[This was shared during the Reformation Sunday celebration with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio today.]
Back in the Stone Ages, when I did my student teaching at Bishop Ready High School in Columbus, my supervising teacher was a terrific guy named Joe Palazzo. One day, after Joe observed me teach twelfth-grade Government class, he gave me two pieces of advice. First, he said: Get off of your mountain. Come down here with the kids. That’s where you can teach and they can learn. But he also gave a second and more important piece of advice. “All effective teaching, Mark, boils down to two principles: Repetition and concreteness. Repeat it in as many different ways and as many times as you can. And then, make it real. Help them to see it." The greatest teacher who ever lived was Jesus of Nazareth. He was often called rabbi, teacher, even by those who opposed Him and thought that His claims to be God and Savior of the world were out to lunch.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find Jesus exemplifying Joe Palazzo’s principles of teaching in order to get across the most important message you and I will ever receive. Jesus tells us that He is the best friend we can have and that to be truly free, we need a connection to Him. He breaks this lesson down into three parts.
Part one: Jesus twice repeats, in different ways, a straightforward Biblical principle. Its this: Stick with Me and you’ll be free. At the beginning of our lesson, He says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Then, at the end of our lesson, He repeats this point in a different way: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
You and I might chafe under those words a bit. Jesus’ fellow Jews, people who had believed in Him, certainly reacted to His words. They told Jesus, in spite of a history of enslavement, that they had never been slaves to anybody. This claim demonstrates that denial is more than a river in Egypt. The last thing any of us wants to admit is that we aren’t free agents, doing exactly what we want to do in life. The daughter of friends of ours, when she was two years old, would grow indignant with anyone who tried to get in her way. “Mine a do it!” she would insist loudly.
Children aren’t the only ones who feel the need to prove that they are self-contained free agents. Adults do this, even when they’re in the clutches of addiction or sin. “I can quit any time!” says the alcoholic confronted with the truth about his destructive life style. “Good,” says someone who loves him, “quit.” “I don’t want to,” they’ll say, though the truth could actually be expressed with the words, “I can’t quit. I’m a slave to my addiction.”
In telling us, “Stick with me and you’ll be free,” Jesus implicitly tells us what He makes explicit in Part Two: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."
That rings true to me. The first time I remember a swear word passing through my lips, I was in the sixth grade. It was the day of the Halloween party and I was frustrated. Everyone had come to school in the costume they were going to wear on what we called Beggars’ Night in Columbus. I was dressed as a girl, complete with dress and make-up. I guess my mom and I were the only ones who didn't get the memo that said all students should bring a change of clothes. So, there I was at recess, playing Four Square with my classmates on the playground, the only one still in my Halloween costume. In drag!
All the other kids rode me pretty hard, which was frustrating enough. But then, Steve, a tough little guy who had started smoking when we were in the fourth grade in hopes that he could stunt his growth and become a jockey, spiked the ball in my square. I was out. “I guess you really are a girl,” one of my classmates said in words that in just a few years, we would regard not only as cruel but totally unenlightened. Frustrated that I was in a dress, upset that Steve had just knocked me out of the game, and mad about all the insults, I picked up the ball, slammed it to the pavement, and said the first curse word I ever spoke. “D-A-M-N!” I barked, not spelling it then as I did just now. “Wooo!” the kids said, “Daniels cussed!”
Here’s what I found. After I’d sworn once, misusing the gift of language and violating God’s will for human beings, it was a lot easier to do it a second time. Easier still to do it a third. Sin creates holes in our souls and unless we’re careful, sin will flood our lives, making us its slaves, sinking us into the muck of evil, far from God.
“When I first started raking money from the company, I was conscience-struck,” one man admitted. “But after awhile, it became easier. I had all sorts of justifications for it.” It’s easy to become the slave of sin. In fact, the Bible tells us that we have an inborn inclination to sin. That’s why Jesus’ promise, “Stick with me and you’ll be free,” is really good news!
So, how do we get free? Well, we don’t. Only God can free us. That leads to Part Three of Jesus’ lesson: The Son has the run of God’s kingdom. That's why when you stick with the Son, He will set you free!
I once got to know a local judge who seemed to take both his faith and his work seriously. Another man I knew was charged with a crime and brought before that judge. The man was clearly guilty. But I knew how remorseful he was and I intervened, asking the judge to go easy on him, not imposing prison time.
The judge listened to me and said, “I understand all that, Mark. I know how much he regrets his actions. But the law is the law.” “Yes, it is,” I told him, “and I know that you have no choice. I was just hoping you could think of another way to handle things. But whatever you do, I’ll respect your sentence.”
Jesus looks at us and our failure to love God and love neighbor and knows, just like that judge, that the law is the law. All sin is the failure to love God and love neighbor. And, the Bible says unequivocally that "the wages of sin"--the appropriate payment for sin--"is death."
But after finding us guilty and pronouncing our death sentence over us, Jesus does something extraordinary. He takes our punishment. That’s what He did when He voluntarily went to the cross, though He had no sin. He took the punishment that you and I deserve. All who remain with Jesus, everyone who sticks with Him, is set free from sin and death and have a life with God that never ends.
On a cross, Jesus made God’s love so concrete you can’t doubt how real it is. And from an empty tomb, He made clear His power and His desire to give us life that lasts forever. These are the greatest object lessons in human history!
Today, we celebrate the Reformation. The Reformation really began when a young monk and priest, Martin Luther, dogged by a sense of his own sin and his fear that an angry God would never forgive him, discovered the true nature of God is seen in the Good News of Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
On October 31, 1517, All Saints Eve or Hallowed Eve—we call it Halloween, Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses for debate on the church door where he served as priest in Wittenberg, Germany. It began a movement within Christianity that continues to this day, a movement that reminds the world that salvation and new life aren’t things we earn or buy or steal; God sets us free to be our true selves—the selves God made us to be—through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone!
The Bible teaches and Luther’s Small Catechism underscore that there are three things that enslave us, causing us to place our confidence in dead things like money, possessions, and religion. Those three things are the devil, the world, and our sinful selves. Jesus Christ can set us free from them.
She had a difficult childhood, sexually abused by her own father. In adulthood, she made success and pleasure her gods, anesthetizing herself with constant work, the mad chase for dollars, spending sprees that maxed out her credit cards, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. But nothing set her free from her sense of inadequacy, from the shame she felt for her victimization, from her guilt for the choices she made for selfishness and self-will. A friend invited her to a small group Bible study.
There, she heard Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, a story that assures us that no matter how far we may stray from God, through Jesus Christ, God wants to welcome us home. God wants to set us free from all that enslaves us, kills us, or fills us with a sense of futility and meaninglessness. God wants to set us free to live abundant, eternal life with Him. “I’ve heard that story a million times,” she said. “I never realized that it was anything more than a story. I never knew it meant that God cares about me.” For the first time in her life, that woman began to sense the freedom to live that Christ wants us all to experience.
Jesus says, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” On this Reformation Sunday, my challenge to you is simple: Dare to believe that! Dare to believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection are both object lessons and the means by which God sets you and me free to be the forgiven, confident, hopeful people we were made