Note from CM: Beginning yesterday, I will be preaching every Sunday at St. George Lutheran Church in Edinburgh, Indiana until April. On Mondays, I’ll post my sermons, and I hope that you will find nourishment and encouragement through them. Of course, you are free to critique and help me improve my preaching as well!
We celebrated Reformation Sunday yesterday, and so the Gospel text was from John 8. My sermon takes a fairly traditional Law/Gospel approach to the words of Jesus in this passage.
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SERMON: The Truth Will Make You Free
Reformation Sunday 2016
Oct. 30, 2016
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They 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’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”
• John 8:1-38
How many of you have heard the saying, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free”? It looks like everyone is familiar with these words of Jesus from today’s gospel text. It is hard to read today’s gospel without focusing on that line that has become such a slogan in our world: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So today I’d like to explore it with you.
I have heard this slogan used in a variety of contexts.
I have read newspapers who have this as their purpose statement. They put it on the front page, right below the name of the newspaper: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
In this context, they are expressing a modern idea about the role of the press in a free, democratic society. The role of journalists is to keep citizens informed of the truth, because it is only in dealing with the actual facts of life — the truth — that we will be able to make informed decisions about our lives together in a representative democracy. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
I have also heard it used by those who practice psychological counseling: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
In this context, counselors emphasize that we have to overcome the lies we tell ourselves every day, the distortions of truth that keep us from being full and free human beings. For example, a counselor might be dealing with a client who was abused as a child. She grew up thinking that she was worthless, that no one loved her, and that she was only here in this world to be controlled and used by other people. There is a tape that keeps playing in her head telling her these things. The counselor tells her she needs to dispel those lies and come to know the truth about herself, about the abuse she’s suffered, about her true worth as a human being created in the image of God, loved and claimed by Jesus in the gospel.
And there’s a lot of truth in that. Like this woman, all of us, to one degree or another, find ourselves enslaved to thinking that is unhealthy and that does not represent reality. We need to learn to overcome that and to retrain our minds to view ourselves and our lives from a different standpoint, so that the chains that bind us can be broken and we can live as truly free human beings. “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
On this Reformation Sunday, we might also think of this slogan in terms of what happened in Germany 500 years ago. Martin Luther was an advocate for spiritual freedom, represented in this slogan from today’s gospel: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
On a personal level, as a young man Luther felt enslaved by his own sins and could not believe that God welcomed him and accepted him as his own beloved child. Even though Luther had become a monk, devoting himself to God’s service, he felt lost and hopeless. One biography of Luther describes his spiritual condition like this:
So acute had Luther’s distress become that even the simplest helps of religion failed to bring him heartsease. Not even prayer could quiet his tremors; for when he was on his knees, the Tempter would come and say, “Dear fellow, what are your praying for? Just see how quiet it is about you here. Do you think that God hears your prayer and pays any attention?”
Martin Luther was as religious a man as you could imagine, yet he had no spiritual peace. In German, the word that describes Luther’s inward state in those days is Anfechtungan: spiritual despair. Luther felt enslaved to his sins and without hope of gaining emancipation. He saw himself under God’s judgment and condemnation. He lived in constant fear and anxiety about his soul. He was not free.
However, in 1513 Luther began to study and lecture on the book of Psalms and then on Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Through these biblical studies, he began to realize the grace of God in Jesus Christ. As he meditated on the meaning of the cross Christ, in particular, he came to see that a “great exchange” had taken place: Jesus had taken his sins and in return had given him a righteous standing before God. Luther saw that he was accepted by God, loved by God, and considered righteous by God because of what Jesus had done for him. He was no longer under God’s judgment, but instead believed he had been delivered from his sins and from the onslaughts of the evil one.
Martin Luther was set free through the truth of the grace of God in Jesus, who died and rose again for him.
But there was a great captivity in society in those days as well. The whole Catholic church in Europe also found itself in a kind of bondage, and Martin Luther felt a growing discontent against corrupt practices that he believed were enslaving God’s people. So, beginning in 1516, he began to speak out specifically against the practice of indulgences, by which one could pay money and buy a way out of purgatory for oneself and for loved ones. In essence, people were being encouraged to buy their salvation. You can imagine the corruption that might attend that.
Then in 1517, Pope Leo was trying to raise funds to build St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, and the practice of selling indulgences grew dramatically. A man named Tetzel became renowned for his persuasive practices of raising money in this way. Martin Luther reacted to such practices, believing that they were enslaving people in spiritual bondage and keeping them from freely trusting Christ and living lives of freedom in him. Luther served as a parish priest as well as a teacher during these days, and as he heard the confessions of ordinary people in Wittenberg, he realized that they had little spiritual peace and only a paltry understanding of the gospel.
And so it is said that on the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was his way of calling for public debate on such matters as indulgences, purgatory, and other theological questions. Then, making use of the new technology of the printing press, Luther had the 95 Theses printed and distributed throughout Germany so that the common people could read them too. And thus the Reformation was born.
