Today is Reformation Sunday. It was 499 years ago that Martin Luther wanted to start a discussion about some practices of the church. He had no visions of starting a new denomination – his followers later adopted the Lutheran name for their movement.
There are some traditions that run deep and touch some very emotional nerves. For me, one of those traditions is Reformation Sunday. The paraments on the altar are bright red, the scriptures are always the same, and it just wouldn’t seem like a “legal” Reformation Sunday without singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Gospel – John 8:31-36
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every now and then, if I have trouble sleeping, I give in to the temptation of turning on the television. Infomercial heaven! Channel after channel with stories about products designed to fill a need I never knew I had. Just the other day I saw an ad for a set of four dust-mop slippers that you put on your dog, so that as the dog walks around your house, shedding like crazy, it dusts the floor as it goes. Who knew we needed that?!
The people who heard Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel text might have had the same question about the freedom Jesus talked about in today’s lesson. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” was Jesus’ offer to them. But why would they need that?
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” It’s hard for us not to roll our eyes when we hear the crowd claim, “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Never been slaves? Seriously? What happened to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans? You’re kidding, right?
It turns out that they are not kidding. They are in denial about their own sin. But are we any different? Do we take sin seriously? Freedom isn’t a gift unless you know you are not free. So what about us? Are we free? Would this gift be any more appealing to us than it was to Jesus’ first believers?
In our confession, we say that we are in bondage to sin. We are bound; our hands and feet are tied; we cannot do anything except sin. That’s what our words say; but do we actually believe that?
What do we really mean when we say we are in bondage to sin?
We might be talking about our own sinful actions and attitudes. The kind of sin that makes it really hard for me to trust others the way I should, worrying that they may take advantage of me. The kind of sin that makes it hard for me to share with others the way I should, afraid that there won’t be enough to go around and I’d better get mine first. We’ve talked before about the story “Stone Soup” that starts with a whole town full of this kind of mistrust and suspicion. Not one of those neighbors could have imagined a future that included a tasty, filling soup made from the contributions of every household. And we are often like those neighbors, trying to do the best we can for ourselves, and only thinking of others if there’s anything left over, which there usually isn’t.
And it’s not just individual sins, either. Our congregation is also in bondage to sin. Collectively, we make decisions based on what’s in it for us, not what God has called us to give to benefit our neighbors. And beyond the congregation or the community, we know that we live in a broken world. Every decision we make — from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive to the food we buy – takes a toll on the environment or on the living conditions of the people who make those things for our pleasure. As Paul says in the second reading, “All have sinned and fallen short.”
Luther knew that the real bondage happens when we imagine ourselves to be free, to be able to control our own destiny.
We read in the book of Genesis that sin came into the world in a garden a very long time ago. When the serpent told those first humans that the tree that was off limits would give them knowledge like God’s, they couldn’t resist the power, they imagined that they would be free. But instead, by taking that fruit, they sentenced themselves and all humankind to lives of bondage to sin.
Into our bondage comes a word of good news – God loves you too much to let you live in denial. God loves you enough to force you to look your sin directly in the eyes. God loves you enough to call you to own your own sin. Only when you know, not just in your heads but in your heart, that you are in bondage to sin, only then will the gift of God’s forgiveness have value for you.
Despite our stubbornness, despite our self-centered attitudes, despite our thinking that we can work things out on our own, God is waiting eagerly to forgive you. And even more amazing, God actually forgets about your sin. Out of his extravagant and unreasonable love for you, God regards you as if you were perfect, as if you were free of all sin, as if you were Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.