Gospel: John 8:31-36
31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The concepts of freedom and truth are some of the most valued and most debated ideas in our country. Has Truth has become how something makes us feel, and freedom, the ability to do whatever I want? To understand what Jesus is saying and who Jesus is talking to about freedom and truth, we need context. Chapters 7 and 8 in the book of John never appear in the lectionary, save for Reformation Day. These two chapters describe conflict in Jesus’ religious community, his challenges to the religious leaders, and their threats, questions, and misunderstanding. The Judeans, popularly translated “The Jews,” are not one monolithic block opposed to Jesus. In this part of the Gospel it is clear that the Judeans are divided. Not all resist him. Not all are threatened by him. On the contrary, many have come to believe in Jesus.
Jesus is speaking to the Jews, who believed in him, about truth. Abiding in the truth of Jesus’ teaching was key, and the word truth is a common word in John , occurring twenty-five times. The word appears only seven times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke altogether. In John, it referred to Jesus’ teaching, and what the Spirit would continue to teach as well (16:13) AND Jesus himself (14:6). I am the way and the truth, and the life. The Truth is a who, not a what. Not an idea to be debated, but a person and a God with whom we have a relationship. Jesus whole ministry was about setting people free from what keeps them down and keeps them separated from God. He is God’s truth made flesh, and Truth will set you free.
But even the Jews who believed in Jesus bristle when he brings up the concept of freedom. “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Really? Did you somehow forget the Egyptians? Or the Assyrians? Or the Persians? Or – take a look around, folks! – the Romans? Jesus’ mission is liberation from what we are in bondage to. Not only are the Jews who believed in Jesus forgetting their history, and their identity, like us, they don’t like being told they aren’t free…
As side note – This text not only highlights the important complexity of the relationship between Jesus and the Jews of his own day, but sheds light on a second level of meaning. A generation later there is still conflict within the gospel writer’s own community, and some animosity in its relationship with the post-temple Jewish movement. John writes about the conflict in Jesus days, with his own situation and community in mind. Chapter 8 begins with the popular story of Jesus halting the stoning of a woman caught in adultery – freeing her from that punishment, showing mercy and compassion and not just legalism and cruelty. Chapter 8 ends with Jesus being the one that is about to be stoned. His words, his teaching, and his identity claims have now reached adulterous levels and the Jews who were offended started gathering their ammunition.
Unfortunately that practice continues today, you disagree with someones words, teaching, or identity and you begin to stockpile ammunition. You cease to interact with mercy or compassion and begin to just identify that person or group as a target to be eliminated or at the very least, badly bruised. The protestant reformation sadly took on that attitude for centuries, and in some places still retains an anti-catholic bias. Those Lutherans have forgotten their roots, and forgotten their history. Forgotten the relationship and looked at others only with suspicion while gathering stones.
Luther had great hope that once this teaching about God’s grace, so obscured by the Church at the time, would become known, a new age would dawn. Once the Bible which he translated into the vernacular language could be read by every priest, prince, and peasant, and now that the printing press had been invented and as governments and the Church itself started establishing schools, people could discover for themselves not whatbut who the Truth is—Jesus Christ. The Church would awaken, the Jews would convert, and the great burden of the Law that had been placed on the shoulders of believers would be lifted away.
But, instead, the Church splintered further. The “truth” became a menu of options to choose from as more and more Christian sects proliferated. And, sadly, Luther’s core message about God’s grace, mercy and compassion, was obfuscated by new kinds of legalisms that have been at times more brutal than the old medieval systems.
These are the kinds of things that lead us each year to confess our sins in a particular way on Reformation Day. If we follow Luther’s scriptural understanding of sin, and understand “sin” as self-centeredness, then those who are doing self-centered things become slaves to themselves — their own wants and desires. Bizarrely, this is often how people understand freedom — doing whatever I want to do. But that definition of freedom is actually slavery to one’s self. (brian Stoefferegen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john8x31.htm)
We confess weekly that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Weekly we hear that God’s grace and mercy has broken those chains and set us free and forgiven. Do we still live as though we were in bondage to our own wants and desires? Do we feel free to let God’s word and god’s will and god’s mercy guide our actions – or do we relish in this freedom to do what I want as long as it isn’t hurting anyone?
We forget who we are and whose we are. We forget that we were not created to serve ourselves and our own needs, but to serve our neighbor. TO love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We are free to do so because we live in God’s grace. God has claimed us as his own, and through this promise, this covenant, this truth who came to walk among us as Jesus of Nazareth, we are set free. God has claimed his people from the beginning, though they have consistently forgotten his love for them.
And that breaks God’s heart. Israel’s has failed and strayed and not been faithful time after time. God’s relentless determination to preserve God’s beloved people leads to a new covenant. A covenant which the people cannot break. Because it is gods responsibility. God decides to forget. To not only forgive but to forget. We know this but we forget, we have selective memory too. We’d rather collect stones than hear about our own brokenness. We forget that we need God, and we forget that we need each other. We forget that we need this imperfect church, full of sinners and saints, to keep us in communion with all the saints. We forget that we need to be fed, and to eat at the lords table to keep our strength up for the days ahead, receiving a foretaste of the feast to come. May god help our hearts to remember.