That’s why we’re celebrating Reformation Day today. Through the ongoing work of Martin Luther and other reformers, a new era in the history of western civilization was born, an era in which the truth of the gospel, applied in the context of the abuses of the dominant church theology and practices of that day, set people free to trust Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
However, it is not enough to simply commemorate that today. Rather, it is essential that we bring these matters into our own context, into our own lives, so that the truth might set us free too. First, we must understand this text before us, then we must determine how it will affect us in our own context.
The first thing I note in our gospel text for today is that the Jewish people here, who had to some extent believed in Jesus and were listening to him that day, did not believe that they were enslaved.
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’?”
Actually, this was a rather ludicrous statement. At that very moment, the Jewish nation was occupied by Rome. They were living under the rule of another world power. Soldiers walked their streets. The Jewish people had little say in their own affairs and destiny. Nevertheless, in their pride and independence, they said, “We’re not slaves! What are you talking about?”
I wonder how many of us would say the same. Here we are, relatively wealthy Americans, living in a free land. It’s hard for us to imagine that we are in bondage to anyone or anything.
Is it possible that our ears are deaf to the prophets in our midst? Is it possible that many of us are living self-indulgent lives, neglecting the poor in our midst, continuing to live in patterns of pride, selfishness, neglect, violence, racism, and materialism that represent destructive forces in our lives and society? Perhaps we are bound to more enemies than we can imagine.
Nobody likes to think of himself or herself as enslaved. I know I certainly don’t. But if I stop and think for a moment, and if I’m honest, I realize that my own heart, mind, and life is often filled with characteristics that represent this evil age more than the gospel and the way of Jesus. I’m not so different from the folks in this text at all.
Secondly we see here that Jesus goes on to say to them that everyone who commits sin is, in some way, enslaved.
I think Jesus is trying to get us to see that this whole world we live in is occupied by strong powers of sin, and evil, and death. Every day, you and I are subject to those powers, and we often find ourselves making bad choices, going the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil rather than the way of Jesus..
- We choose to listen to the gossip about a neighbor or coworker.
- We join in and make fun of the person who is quirky or unpopular.
- We give in to our anger and indulge ourselves with hateful revenge fantasies toward others we think have offended us.
- We worry incessantly and never even think to pray about the matters in our lives that we should trust God with.
- We give in to laziness or apathy and fail to practice love toward those who need our help or attention.
We find ourselves saying, “How could I do that? How could I say that? How could I think that?” And we fail to recognize that we under the influence of the powers of disorder and corruption that fill this world. We often cooperate with them rather than following Jesus and walking in the way of the gospel.
We need a wake-up call, like the one Jesus gave to these Jewish folks that day. We need to look around and see the bars that imprison us, the habits of thought and action that we cannot break, the ways in which we are complicit with the ways of the world. Sin will enslave you. Sin often does enslave us.
The third thing I see in this text is that these people who did not believe they were enslaved, but who nevertheless were acting under the powers of sin, evil, and death, were in danger of missing Jesus.
In our text, Jesus says that these people to whom he was talking — good, religious Jewish people, descendants of Abraham — would soon be looking for an opportunity to kill him because they would not receive his words. And that would be a tragedy, because Jesus himself was the truth that could set them free. Not only did he say, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” he also declared, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The people in this encounter were developing an animosity and opposition to the only One who could save them, the only One who could set them free. How sad it would be for them to miss Jesus, their only hope of emancipation!
Jesus is the truth that sets people free. That’s what this text is telling us. So, if you want to be free indeed, free to live as the person God created you to be, it’s all about knowing Jesus, trusting in Jesus, following Jesus.
So, when we say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” we are not talking about how a free press will help secure our political freedom. Nor are we talking about how we can free our psyches from the pain of the past. As important as those things might be, when Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We’re not even looking back to the great events of the 16th century, when Martin Luther took on a corrupt church culture that he felt was enslaving God’s people. No, we are hearing this word for ourselves. What is Jesus saying to us?
- He is talking about knowing him, because he himself is the truth.
- He is talking about being set free from the power of sin and evil and death.
- He is talking about getting out from beneath the slavery of our sins. He is talking about being released from the kingdom of Satan and being transferred into the Kingdom of God.
- He is talking about finding a new life in Christ.
- He is talking about being forgiven, and renewed, and set free to become the human beings we were created to be.
- He is talking about receiving the Holy Spirit and being filled with the fruits of God’s love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
- He’s talking about our opportunity to display the image of God to all around us so that they might see the goodness and love and generosity of our Creator.
In one of Martin Luther’s hymns, he testified to the joy of coming to know Christ and being set free:
Though great our sins and sore our woes,
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth.
Our shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His [people] free
From all their sin and sorrow.
May we also be people who know the truth in Jesus, and may it set us free today and forevermore. Amen.