- Reformation Sunday.16 “Free, Indeed” John 8:31-36
Freedom. It’s what our country is built on—at least a certain ideal of freedom. Freedom. It’s what Jesus promises us in our Gospel today. Freedom. It’s what the Lutheran Reformation, the 499th anniversary of which we celebrate today, is all about as well. But is it the same idea of Freedom, in all three cases? Two out of three, maybe? Two out of three isn’t bad! For me, it’s two out of three. I’m a Lutheran because I believe the Lutheran reformers recovered the essential Christian notions of sin, grace, freedom, faith, and communion with Jesus that had been—not lost, no, the Church endures in every age—so not lost, but obscured for many people in the late middle ages (sure glad that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in our day!). So I think Jesus’ promise of freedom and Luther’s idea of it track extremely closely with one another—though I’m not at all sure the Lutheran Church in every age has tracked as closely with Luther as we often tell ourselves we have. In fact, I’m certain this is the case because I go to pastor’s conferences, went to one just last Monday which confirmed we’re certainly not all with Luther and the Christian idea of freedom, even those who use the name…
One of the big misunderstandings of the Reformation in the Lutheran Church today (it was impressed upon me last Monday with special vigor) is that the Reformation is about cleaning up the institutional church, and/or about reforming other people (i.e. “the lost” which would not include us, otherwise how could we save others? “I’m not bossy: I just know what you should be doing”). So you hear lots of “Lutherans” in the first group go on about how terrible the Roman Catholic church was/is and how Rome has interfered with all sorts of human and civil rights and how Luther was a lot like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in freeing individuals from the tyranny of a totalitarian state.
Such stirring rhetoric trades more on the American political idea of freedom, it seems to me, than it does on Jesus’ promise of it in our Gospel (and Luther’s recovery of that). So we hear how legalistic and morally bankrupt the medieval popes were and how corrupt and greedy the institution of the Roman Church over which they presided. And we usually hear (in this telling of the story) how the more things change the more they stay the same, only maybe Rome has better PR and a better front man to hide the evils today than they did back then.
The upshot of this take on the Reformation is plenty of jingoism and hate toward Roman Christians, and a smug, Pharisaical sense of superiority on the part of those of us who aren’t that. We puff ourselves up by putting others down—like that Pharisee guy Jesus told us about last week scorning the hedge fund manager in the temple. “Thank God we’re not like those rotten, money-grubbing, indulgence-giving papists”! But a quote from Luther himself knocks that mean-spirited idea right out of your head: “Life,” Luther wrote, “is as evil among us as it is among the papists. But thank God, our doctrine is pure!” And if you think our life is morally, spiritually, or institutionally so much better than that of Roman Christianity, come with me to a Southeastern District Professional Workers Conference, and you will be instantly cured of such hubris! Luther never wanted to leave the Roman Church. Rome was and always would be Mother Church to Dr. Luther, as it is to us. We didn’t leave voluntarily because of our supposed moral/institutional superiority. We got kicked out for the doctrine we re-discovered…
At the heart of that doctrine Luther rediscovered from Scriptures is a rather simple idea: Christianity is not about fixing institutions, governments, societies, or other people. It is about dying and rising with Christ Jesus ourselves. Christianity is a rather drastic tear-down and re-build that Jesus performs on me, rather than a program for moral, societal, or institutional renewal that I can perform on other people. In the doctrine Luther rediscovered, we are always only helpees of Jesus, never helpers—and that’s tough sometimes for us to take lying down. Which is the second and these days, much more popular misunderstanding of the Lutheran Reformation—the missional mistake: thinking that the Reformation is a call for us (as graduates of some spiritual Betty Ford clinic—all detoxed, tanned, fit, and ready for action) to go out and convert “the lost” to our spiffed up way of living.
It is far more satisfying to confess the sins of other people than our own. It is far more satisfying to see ourselves as religious experts who have pointers to shape up pagans (Thank God, I never do stuff like that!). Because it plays to a far too popular idea in our culture that the only way we can co-exist peacefully is if we have some monolithically identical, shared religious outlook. And we project that back onto Luther. And as bad as the Pharisaical-hate-on-Rome Reformation spiel is, the “everyone a missionary” model is worser, I would judge. The irony that a doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone with no works of our own should require constant, non-stop good works on our part to save others is apparently lost on most everyone these days, especially District conference presenters!
So we come to Jesus, thankfully! He promises truth and freedom and a place by His side in our Gospel. But I want you to notice that He doesn’t promise this to everyone, unconditionally, nor to the morally, spiritually, and institutionally pure. No! His promise is catholic because it promises: in every corner of a world enslaved to sin, He will touch a few; not that it will dominate and captivate everyone, everywhere, then or now.
To whom does Jesus address this Promise? “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him if you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed” (!). The Promise is for Israelites who receive the teaching of Jesus (and with the teaching, the Teacher!). It is the Word, God made flesh, that makes us Israel (Prince with God!) and Jacob was gifted that Name wrestling with the Angel, as we heard in Gen. 32, 2 weeks ago. Luther gets it: Christianity is simply a matter of Faith in the Word—an incarnate Word that wrestles us to the ground, wounds us in order to heal—not a story we tell, but the Story that tells us!
The Gospel is always, only, for the Church: for those who gain the Name wrestling with God. The Story makes no sense outside this context. While relatively few are enchanted by wrestling with Jesus as Jacob, there is a promise that this is the only Story that will stand forever—that IT will absorb all other stories, kingdoms, and realms into Christ’s own. It is not designed for subservience to any other narrative, but for autocracy.
“But we are Abraham’s seed, Luther’s heirs, Jesus! How can you say we will be made free? We always feel free!” Jesus answers: “Amen, amen I say to you: whoever is doing the sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Maybe it was good for Luther to get kicked out? Maybe like Paul’s thorn in the flesh it kept him from being too elated? Maybe it’s good to get in trouble with Jesus “to be dominated by this storm, to grow by being defeated, decisively, by ever greater Beings.”(!) From this encounter with Christ, His Cross, you’ll limp away with a strange, paradoxical, and difficult notion of Freedom, though also standing, forever, with Peace surpassing understanding, heart and mind guarded in Christ Jesus. Amen.