Free, Indeed (John 8:31-36)
Rev. Peter Heckert
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation for this Reformation Sunday comes from our Gospel text, especially where John records Jesus’s words, “If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …
These people to whom Jesus is speaking … they were believers, at least in some sense. They had heard Him talking about how the Father was with Him, and that, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” They heard Him say all these things … and they believed Him. What He had said created some sense of faith in them. They believed, and that makes the following conversation that we have in our text all the more puzzling.
I say that because something in Jesus’s words to these Jewish believers … was an affront. At least, they were disconcerted enough by His words that they had to ask, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” We’re already free, Jesus! We haven’t ever actually been enslaved; sure, the Romans and Herodians rule over us with an iron fist, and yes, historically, we were enslaved by different peoples at different times, but that doesn’t mean that we are slaves! Abraham was a free man, and he’s our ancestor, so that means we are free, too! … This is obviously not the point Jesus was making.
No, He was not referring to the evils of physical slavery, indentured servitude, human trafficking, and forced labor, historic and present; He’s referring to the original root of such great ungodliness as that. He tells the crowd, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” There may not be iron chains or whip-wielding taskmasters. This isn’t the creation of mudbricks under the hot Egyptian sun, nor the picking of crops in the oppressive Southern heat in bygone centuries, nor the incalculable psychology damage that accompanies the human and sex trafficking that still goes on today. Sin … is the cause of all of that, the foundation of all human cruelty and malice and wickedness … and it is found within each and every one of us.
That’s right, the same evil that spawned genocides like the Holocaust, the same depravity that spawned the multifaceted debauchery of modern human sexuality, the same heartlessness and brutality that spawned countless wars throughout the centuries … that dwells within my heart. It dwells within yours. The slavery of sin is truly universal to humanity, regardless of whether one is descended from Abraham or not; indeed, we would do well to remember that Abraham himself was once a pagan, worshipping the moon-god Sin in ancient Ur of the Chaldeans. Since Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden, all people – Jews and Gentiles – are born slaves to sin, bound to self-centeredness and doomed to death. What’s worse, we’re born blind to our bondage! Sinners give in to their urges and desires and call it freedom, never seeing the truth of their enslavement to those desires. No, those Jewish believers to whom Jesus was speaking had no idea of the reality of their captivity.
Which makes Jesus’s words all the more potent. He could see what they could not because He was not blinded by sin. He knew of their bondage, the true desperation of their situation, and He offers them the remedy, the way out of this bondage: “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.”
Only the Son of God can set us free from the bondage to our sins—not popes or councils, not laws or mandates. Even God’s Law cannot set us free from our sin; Paul said as much in our epistle lesson in Romans 3 when he wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Knowing the good we ought to do, and the evil we ought to refrain from doing, does not give us the ability to keep the Law; indeed, it only heaps more guilt on us and compels us to try harder, and to do so in vain. But … “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
That’s the reality of the Gospel message Martin Luther rediscovered over five centuries ago. The Son is the only One who can set you, a slave to your sin, free from your bondage. How? By stealing away your chains, and throwing the robe of His righteousness upon you. The Sinless One frees you from the captivity of your sin … by taking your place, becoming the physical embodiment of sin and then enduring the death of sin’s just penalty. In His crucifixion, Jesus died the death that we deserved, and He did so with the whole compendium of human sin within His being. Luther said it far better than I ever could when he wrote,
“May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served, but to serve.” There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, Who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent.
But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet … the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.
Reformation Day is not about how awesome it is to be a confessional Lutheran – although I am thankful for my theological heritage, that’s not what we’re celebrating today. We’re celebrating that we are free to know the Truth that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We are celebrating the freedom we now have – not to use for hedonism and debauchery, nor for selfishness and greed, but the freedom to now serve our neighbor and love our God, knowing that it is not done in compulsion or threat of hellfire or out of selfish desire to save oneself. In Christ, the Son of God, our bondage to sin is over. We are free, fully justified before the Father. By God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, found in Scripture alone … we are free, indeed.
+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.