The Gospel Lesson: John 8:31-36
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. 3233343536
Whenever I read the words of our Gospel lesson, I think that Jesus sure knows how to kill a celebration.
Earlier in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, from which today’s Gospel lesson is drawn, Jesus called Himself, “the light of the world.” He promised that, “Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” In these words, Jesus was staking His claim to be “the true light, which enlightens everyone…” Jesus was claiming that He was God in the flesh, come to be the Messiah and Savior of the world. The crowd, composed of Jesus’ fellow Jews, was excited. The verse just before our lesson says that, “As [Jesus] was saying these things, many believed in Him.”
Many believed in Him! That was the idea, right? Jesus came into the world to gather a people who believed in Him. He had said it. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him…” Many believed in Jesus. They had signed the contract. They bought the T-shirt. Mission accomplished. Let the party begin.
But Jesus couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to explain what it means to believe in Him. You see, Jesus isn’t an unscrupulous advertiser who tries to divert our attention from the fine print. He’s not a politician of the conniving kind who says that she or he can’t possibly go into details on what they will do in office until after they’ve been elected. He’s not the scheming suitor who hides his true nature until after the honeymoon. Jesus practices truth in advertising. With Him, everything is up front. No hidden charges, no gimmicks.
But His timing is strange. Take a look at the first two verses of the Gospel lesson in the Celebrate insert. Just as the crowd is cheering, we’re told: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who 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.”
The crowd skips over the words in those two verses that might trip us up. Many in today’s world claim that, contrary to the witness of the Bible, everybody has their own versions of the truth and that every version is swell, no matter what God has said.
Had many post-modern folks been listening to Jesus that day, they might also have recoiled at the notion of “continuing” in Jesus’ Word; that sounds too much like an ongoing commitment.
They might also have been offended by Jesus saying that anyone needs to continue in His Word, the revealed Word of God. After all, many today would say, there are so many words not uttered or endorsed by Jesus, not found in the pages of Scripture. Many would rather treat God's Word like the menu at a cafeteria, picking what words they want to continue in and which they'd rather ignore.
Had other contemporary folks been there to hear Jesus' words, they might have been turned off by the idea of being His “disciples”—His followers, His students. That sounds like a call and a command from Christ to subordinate our egos and desires to Christ alone. (Which, of course, it is.)
Something else Jesus says in those verses is what caught the attention of the Jews in who believed in Jesus, though.
They didn’t like Jesus’ promise, “the truth will make you free.” Look at what they said in verse 33 of our Gospel lesson, “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?’”
“Free?” they ask Jesus indignantly, “Who needs to be free?” They claim that they have never been slaves to anyone! That, of course, is a lie. The whole history of the Jewish people had been riddled with slavery. They had been slaves in Egypt for 430 years. The Babylonians and the Assyrians had conquered and enslaved them for many more years. And, even as they recoil at Jesus’ insinuation that they need to be set free, these Jews are living under the harsh dictatorship of the Romans, a kind of slavery.
Folks, people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs of any kind like to say, “I could quit any time I like” and then keep on using. Some people who are drowning in debt rail against the wastefulness of others, then take extravagant vacations and buy baubles they can’t afford. Some adults speak disparagingly of the unhealthy practices of young people who get tattoos or they say drink too much while themselves endangering the bodies and lives God gave to them by ingesting thousands of unhealthy calories and walking just enough to find the remote before falling asleep in the Lazy Boy. The point is, as the saying goes, denial is more than a river in Egypt. Like all these modern examples I just cited, the Jews in our Gospel lesson are in massive denial. They are slaves, but they won’t admit it.
And at this point in our lesson, they’re also in an uproar. How dare Jesus say that they needed to be free? But Jesus makes clear in verse 34, that He’s only begun to insult them. He says that they are slaves at even deeper and deadlier levels than they might imagine. Look at that verse, please. “Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’”
Let me take a little survey. (And please do not, under any circumstances, raise your hands. I will collect your responses telepathically*.)
How many of you have sinned—and by that I mean, violated one of the Ten Commandments—in, say, the past year?
How about in the past week?
How about since you arrived here at the church building this morning?
Now, I’m going to make the assumption that all of us gave honest answers and announce the results. It’s a landslide that would make any politician happy this coming Tuesday: 100% of us said yes to every single question. Of course, the bad news is that, according to Jesus, that makes all of us slaves to sin.
