[This is the message shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday, Reformation Sunday.]
Reformation Sunday is one of my favorite days on the Church calendar. And this year, of course, brings a special celebration of this day with the 500th. anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door.
But there’s a bit of danger in all this celebrating of our Lutheran heritage. It can too easily become about Luther and our connection to him.
But Reformation Sunday isn’t a time to say, “Yay, us!” It’s a call to thanksgiving that we are only saved from sin and death by the power of God’s grace given to those who trust in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, as their God, Savior, and King.
It’s a truth of which we in the Church and the world we seek to reach in Christ’s names need to always be reminded! That's because, as long as we're on this earth, you and I will need to be open to the reformation of our faith, lives, and characters that God wants to accomplish in us.
The term, Lutheran was first used as a putdown by Luther’s accuser, Johann Eck. “None of you are Christians,” Eck was saying, “You’re Lutherans.”
Martin Luther hated the word, Lutheran. “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians,” Luther said. “Who is Luther?...I have been crucified for no one...How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians…”
While we can be thankful that God used Luther to re-awaken the Christian Church to the true teachings of God in His Word, Reformation Sunday calls us to live in the light of two fundamental truths.
The first truth is that I am a sinner whose sin will earn me eternal condemnation if I am not saved. As Paul puts it in Romans 6:23: “the wages of sin is death.”
The second truth is that Jesus Christ, God enfleshed and sinless, took the punishment of death I deserve for my sin on the cross, then was raised by God the Father, so all who turn from sin and follow Him are freed of sin and death and have eternal life with God.
I need saving and I can’t save myself: I can’t be good enough, sorry enough, or virtuous enough to be saved. Only Jesus Christ can save me.
And I am saved only by turning from sin and surrendering to the God we meet in Christ. Paul puts it all succinctly in Ephesians 2:8: “...it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
All of this leads to today’s gospel lesson. It records an encounter between Jesus and fellow Jews who believed in Him. In it, Jesus talks about what it means to be saved, what it means to be His disciple. And, because the New International Version translation of the Bible, which is the version we have in our sanctuary and which I usually use in preaching, is so horrible in translating the first verse of today’s gospel lesson, I’m going to be using the more accurate English Standard Version today. So, up here on the screens, take a look at our gospel lesson, please, John 8:31-36.
Verse 31: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
There may not be two more important verses in all of Scripture than these!
That’s true because, first of all, Jesus here defines what belief or faith is.
When we speak of believing in something, we usually refer to intellectual assent, an opinion we have: “I believe that gravity exists”; “I believe that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.”
But what Jesus means when He speaks of belief or faith in Him is more than intellectual assent. To believe in Jesus is to “abide in [His] word.”
The word translated as abide is, in John’s Greek, μείνητε, a verb, an action word meaning to remain, stay, stick it out. The people to whom Jesus first addressed these words believed that Jesus was something special; after all, they were part of the crowd of 5000 Jesus had fed with a few fish and pieces of bread. Their opinion was basically, “Jesus is a great dude.” But Jesus says that faith is not a personal opinion. Faith is abiding, standing fast, when the crosses come, the chips are down, the temptations are great.
This verse is also important because Jesus tells us what to abide in. Or more accurately, who we are to abide in.
Jesus says we’re to abide in His Word. Jesus means more than spending time in this book, the Bible, the Word of God. That book, the Bible, is worthy of spending our time in it not just because it contains the Word of God. It's worthy because it tells us about the Word of God.
John 1 tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And then, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) Faith is making our home on the strong foundation of Jesus, the Word of God, and staying there! Jesus says when we do this, we will be free.
Verse 33: “They [the Jews who believed in Jesus] answered him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free”?’”
People who are enslaved are often quick to deny their slavery.
Someone tells a friend, “I think you have a drinking problem,” and the friend denies their addiction.
A woman is repeatedly abused by her husband and tells her parents, “He’s not really like that.”
A man embezzles from his company but actually believes it when he says, “I’m not a thief.”
Jesus’ fellow Jews, whose entire history was filled with times of enslavement to other nations, say, “We’ve never been slaves to anyone.”
Today, Jesus calls us to look at ourselves as we appear in the eyes of God. What enslaves us?
A love of comfort?
Indifference to God and the hurting people around us?
These and every other sin stemming from our failure to remain rooted in the God we know in Jesus are what enslaves people, taking them away from God and the life that only God can give.
Christ wants us to see the truth.
And just as the Word is a person, Jesus Himself, so is the truth. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
When we remain rooted in Christ, we see in the brilliance of God’s truth what enslaves us and we see too, that we can trust in the love and power of our crucified and risen Jesus to set us free to live, now and in eternity.
A woman once came to see me for counseling. “I started an affair with a no-good man, a really no-good man, years ago,” she told me. “He’s married and has no intention of leaving his wife. When I’m with him, he makes me feel loved and alive. But after he goes I wonder what I’m doing. I feel so rotten. So, I’ll tell him I’m not seeing him any more. Then he calls me a few months later and I cave in. I know it’s wrong. But I can’t get free.”
That woman was enslaved to her sin, enslaved to the idea that she needed this man to verify her worthiness as a human being. She understood that it was wrong, that her eternal destiny hung in the balance. But she was helpless to overcome her sin.
And here’s the thing: We are all helpless to resist sin when we try to do our own.
When God helps us to first, see our sins, and then, see the grace He offers in Christ, we are ready to be set free...not by our efforts to be good or religious or strong, but by Jesus Christ, Who died and rose for helpless sinners like you and me.
It is only when we know our helplessness and Who is the only One Who can help us that we will ever be free.
Paul puts it beautifully in 2 Corinthians 12:10: “...when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When I empty myself of all pretense of having it together, of being a good person, of being proud of my humility, it’s then that the God we meet in Jesus can fill us with God’s strength, God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s righteousness.
In other words, it’s only when we stop denying that we are sinners that we are open to the truth embodied in Jesus that we are “saved by grace through faith in Christ” alone!
An old saying puts it this way: When I’m at the end of me and God is all I’ve got, I realize that God is all I need!
I don’t always experience the fullness of God’s grace as God intends to give it to believers. I too often get in the way. But there are times when I do get out of the way.
This past week, I went to the deli again. Driving there, I asked, “Why do I almost always go to this deil? There’s another one closer.” “Just go,” I sensed God say.
When I got there, two different employees, neither one of them waiting on me, approached me about situations in their lives.
In that moment, Christ set me free from myself! Instead of denying our slavery to sin, you and I need to confess it, so that Jesus Christ can set us free. Not just once in a lifetime. Not just once a week. Not just at church. Not just at the deli. Always! We need to remain in Christ so that we’re free to live.
To the denial and cluelessness of the crowd who think that they’re free, Jesus says, starting at verse 34: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
When Martin Luther, after steeping Himself in Scripture, came to see that God sets free all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, he understood that sin and death need not be the last words for human beings. Even sinners like Martin Luther, Mark Daniels, you, and every human being, can be set free to live as God intended for us to live: His grateful, grown-up children, filled with the life and power of God, at ease in knowing that God will guide us through every moment in this fallen world, certain that we will live with God forever. Even now, through Christ and our faith in Him, we are free.
And that is what we can celebrate on this Reformation Sunday!