Freed to set free – Sermon on John 8 for Reformation Sunday

I must confess that Reformation Day can be a tricky day for me. It can be easy on this day to get caught up in a kind of Lutheran celebration that makes us out to be the only ones who know God’s true intention about the gospel, as if we’re the only ones who get it right. Too many Lutheran folks for fall too long have viewed this day as an opportunity to stick it other Satanic Roman Catholics. This day is not about that. This day is about celebrating, or perhaps better put, acknowledging the implications of the gospel, of the good news. A quintessential Lutheran question is “What does this mean?” and on this day, we celebrate the bravery of a German monk—namely, Martin Luther—who had the courage to ask that question publicly, despite what it might’ve cost him. But we don’t honor Luther’s memory well or live in the true spirit of the Reformation for that matter if we don’t continue to ask the question, “What does this mean?”

If we think that the question of the good news was settled some roughly 500 years ago in Germany when Luther sparked the Reformation, we’re wrong. The world has changed a lot since then, but the Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What does the good news mean today, in our lives, for us now, in Fitchburg? That’s the spirit of the Reformation, and we ask that question as Lutherans because we are brave enough to expect God to answer us. God may not answer as we like, but we know that God will answer. And so today, on this Reformation Day, we don’t celebrate that we have it all right, that we have all the answers; instead, we celebrate that we can ask questions and can expect God to answer us. We celebrate that God is our God, and we are his people—and we want to know more about what that means for us today, in this place, in our lives now. Let’s keep that in mind as we go into the sermon today.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Gifts. We speak of them in different ways. We speak of birthday gifts, of Christmas gifts. Kids learn early what they’re all about. My nephew was excited to tell me about his birthday gifts when I called him last week to wish him happy birthday. He’s already telling me about all presents that Santa Claus is going to bring him. But we speak of gifts in other ways too. We will often call our talents gift. A gifted storyteller. A gifted saxophonist. A gifted public speaker. And then there intangible gifts that we sometimes speak of. The gift of laughter. The gift of friendship. The gift of wisdom. When we speak of gifts, we can mean any number of things, but in a way, they’re all related. A gift is something that is given to us. In the case of presents, it’s something given to us for a special occasion like a birthday or Christmas. Talents are thought to be given to us by nature—or perhaps nurture. Maybe a combination of both.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John’s gospel tells us that he’s speaking to the Jewish folks who believed in him, but this is problematic. It’d be better for us to think of these folks who are listening to Jesus, those who believe him yet still claim their Jewish heritage, as legalists—folks who adhere to the law as a means to righteousness, to right relationship with God. Follow the law God has given us, and we will be right with God. These are the folks who Jesus is talking with here—folks who think by virtue of what they do and who they are doing it that they’ll be right with God, namely, keeping the law.

What Jesus says to them is different. He basically tells them that it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do. If they continue—a word, which by the way, is like “dwell” or “endure”—if they continue, if they dwell in, if they endure with Jesus’ word, they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free. Now—what is truth? To ask the question of Pilate some ten chapters later in John’s gospel…Truth is Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And to continue in his word, to dwell with it, to endure with it—that is to know Jesus. We speak continually of Jesus as the word who dwelt with us, and so to continue in Jesus’ word is to literally to continue to dwell with him. Where his word is, so too there he is. And in that is the truth. But what is that all about? And how does that have anything to do with freedom? Or gifts?

There are many things in this world that hold us captive to ways of life that are death-dealing.

We still find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that rages around the world that scientists, although they’ve learned a lot, are still learning more about every day. There is still uncertainty about that in our lives, and that causes anxiety for many, annoyance for many others, and general stress for everyone. It’s death-dealing. Then there’s the climate of political polarization in this country and around the world. Relationships strained or even broken between neighbors, people who used to be friends, and even family members. That’s death-dealing. And in our personal lives there are all matter of things that rob us of the fullness of life that God first designed.

Our jobs. Our kids. Our parents. Our grandparents. Maybe it’s our finances. Maybe it’s our sense of belonging. Or our health. Or our age. Anything and everything can and does weigh on us and get in the way of having an abundant life. Whatever takes away from life as God intends for us—that’s death-dealing. That’s sin. Each and every one of us, in whatever capacity we find ourselves in, has something that would stand between us and God’s good design for our lives.

