[This was shared at the early worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
I’ve never seen the movie, A Few Good Men. But like most people I’ve seen one of its most famous scenes. Tom Cruise’s character, a prosecuting attorney, demands of a witness, “I want the truth!” And Jack Nicholson, the witness on the stand, “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.
We’re going to look at the truths Jesus reveals in this lesson and see whether you and I can handle them. Please turn to the lesson, John 8:31-36 (on page 746 in the sanctuary Bibles).
In verse 31, we read: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him, ‘If you hold to my teaching [or more literally, If you abide or remain in My Word, you are really my disciples..’” 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 or enlisting in a "club" called "the church."
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 had no intention of starting a Reformation. But his questions for debate challenged the teachings of the Church of his day.
Through his act, the Holy Spirit unleashed a Christian 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, but solely by the charity (or grace) of God given to those with faith in Jesus Christ.
To be saved from sin, death, and darkness, we must only believe in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. That’s good news!
But, of course, believing in Jesus is more than the recitation of words or showing up for church functions.
Belief in Jesus is entrusting my whole life to Him, accepting His total authority over my life.
Because this idea so violently collides with our pretenses of self-sufficiency and our personal desires, the good news of Jesus is also a tough truth. And most people can’t handle it! (Including me, much of the time, I must honestly confess, though I crave to live for Christ more than anything.)
But Jesus isn’t done laying the truth on us. Look at what He says in verse 32: “‘...you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
This verse is widely misquoted and misunderstood. For example, the words "the truth will set you free" are chiseled into the marble on the front face of the Law School at my alma mater, The Ohio State University, as though Jesus were saying, “If you know the facts, you’ll be free.” That is NOT what Jesus is saying! Jesus means something, in fact Someone, very specific when He talks about the Truth: Himself.
Please turn to John 1:14, part of the prologue or introduction to the gospel of John (page 739 in the sanctuary Bibles). In his prologue, John calls Jesus the Word, God the Son, then tells us: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Then, please slip over to John 14:6 (page 752). It says: “Jesus answered [Thomas], ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Truth #2 then, is this: Jesus is the foundational Truth on which the entire universe is built. To build on any other foundation but Christ is to live a lie and a delusion.
To be in relationship with Jesus, to entrust our past, present, and future, our sins, and our identities to Jesus Christ alone, is to be in relationship with God.
To refuse relationship with and surrender to Jesus is to be out of relationship with God, separated from God.
The entire universe, in fact, is not as it should be because it is out of relationship, out of sync, with Jesus the Truth. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that those who refuse Christ’s lordship over their lives, “...will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” Tough stuff. But Jesus says that as we stay connected with Him, meeting Him with trusts in the ways and in the places He promises to meet us--as we daily repent of our sins, pray in His Name, read and hear ans study His Word, fellowship with His people in the Church, receive His body and blood, and live 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 said they believed in Jesus, could not handle any talk of their needing to be set free. In verse 33, they protest: “‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’’”
This is denial, pure and simple. The whole history of the descendants of Abraham 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! Most notable, of course, was the 430 year stint of slavery in Egypt. And even at the moment Jesus spoke with them, they lived under the dominion of a foreign nation, the Roman Empire.
But though we may shake our heads at this denial of reality, these people aren’t the only slaves in human history to deny their slavery. All of us are equipped with the capacity to not see when we’re enslaved to sin. Whether the focal point of our sin is the abuse of alcohol or drugs, gambling, too much time on the computer, workaholism, materialism, pornography, or whatever our gods of choice may be, a common first response when confronted by loved ones is to deny our slavery. “I don’t need it,” we crow. “I can quit it any time.”
Jesus doesn’t mince words in expressing truth #3. Look at verse 34: “‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’”
This is the unpleasant truth the human race does not want to hear. None of us does. And when called to the carpet for something I’ve done wrong, my first impulse is to let loose with a string of excuses.
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.
This is what we reference when we confess to God on Sunday mornings that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
From this condition of sin, we naturally commit sins. We really do not, by nature, love God or love others.
Other-mindnedness, which is what the Bible calls righteousness looks like, isn’t the default mode those whose first words are often, “No!” and “Mine!” (Ask any parent and they will confirm that.) We are slaves to sin. And it’s from this slavery that Jesus came into the world to free you and me.
Look at what Jesus says in verse 35 of our lesson, please: “‘Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.’” Under the inheritance laws of first-century Judea, only the oldest son inherited all that his father left behind. And slaves had no rights to an inheritance at all. There was nothing they could do about their circumstance. They would spend their entire lives as slaves.
Absent God’s help, we sinners would have no hope of anything but eternal condemnation and everlasting separation from God and the life for which we were made. We couldn’t inherit life with God. 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 sets you free, you will be free indeed.’”
When we trust Jesus to take our sins on His shoulders and their condemnation into His very body, 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. 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.
Luther pointed out that God will also look out over another group of sinners. Because of their faith in Jesus, God won’t see their earthly fallen selves. God will only see Jesus when He looks at them. They will be clothed in the forgiveness and new life Jesus gave to them and that they received by faith in Christ. Romans 6:23 tells us: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is the greatest truth of all!
A few years ago, I read about the large number of emigres from Iran (Persia) who, in some independent German Lutheran congregations, are leaving the Muslim religion and coming to faith in Jesus Christ. These Persians were 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, as Luther wrote in his famous hymn, inspired by Psalm 46, 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! Amen!
[The image above is taken from the 2004 release, Luther, which I highly recommend.]