Then 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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
One time at a First Call Theological Education event I heard more seasoned pastors talking about their pursuit of developing a Lutheran approach to ecology and environmentalism. They recalled being told, “All this talk of ‘saving the earth’ that I hear now-a-days sounds like works righteousness. We are saved by faith, not works. So you’re dangerously close to Lutheran heresy by insisting that there is something humans can do to save the planet.” In one sense, this person was correct. It is important to be aware of the risk of human-centered works-righteousness and firmly recognize that God is the source and agent of human involvement. In other words, it is not we who save the Earth, but God working in, through and among us who saves us all.
But her warning also seemed to shroud a more serious sin –being quite about justice issues. The danger of our Lutheran doctrine of being “saved by faith alone” is that we go to the other extreme of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” which requires no response and no action. Cheap grace excuses us from doing the work of Christ in this world.
Thus we can rationalize avoiding taking action on any justice issue by convincing ourselves that as long as we’re justified by faith, God will take care of the rest. But that’s not what Martin Luther meant, nor what he modeled.
I thought of this time at the event when I read the gospel text for this week. John 8:31 reiterates the crowd’s belief. Instead of affirming the crowd, Jesus challenges them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus’ language about freedom describes a change of status. The transition from being a slave with no rights or ability to protect oneself, to a freeperson who was able to claim personhood in the Roman world. This definition helps explain the Jews’ response to him in the next verse: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved by anything! How are you saying, ‘You will become freepersons’?!” What the crowd misses is Jesus’ double-meaning, a typical feature of his dialogues in John.
While Jesus’ audience thinks he is insulting them by calling them slaves of people, he is describing a different type of enslavement. “Everyone who continues doing the sin is a slave of the sin,” he says, “but a slave does not remain in the household eternally, the son remains for eternity. If, therefore, the son should free you, you really will be freepersons.” Jesus is not calling them slaves of people, but slaves of “the sin,” or “the mistake.” In John, this mistake is the inability to recognize Jesus as God’s Son and Christ. Even though the crowd “believes” in Jesus, they do not fully recognize him yet. It is questionable whether anyone can recognize Jesus fully before his death and resurrection. Jesus’ comment could be levied against almost any character in the Gospel. The good news, however, is that slaves (unlike sons) can be freed. Jesus, as God’s Son, promises to grant freedom to those who recognize the truth.
This Sunday is about Freedom! But Scripture doesn’t always define freedom quite the way we do.
“The truth will make you free!” Jesus declares in today’s text from John, words which might have been the rallying cry of the Reformers, as the Reformation was rooted in the belief, to borrow Paul’s words, that we are “justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24), a gift received and activated by faith. That is, we are freely given God’s grace, freely receiving all that is needful unto salvation, and freely sent forth to direct our energies not to earning God’s favor but instead to loving our neighbor.
It’s that last part that I sense runs contrary to many contemporary definitions of freedom. Often, we hear freedom as the ability “to do whatever we want.” But that, according to Scripture, is not freedom, but rather simply another form of bondage, this time to the vain pursuit of control and self-gratification. And that understanding of freedom results not only in bondage but death. Why? Because we were not created to live as individuals, divorced from the needs of our neighbor in the pursuit of self-satisfaction, but rather to find our true nature, call, and purpose—realized in and through—and only in and through—relationship with others. In this sense, Genesis’ words “it is not good that the one created from earth be alone” is not simply about Adam as an individual but rather captures and should be applied to the whole of the human species. We were made for each other.
Reformation Sunday is a time to consider the message of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Luther argues that God’s favor is not something that we can earn or purchase.
Like Jesus, Luther focuses on our relationship to God. We are loved and, therefore, we respond with love. Obedience does not put God in our debt; it is what we offer to God out of gratitude for what we have first received. The good news of this day is that salvation does not depend on how much money we have, what we eat, what we wear—or even how perfectly we keep the commandments. It comes from a right relationship with God. Yet, having received the gift of God’s care, it is our joy to love God and neighbor. Jesus is our guide, the light and the way.
It’s helpful to remember that what drove Luther to that church door in Wittenberg, Germany, with his theological critique in hand was the fact that he paid attention to the suffering of souls around him. And that his anguish for himself and for them led him to ask questions. On the cusp of Luther’s writing of the 95 Theses that would contiue a tidal wave of transformation across Europe, Martin Luther raised questions that had no right to go away. Questions like:
- “Who is this God we worship?”
- “What does God require of us?”
- “Why are we told to be content with the answers that have been given to us without our input?”
- “What has to change in order for us to fully experience the grace of God?”
And those questions led him to the source of suffering located in a particular narrative about God and salvation that had been constructed over the course of 1000 years. It was a narrative that benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold that system. So Luther’s questions started a conversation that did not fit into the dominant narrative, that disrupted the pattern of what had been passed down for generations. It was not well-received by those in power, but Luther’s questions and the ensuing conversation were part of a truth-telling that was intended to set us free (John 8:32).
Lutherans today who are concerned about re-forming the church toward an ecological responsibility, and other justice responsibilies, are also attending to the suffering of others. From species disappearing, to coral reefs bleaching, to entire communities flooded, climate change and human violation of God’s Creation; from economic justice to racism and sexism, these have all spurred us to ask questions that have no right to go away. Questions like:
- “How are we to understand God’s Creation and our relationship to it?”
- “What do God and Creation require of us?”
- “Why are we told to be content with answers that have been given to us without our input?”
- “What has to change in order for us, for all of humanity and the rest of Creation to fully experience God’s grace?”
Like the Reformation of the 16th century, these types of social justice reformations are also disruptive and disturbing. It interrupts the way we’ve been telling the story. That story about humanity’s dominion has benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold the system.
We do not do this work in order to be saved or to be justified by God. We do this work because we are saved and justified by God.For me, Martin Luther models the passion to be angry about the way things are. This is righteous anger that led him to take action: writing, preaching, debating, reading, teaching, and speaking boldly against the powers that are causing great and needless harm. This passion led to courage to take action on behalf of that faith active in love.
As Luther’s opponents discovered, once the question has been asked, it cannot be unasked. It cannot be contained. The Reformation spread like dandelion seeds across a meadow and quickly took root as a thousand yellow flowers across a landscape of despair.
Similarly, the conversation about our relationship to God and social justice has already started. It’s a conversation that’s going to happen with you or without you. So we have choices to make. We can either choose to be part of that conversation, or we can resist it, deny it, or try to silence it. And then the choices will be made without us.
Like Luther, we are facing frightening prospects of what lies ahead for us. At great personal cost and sacrifice, he made his stand for truth. He could do no other. We can take heart—take courage—from the God of Luther who knows that we face stakes even higher than the pre-industrialized and pre-nuclear era of 1517.
- In the face of planetary collapse we plant trees.
- We write letters to the editor and to our elected officials.
- We march in protest.
- We teach our children how to ask questions and engage in those courageous conversations.
And we remember Bonhoeffer’s words in his book Ethics: “The world still stands; the end is not yet here; there are still penultimate things which must be done, in fulfillment of the responsibility for this world which God has created,” (127).
The Reformation was NOT a one time event. It was started before Martin Luther and continued after him. It continues today as we continue to not be “ok” with everything we’ve been told, but call out what we believe is contrary to Scripture. I pray the Reformation continues long after our time here also.