And in the face of all those things, we are told that God so loves us to come down from heaven and come into our lives with us. For God so loves the world that he does not withhold his own Son from us, but instead sends him to live among us, to take on life with us as one of us, a true human being, and share life with us. God so loved the world that he came down from heaven and for us he lived life completely as a human being, even to the point of the death as a human being. But what does this mean?

This means that God has given us a great gift—the gift of his Son. But that gift has a consequence. That gift means that God is in the thick of life with us, even in the thick of life’s troubles with us. He is not removed from whatever stands in the way of life for us, but instead for our salvation, for healing, for our wholeness, for our wellbeing he enters into it with us and by his own life gives us life. He frees us from whatever holds us captive by his own victory over the death-dealing forces of this world. He frees us by going right into the thick of it with us. God is with us. We are not alone. We don’t face our trials, troubles, or tribulations by ourselves. God is right there by our side.

And yet our troubles are still with us. How is that freedom? It’s a fine enough gift, but what difference doesn’t it make? God’s victory over death…so what? Well, in fact, it’s how you look at it. Or rather, we might say, it’s how you continue in Jesus’ word. How you dwell with it. How you endure with it.

God’s presence in our lives helps us make sense of our what is happening around us. That’s part of the gift. Knowing, believing that God is with us frees us from endless despair in the face of whatever seeks to undo us; rather, we have hope—hope that though this world pass away from around us, God who loves us so completely to give up everything claims us and makes us his own. This is a freeing word, a promise—a gift. We have God’s bond—a word given us that nothing will separate us from his love for us in Jesus, the same Jesus he promised to raise to life again and that is what he did. And so as God promised Jesus would stand victorious over death, so too can we trust, so too can we believe that God’s promise made to us is true. This is the Jesus’ word, and when we continue in that word, in that promise, we live in the gift of God’s freedom. We know our purpose and our meaning and so are freed indeed.

This freedom is a gift—a wonderful, fantastic, treasurable gift that we don’t get because of what we do, but because God gives it to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t find it. It’s a gift given to us—God’s gift given to us. And like any good gift, we do well to use it. The gift of freedom doesn’t serve us when we live as though we’re captive to fear, anxiety, melancholy, or any other kind of sin—whether done by us or left undone by us, or even something unjustly done to us or unjustly not done for us. Whatever it is, this gift of freedom doesn’t serve us well if we keep going about overloaded by whatever weighs us down from a full and abundant life. We must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God with Jesus.

God gives us freedom to use it, and yet how do we do best use our freedom? Let us go back to what Jesus said today. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Our freedom comes to us because of Jesus, who though he was truly free, didn’t regard his freedom as something to use for himself, but instead took on the role of one bound by commitment to us. Jesus gave up himself for our sake, for the sake of our freedom—even to the point of death on a cross. And so, we who have been freed like him, should likewise consider ourselves so freed for the sake of living our lives in love and obedience to God’s will as Jesus did—for the sake of others.

“Always be ready,” St. Peter writes, “to give an account for the hope that is within you.” Our freedom is rooted in the hope we have of God’s fulfilled promise, the promise of resurrection life. We like Jesus must likewise consider ourselves freed to free others by the loving promise of God. “For you were called to freedom,” St. Paul tells us, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for yourselves, but through love serve one another.”

God calls us through Jesus to the work of freedom—by our own lives, in every aspect of life, freeing everyone and anyone we meet from the captivity of worry, from loneliness, from fear. Where we hear judgement and prejudice, God calls us to use our freedom to speak out. Where we see inequity, God calls us to use our freedom to work toward restitution. As Jesus was sent to bind up our wounds and mend our broken hearts through the healing power of God’s unshakeable presence in our lives, so we are sent to bind up the wounds and heal the broken hearts of those who have yet to hear, to truly hear, the word of God’s promise in their own lives. We who have been given the gift of freedom are bound to use our freedom to set others free—just as Jesus was bound to use his freedom to set us free.

For indeed, when the Son gives you the gift of freedom, you are freed indeed. And we are know, and we believe, we have been freed. We have been freed to set free.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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