“The trouble with saying that out loud,” one commentator writes, “is that many people in the Western world are bored of hearing about sin. They think it just means offences against someone else’s morality.” But, he goes on to explain how the sins we commit, however seemingly minute they appear, enslave us. “When people rebel against God in whatever way, new fields of force are called into being, a cumulative effect builds up, and individuals and societies alike become enslaved just as surely as if every single one of them wore chains and was hounded to work every day by a strong man with a whip.”
Whenever we wander from the plan of God for truly human living—in other words, whenever we sin, we give away parts of our souls.
Like a junkie moving more deeply into the clutches of addiction, with every sin, we become more enslaved to sin. And each sin we commit makes the next one that much easier to commit, that much harder to avoid.
That might not seem horrible. We might be willing to accept slavery in exchange for the pleasures that sin offers us in this life. After all, we commit sins not because we're repulsed by them, but precisely because they're so attractive to us, precisely the things we want to do when we do them.
Being slaves to sin might be OK if this life were all there was to our life, if sin brought pleasure and no eternal consequences.
But we know better. In one of my former parishes, a man came to see me and confessed that he had been conducting an affair with another man’s wife for ten years. “I know I should want to stop,” he told me, “but I enjoy it. Every time I vow that I won’t see her again, she calls and we end up planning to meet again. I can’t seem to break free and I know that, eventually, I will face God and pay the price. But right now, all I can think of is how much I want her.” With tears in his eyes, he looked at me and asked, “What can I do?”
In twenty-six years of ministry, I’ve heard that man’s question—“What can I do?”—from countless other people. That cry of enslavement has come from each of them, whether their particular sin was insensitivity to their spouse, gossiping, misusing God’s Name, thievery, envy, or covetousness. “What can I do?” All these people have known the truth of what Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans: “The wages of sin is death…”
In the sixteenth century, that truth haunted a German monk and priest named Martin Luther. Brought up in a Church that, like many modern church bodies, conservative and liberal, put human traditions and human reason on a par with the revealed Word of God, Luther had done all the things that the Church of his day told him to do: penance, purchasing indulgences, self-abasement.
But he still felt far from God, enslaved to sin, certain that he would go to hell.
Luther’s life was changed though, when he came to understand a deeper truth recorded on the pages of the Bible. It’s the truth to which Jesus points in our Gospel lesson this morning. Look at what Jesus says in verses 35 and 36. “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there [in the household of God] forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Do you know what I told that man who asked, “What can I do?” The same thing I’ve told all the other people who have ever asked me that question, the same thing I’m telling you now: “You can do nothing. But if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has done everything needed to free us from the power of sin and death over our lives. We simply need to keep believing—keep trusting in Him. We need to continue in His Word.
When Luther realized that God sets free all who entrust their lives to Jesus Christ, he said that the very doors of heaven opened to him. The same can be true for us.
“So what?” we may wonder, “After all, this isn’t heaven.” This sure isn’t heaven! But the certainty of heaven belongs to all who believe in Jesus Christ and that can set us free to live this life with a love and a passion and a boldness that no poet has ever imagined and no brave warrior has ever experienced.
In 1984, Archbishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize. In the country of South Africa, where Tutu lived (and still lives), many Christians churches claimed that the oppressive system of apartheid, in which blacks were treated as slaves, was ordained by God. In the Name of Jesus Christ, Tutu rightly called any "Christian" justification for injustice a lie. For his opposition to apartheid, he received death threats every day. Tutu was asked why he risked death. He couldn't help it, he said, injustice is wrong in God's eyes and it must be opposed. "Besides," he added, "death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian."
All who believe in Jesus Christ know that heaven is their home. And knowing that sets us free to live this life to the full, no matter what the cost, no matter the opposition.
All who are set free by Christ know that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God.
Luther wrote about this in his great hymn about spiritual warfare based on Psalm 46, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Listen to the words of the final verse:
God’s Word forever shall abide,Christ can set us free forever. We do nothing to gain our freedom. Christ has already done it all. All we must do is believe in Him.
No thanks to foes, who fear it;
For God Himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours forever!
The Reformation is a call to the freedom that belongs only to those who by faith in Christ are learning to, "Let go. Let God!" That's our call today: "Let go. Let God!" And knowing that by entrusting our lives in Christ we can let go and let God, is the best news that you and I will ever hear! Amen!
*I am kidding about the telepathy stuff, by the way, just in case anyone misses the attempt at humor.