Sunday the 29th of October 2017
John 8: 31-36
A number of years ago when I was living in South Australia there was a Lotto advertisement on television. This particular ad had a bus driver driving a bus through the city, but the driver was not stopping to pick people up, he just kept driving. In the background to this was the song by Queen, “I want to break free.” Whilst the song was playing the bus driver just kept driving until you see him driving the bus on an open road in the country with a huge smile on his face. The ad then said something like, “Get your lotto ticket for this week’s super draw, and you too can break free.” The point of the ad was to suggest that if you won lotto then you would be free from all the burdens of life, that you would be able to go where you wanted in life. This ad speaks to and appeals to our culture and society.
Freedom. Our culture and society have a desire for freedom and many strive for it. People want to be free. Free from debt; free from responsibilities; free from a job they are doing; free from the pressures of life they face. But it is more than just that—these people want the freedom to do as they please; the freedom to do what they want when they want it; the freedom to have autonomy and to choose what their life will look like; the freedom not to be accountable to anyone else but themselves; the freedom to not be constrained or constricted by others; the freedom not to have to conform to society but to do what feels best for them; the freedom to live free of responsibility but also of guilt; a freedom to live a life without God interfering in it. People in our world understand the language of freedom and they fight for it. But are they really free?
At the time of Luther and the other reformers, there was also a desire to be free. The Roman Catholic Church of the time had so much power and control over society and it had so many rules, superstitions, and false teachings and corruption, that ordinary Christians were burdened and disillusioned. The focus on works and earning salvation had come to a point where the consciences of many were not even sure if they were saved or not. Many in that society lived in ignorance and uncertainty. Many were longing to be free.
Luther and the other reformers are considered by many church historians to have fought the power of the Roman Catholic Church at the time and brought freedom to the people. Some see Luther as the freedom fighter, one who stood upon his conscience and fought for the truth. Luther did fight for freedom, but what kind of freedom?
Jesus says these words in John chapter 8: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” These words of Jesus here are powerful because he links freedom to the truth.
Jesus speaks of freedom, but the freedom that is based upon truth: the truth of who he is, and who we are. Now we might think that we ourselves as Christians know this. It’s obvious. This is what the Christian faith is all about. But listen to who Jesus was talking to. It starts off: 31“To the Jews who had believed him…” He said this to those who believed in him. We might expect him to be speaking to the Pharisees here, or to false teachers of the law, or to those who were against him, or to those who did not believe. But he was speaking to those who had believed.
And how did these believers respond? 33“They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” The problem for these believers was that they did not get that Jesus is the truth and that knowing the truth means believing in Jesus the Son of God. And believing in Jesus means staying grounded and immersed in his word; He was teaching and challenging them that being a disciple of Jesus means living your whole life in relationship with Jesus and doing what he teaches and acting on his promises to us. Truth here is not a rational belief about Jesus, it is a relationship with him and there is a big difference. You and I as believers need to also hear this challenge from Jesus.
It would have been well understood by those listening to Jesus that the opposite of a free person is a slave. The fact that they were told that they needed to be made free they found offensive. They insisted on their free status as descendants of Abraham and denied that they stood in any need of being set free (v. 33). They objected to any hint of a suggestion that they lacked something which only Jesus could give. They wanted to define their freedom as having autonomy, which did not depend on Jesus. They wanted to believe in Jesus, but at the same time wanted to live life their way; they wanted to keep their own identities and follow Jesus. But you cannot do both. This is a reality that we all struggle with because we live in a society that has a worldview that is no different. Living in our culture which surrounds us, tempts us, as believers, into thinking that we can have our belief in Jesus and live life as the world does. But we can’t because when we sin we are slaves to sin. Sin needs to be confessed and repented of. We often pray this when we pray, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” When Jesus says that everyone who sins is a slave to sin he means exactly what he says; he does not make excuses or remove personal responsibility. He emphasizes that, whether we recognize it or not, what we call freedom is often the worst kind of imprisonment from which we cannot break out of on our own.
Jesus’ response to these believers is direct and his words become even harsher in the verses immediately following our reading. Keeping in mind that these are believers, He tells these same people that they are trying to kill him because his word finds no place in them (v. 37) and even calls them children of the devil! (v. 44). There should be no mistake about what Jesus is doing here. He forces a clear choice between our made up, self-centred ideas of freedom and identity on the one hand, and being his disciple on the other. Our freedom and identity as followers of Jesus come from him alone.
These words of Jesus are a warning to these people, to you and me. What do we think of when we think of freedom? Where are our identities? Who and what are we putting our trust in? As much as we think we have things right, a regular check-up will more often than not reveal a need for a change of heart. It is so very easy to lapse into a self-centred existence where following Jesus becomes an obligation rather than living in freedom from our own egos. In other words, we are not to become blinded by our own sins to the point where we too, just as those Jewish believers did, don’t recognise our need for Jesus Christ.
This is the freedom that Luther was so passionate about. The freedom of knowing that we can freely admit and confess our sins before God and through Christ, they are forgiven. We are free because of him.
I wonder if you have ever noticed that often the people who are the most honest about their sins are the ones most on fire for Jesus. These people whose lives are scarred by bondage, addiction, oppression, victimization, among other sins, get it. For them, these words of Jesus their saviour are precious gospel promises, because they know what he says about the slavery of sin is true. They don’t pretend to hide it away or ignore it; they are honest. They know that Jesus, by his words and his saving works, makes them free from every enemy—from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and they rejoice in this. They know that they have to rely on Jesus Christ who is the truth and that through this they are set free.
This is the Gospel that Luther fought so hard to preserve in his life. This is the freedom that Luther strove to be made known to all. Martin Luther did not free the church; the Son of God is the one who sets us free, and as disciples who remain in his word we are free indeed.
This is what we are to remember on this Reformation Sunday. Not just on this day only, but continually. Because like Luther, we live in a world that wants to lead us away from Jesus Christ; a world that wants to divert our attention away from the truth.
But we remember the Reformation because it is at the very heart of who you and I are as followers of Jesus. So I encourage you to remember not just Luther the man, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and what he has done for you to make you free and think about what this means for you and your life as you follow him.