John 08:31-36 / Reformation Sunday / 31 October 2010 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Today is Reformation Day, the eve of All Saints, all Hallows Eve, Halloween, and so a little bit of everything this morning. 493 years ago today, an Augustinian friar and professor at Wittenberg University named Martin Luther posted 95 theses in Latin for theological discussion concerning the sale of indulgences on the castle church door, the town bulletin board. And so began what we now call the Reformation of the western catholic church.
When you reform something, you don’t start from scratch. You conserve what you can and you fix what you can’t. Reformations tend to be conservative. It’s like pruning a perennial or trimming a tree. You don’t dig out the whole plant and put another in its place. Nor do you whack down the whole tree to the root. You prune selectively, skillfully, carefully. Luther did not intend to split an already fractured church. Nor did he intend to start a new church, as if such a thing were possible. This was not about shaking a defiant fist at the Pope, though he did do a bit of that later on, nor was it about breaking away from the big bad Catholic Church, nor was it, as the radical reformation believed, some pure church emerging from the impure Catholic. This was supposed to be, and always is, about reformation. Correcting what is wrong, conserving what is right.
And so it is today. The Church is always and ever being reformed. The Lutheran churches. This church. Every part of the church. It’s not simply a once and done deal where you can rest on your laurels. There is always error, always drift, always a little sideways current or wind that blows the Church slightly off course. That’s true for each of us justified sinners too. We are ever in need of reformation. It’s not about once saved always saved or once confirmed always Lutheran or whatever other false security blanket we try to wrap ourselves in. Our Baptism is not a one time thing but a daily thing, a daily dying and rising, a daily justification, a daily reformation.
Jesus spoke to the Jews who had believed in Him. The verse before spoke of many coming to believe in Him. Now we learn of those who no longer believed. They used to, but not any more. There’s no once believed always believing security here. You dare not take the gift of faith lightly. What went wrong? Did God fail? Did the Word fail to do its faith creating, sustaining, enlivening work? No. They refused. They turned from the Word (and you are free to do that). Faith is born of the Word, is fed by the Word, is sustained by the Word. And without the Word, faith dies.
“If you abide in my Word you are truly my disciples.” Being a disciple is not like being a member of a political party or a member of the local gardening club. We can claim any sort of affiliation we want. We can call ourselves “Christian” or even “Lutheran.” But to be a disciple is to abide in the Word of Jesus, that is, to be connected to Jesus by hearing His Word and having His Word have its way with you. The same word “abide” is used in Jesus’ saying of the vine and the branches. A branch abides in the vine and draws life from it. Cut off from the vine, the branch is fruitless and dead. Cut off from the Word, faith is fruitless and dead too.
There is a promise for those who abide in the Word of Jesus. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus Himself is the truth. His Word is truth. To abide in the truth is to abide in Jesus, which is the only place in which a sinner may abide and live before God. The truth is that we are sinners. Not simply ones who commit sin, that is, do bad things, think bad thoughts, say bad words. It goes much deeper than that. We are slaves to Sin with a capital S. “Whoever sins is a slave to Sin.”
Do you sin? Well, in case you’re not sure, the commandments say you do. Do you fear, love, and trust in God above all things? Do you use the name of God rightly in worship and prayer? Do you gladly hear and learn God’s Word? Do you honor father, mother, and other temporal authorities? Do you help you neighbor in every need? Do you keep marriage pure and encourage others to do the same? Do you help your neighbor protect his property? Do you defend the reputation of others by putting the best construction on everything? Do you desire what doesn’t belong to you? Are you content with what you have?
The truth is no, you are a slave to sin, just as Israel was once a slave in Egypt, a fact that the Jews seem to have conveniently forgotten. That’s how it goes. You’re freed from slavery, and then pretty soon you forget you ever were enslaved. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” How soon we forget. That’s pride talking, and an unusual form of pride. The worst form of pride which is spiritual pride. It’s receiving a gift and then acting as if you’d earned it all along. Or forgetting entirely that it is a gift, and so also forgetting the giver.
We are born enslaved, captive to Sin and Death. We cannot free ourselves. We’re stuck. And any attempts at self-liberation only make matters worse. When we look into the mirror of the Law we find that it’s a magnifying mirror. Even things we thought were OK, even those places where we felt self-justified turn out to be so riddled with sin we barely recognize the good. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. The mere fact that we sin – in our thougts, in our words, in our actions – reminds us that we are slaves to Sin.
A slave remains for a while, a son remains forever. The Son came down to us. The Son joined us in our humanity. The Son stood side by side with the slave to free us. He paid the manumission price. He redeemed us. He did the Law flawlessly and without Sin. He was not enslaved by Sin, He was Lord over Sin. And as Lord, He came under the Law that accuses us, that gives our consciences no rest, that kills us. He took up our Sin and our Death and nailed it all to His cross. The Son became the slave so that the slave might become the son. And if the Son sets you free, you are free as free can be.
That’s what Martin Luther discovered when He looked at the cross of Jesus and for the first time in his life saw mercy rather than merit. Undeserved kindness rather than an example to follow. When he heard that phrase “the righteousness of God” and recognized that this was not something you worked for but something given as a gift through faith. In his fear and despair, he finally heard that the Law of God, no matter how holy and good and just it is, cannot save. It can only drive you to Jesus seeking mercy, which is what it’s supposed to do. The Law is there to shut every mouth so that no one can boast before God. Through the commandment comes knowledge of sin.
But the good news that propelled the Reformation is that God declares the unrighteous to be righteous. God justifies the ungodly. He declares the sinner righteous in the righteousness of Jesus. All have sinned; all fall short of the glory of God; all are justified by God’s grace, a gift, given freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus through faith in His blood.
In Jesus you are free. Free from the commandment. Free from the obligations of the Law. Free from the Law’s condemnation. Free from enslavement to Sin. Free from Death. Free to live before God as a justified sinner. Free to serve your neighbor in love. The slave is made a son, a child, an heir. Should you doubt this and wonder if it applies to you, remember you are baptized. Baptism is your adoption paper. The slave is now a son with the full rights of sons. You have a place at the table. You have a permanent place in the house.
At Luther’s funeral, they cited the verse from Rev 14 about the angel with the eternal Gospel and saw Luther as that angel. It was overblown, certainly. But it was a reminder that God intends for every person from every nation, tribe, language and people to hear this good news and believe it. The Son became a slave to make the slave a son. Humanity finds its freedom and life in Jesus, and every human being must hear it. Not all will believe it. Some will believe it for a while, as the Jews who once believed in Jesus but did so no longer.
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” My dear fellow Lutherans, learn to treasure that sentence like the most precious of gems. That is your blood-bought freedom. That’s what you were baptized into. That’s your place of sonship and inheritance as child of God. That is how a sinner stands before a holy God and lives. God does justice to sin and justifies the sinner. By grace. Through faith not works. All for Jesus’ sake.
Abide in that justifying Word, and you are a disciple of Jesus. Abide in that Word, and you are forgiven. Abide in that Word, and you are free.
In the name of Jesus,