picked up little brother after school and brought him to the congregation’s Midweek School. There she served as a teacher to a roomful of 2 nd graders while her peers were driving around town in new cars spending their Daddy’s money.
Who would have thought that a teenager would be set free to serve others? The Son who emptied Himself of power and glory and gave His life away that we might go and do the same!
The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt