[This is the sermon prepared for this morning's 10:15 worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. Today, we celebrated one of my favorite days in the Church Year, Reformation Sunday. To learn more about Reformation Sunday, go here.]
I’ve never seen A Few Good Men, but like most people I’m familiar with one of its most famous scenes. Tom Cruise’s character yells with Marine bravado, “I want the truth!” And Jack Nicholson, on the stand, replies with even more Marine bravado, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Today’s gospel lesson asks us, “Can you handle the truth?”
The people with whom Jesus speaks in today’s lesson couldn’t.
Please turn to the lesson, John 8:31-36.
In verse 31, we read: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”
Truth number one, which seems to elude the people to whom Jesus is speaking, is that believing in Jesus is more than just reciting the Creed.
This is Reformation Sunday. We celebrate the simple act of a priest, monk, and Bible scholar, Martin Luther, on All Saints’ Eve (Hallowe'en), October 31, 1517, when, to the church door in Wittenberg, he nailed ninety-five theses for debate among clergy and scholars.
Luther challenged the prevailing teachings of the Church of his day, eventually unleashing a movement that pointed to the central teaching of the Bible that unrighteous, sinful human beings are made right with God not by engaging in good works, religious acts, or giving the most money to the church, but by the charity (or grace of God) through faith in Jesus Christ.
To be saved from the common human ills of sin, death, and futility, we must believe in God the Word, Who lived and died and rose among us and for us: Jesus Christ.
That’s good news!
But the truth is that believing in Jesus is more than the recitation of words or showing up for a church function.
Belief in Jesus is entrusting my whole life to Him, acceding to His total authority over my life, giving Him the first and the last word in all our decisions.
To believe in Jesus, Jesus says, is to “abide in His Word,” to live and draw our very being from Him.
Because it so decimates our pretenses of self-sufficiency, the good news of Jesus is also a tough truth.
And most people can’t handle it!
But Jesus isn’t done. Look at what He says in verse 32: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
This verse is widely quoted and almost always misunderstood.
It’s chiseled into the marble on the front face of the Law School at Ohio State as if Jesus were saying, “If you know the facts, you’ll be free people.”
That is NOT what Jesus is talking about at all!
This only shows that most of the people who misapply what Jesus says here are as confused as the Roman governor, Pilate, was when he presided over Jesus’ illegal capital trial and asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Please turn to John 14:6. You’ve heard this passage quoted many times, too. “Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.’”
And look also to John 1:14, part of the prologue or introduction to the gospel of John. It calls Jesus the Word, God the Son, and tells us: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Truth #2: Jesus is the foundational Truth on which the entire universe is built.
The universe is not as it should be because it is out of sync with Jesus the Truth.
But Jesus says that as we stay connected with Him, daily repenting of our sins, praying in His Name, reading His Word, fellowshipping with His people, and living under His grace alone, we will know the truth, we will know Him, and He will set us free.
Jesus’ original hearers, fellow residents of Judea who had come to believe in Jesus, could not handle any talk of their needing freedom. In verse 33, they protest: “They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will be made free?’”
Jesus may have been tempted to laugh out loud at this. The whole history of the descendants of Abraham--the Hebrews, Jews, Israelites, or Judeans--had been filled with their enslavement and subjugation under other peoples. In fact, except for a brief period between 140 and 63 BC, about seventy-seven years, God’s people had been slaves of other people for centuries!
The group to whom Jesus is speaking seem to forget about that 430 year stint of slavery in Egypt or the fact that even then, at that very moment, they lived under the dominion of the Roman Empire.
If we’re tempted to laugh at their denial, we might want to check that impulse.
All of us seem to be fully equipped with the capacity to not see the obvious truths about our lives that we don’t want to see. Whether the object of their addiction is alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography, a common first response when confronted by loved ones is to deny their slavery. “I’m not addicted,” they’ll say. “I can quit any time.”
We all tend to respond similarly when confronted with our faults. An old Jackson Browne song puts our attitudes well, “Don’t remind me of my failures/I had not forgotten them.”
We don’t want to hear about the truth about our slavery.
But what are we slaves to?
Jesus doesn’t mince words in expressing truth #3. Look at verse 34: “Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you [in the Greek in which John originally wrote, Jesus is quoted as starting out here, “Amen, amen!” Amen, amen. It is so. It is so. That means you can bank on what He’s about to say.], whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.’”
This is the unpleasant truth the human race does not want to hear. Some months ago, the Columbus Dispatch carried the story of a woman long applauded for her work with a local charity but who, it was found, had stolen thousands of dollars from the charity. At first she took small amounts, but eventually she was taking huge chunks of cash. She was a slave to sin.
Lest we simply tsk-tsk about this woman, remember that Psalm 51:5 and the whole Bible tells us that we are born in sin. Sin is the condition of alienation from God and from other human beings, the enslavement to ourselves and our own desires that blocks out true, open, loving relationships with God and with others, that we’re talking about when we say in our confession together that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
From this condition of sin, we naturally commit sins. And, as we all know, the more we commit a sin, the easier it becomes to commit the same sin again: whether it’s gossiping, actively entertaining lustful thoughts about persons other than our wives or husbands, engaging in financial sleight of hand, or whatever our favorite violation of the Ten Commandments might be.
We do not, by nature, love God or love others. We are slaves to sin. And it’s from this slavery that Jesus came into the world to free us.
Now look at what Jesus says next, in verses 35 of our gospel lesson: “And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.”
Under the prevailing inheritance laws of first-century Judea, the son inherited all that his father left behind. The slaves had no property and no rights to the inheritance. There was nothing they could do about their circumstance. They would spend their entire lives as slaves.
Left to our own devices, sinners would have no hope of anything but eternal condemnation. Hard truth #4 isn’t specifically mentioned here, but if Jesus is speaking it to Jews who believed in Him, the first Christians, it’s true for you and me as well, and it’s truth that’s mentioned in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
We are all slaves who can’t free ourselves, who deserve death, as Romans 6:23 reminds us: “the wages of sin is death.” Death is what we deserve for our sin, a hard truth to handle!
Thank God for the promise that Jesus makes in verse 36 of our lesson: “...if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
When we turn from sin and turn to Jesus, when we trust Him to take our sins on His shoulders, He crucifies our old sinful selves and sets us free from their power.
Martin Luther, as you know, said that on Judgment Day, God will look out over two seas of people, both groups composed entirely of sinners.
But one group will stand naked in their sins, having chosen sin over salvation by their refusal to repent for sin and believe in Jesus. By their refusal to believe in Jesus, they will have chosen condemnation, an earthly lifetime and an eternity spent in a chosen exile from the God Who made and loved them.
But, Luther pointed out, God will also look out over another group of sinners. Because of their faith in Jesus, it isn’t them God will see. They will be clothed in the forgiveness and new life Jesus gave to them and that they received by faith in Christ.
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the greatest truth of all, the truth that can set us free to be our better selves now and our best selves in eternity!
I recently read about the large number of emigres from Iran (Persia) who, in some German Lutheran congregations, are leaving the Muslim religion and coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
These Persians are making public profession of their faith in spite of the fact that in many of their ethnic enclaves, their fellow Persians enforce Muslim sharia law, which says that if Muslims become Christians, they must be killed.
Why would these converts risk their lives to abide in Jesus and be His disciples?
One convert to Christianity explained, “In this [Lutheran] congregation, I heard for the first time that God is a loving Father who desires a personal relationship with every human being. This was news to me, because Islam had taught me...[that] God [is] a distant deity...”
The fact that God wants to have a personal relationship with each of us and that this God took on human flesh in order to die for our sins and rise again in order to secure that relationship for now and all eternity for all who believe in Jesus Christ is the good news on which the Reformation was built.
It’s also the good news on which we can build our lives.
Those who build their lives on Christ will find that God is a mighty fortress, “a sword and shield victorious”!
That is a truth we can not only handle, but celebrate, today and forever!