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A number of years ago I had an interesting experience that I imagine few pastors ever get to have. Because I had members that lived there, from time to time I used to lead devotions at one of the Catholic-affiliated nursing homes in Bismarck. It was always a mixed crowd, to say the least. On this occasion though, it happened that my devotion was scheduled for October 31, not only Halloween day but also Reformation. A day
made famous for us by Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. How many Lutheran pastors do you imagine getting to preach in a Catholic chapel on Reformation Day?
Before the half hour service I was actually joking about it with Sister Anna Rose, the nun who helps with chapel scheduling there. But in Christian love the focus of my “Reformation” devotion wasn’t on what Luther did but in the gospel God proclaimed through Luther. You see, it’s really important that you understand this. The point of celebrating the Reformation isn’t to bash the Catholics or to idolize Luther – it’s to praise God for the Gospel. Today as we look at Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson we find that the Good News about Jesus is all about freedom. And boy, do people misunderstand what freedom is all about today. Jesus is talking about a greater freedom than our rights to bear arms, or freely assemble, or vote. Jesus speaks to a group of believers here who didn’t even know they were slaves. He urges them to recognize the sin that masters us, but to hold to the Savior that masters sin.
Know the Sin that Masters Us
In our account this morning Jesus is in Jerusalem, perhaps even at the temple itself. Jesus has been facing challenges from the Pharisees in this chapter and just before our text it tells us many people listening in the crowd had just come to faith in him. I think that’s an important thing to note. Our text begins. “To the Jews who had believed him…” Jesus is speaking here to people who are believers. New believers, but believers nonetheless. That means Jesus’ words apply to us as believers. And it means that the response of the crowd is sometimes our response too. Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Chances are you’ve heard that last phrase before. “The truth will set you free.” It’s used all the time by people that have no idea what truth the original speaker of the phrase had in mind.
It seems, in fact, that Jesus’ audience didn’t get it either. “We are Abraham’s descendants,” they say, “and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” The Jews at Jesus’ time were oppressed by the Romans, but not slaves. Jesus’ comment seems to almost offend them. They weren’t slaves to anyone. They were children of Abraham. God had chosen them to be his people. They were sons of the promise. Special. They were set apart. The cream of God’s crop. Free!
What a contrast Jesus paints for them. He says, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Now that’s a picture we use so often in preaching it might be a little stale, but have you really thought about what that means? Jesus tells us that every sinner lives with sin shackled around our ankles and wrists like heavy chains. And attached to those chains of sin we find all the consequences of our sin bound to us as well. Physical death. Spiritual death. Eternal death in hell. With no hope of deliverance we find ourselves handcuffed to spiritual blindness, apathy, even hatred toward God. Our sins hold us captive as surely as any iron handcuffs ever held an inmate in prison. It binds us to the lusts and cravings of the sinful world around us. It’s in our nature. In our words and thoughts. An evil that holds us down and won’t let go.
And remember who Jesus is talking to. Not the unwashed heathens who don’t know him or believe him. No, he’s talking to believers who still have to fight with our heathen hearts of sin. You feel it in your life, don’t you? The lament of Paul who cried out that the good he wants to do – that he doesn’t. And the evil he doesn’t want to do – that’s what he does. It’s the cry of the believer whose heart is willing but whose flesh is weak. It’s the frustration of a Christian who knows we should be better but looks at our lives in the mirror of God’s law and finds failure instead of faithfulness. We still, even in as believers, are held captive by our sinful hearts.
But oh this truth that sets us free! Jesus says the one who holds to his teaching is the one who knows the truth. And you are blessed to know what Jesus taught. That instead of destroying us for our sin, God destroyed Jesus instead. Or at least would have destroyed him if he were a mere man like us. On the cross, Jesus did what we could never do. Took the full punishment for our sin yet still overcame. He suffered the agony of begin forsaken by our Father in heaven. He felt the sting of death. But even on the cross he declared the work was done. “It is finished!” And Easter morning he proved his victory by the testimony of angels and appearances to these same weak disciples. The cross is the place of shame for our sin. But also the heart of our hope. It is ugly. And beautiful. There Jesus set us free by taking sin our master, and mastering it for us. We who were slave, are now cherished sons. Free. And as Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!” This is what Jesus’ teaching is all about. This is the hope of our heart. The mission of our church. The purpose of our preaching.
Know the Savior that masters sin
But that isn’t always the focus of Christian preaching, is it? In Luther’s day that central message of freedom in Christ was nearly lost. The devil was assaulting the children of God with false teaching. Even the official teachings of the visible church had been corrupted. The message of freedom and forgiveness that Jesus and the Apostles had taught had become twisted and dominated by demands for works of self- righteousness. The Christian church had become centered on the penance the people did, the offerings they gave, and the sacrifices they made. Freedom by Christ had been turned into slavery for Christ.
But in grace, God restored the message of freedom for his people. He raised up a man, a decidedly imperfect one, named Martin Luther to teach this truth. Luther knew and felt the slavery of sin. His conscience tortured him over his disobedience to God’s commands. He attempted to make up for his wrongs by becoming a monk. He went without basic comforts to try to keep his focus on God. He did every good work imaginable to try to find peace. But he never knew if the scales were balanced. And that uncertainty drove Luther into deeper and deeper spiritual despair as he realized how thoroughly sin had enslaved him.
But as he does for us today, God led Luther to the truth. In Scripture from the letters to the Romans and Galatians just like what we’re reading, god showed Luther that the righteousness he demands from his people is righteousness that he freely gives in Christ. We don’t really “do” confession anymore, but if you’ve ever had a pastor fellow believer give you the comfort of forgiveness for some sin that troubles you, then you know the joy and hope Luther felt when God brought him this truth.
On learning this truth, Luther started sharing it. He nailed 95 theses (statements) to a church door on October 31, 1517, and from there the Gospel of freedom in Christ flew out into the church again, and into the world. Luther wrote volumes of letters and books all stating one thing: We are saved by grace alone in Christ alone, through faith alone. A message only found in Scripture. A Gospel that sets us free!
And that’s why 500 years later the Reformation still matters. Not to remember a long dead German in a country half a world away. But to remember a truth from Scripture that was almost lost for a time, and could be lost among us if we don’t treasure it, know it, and show it ourselves. There are still teachers who would trample our freedom. Still wolves in sheep’s clothing who would turn our focus from Christ to us. Still those who would bind us to the sin Christ has already freed us from.
Brothers and sisters, you are blessed to know the truth of Christ. You’re blessed to hear it every week at Salem. Blessed to celebrate as we receive the body and blood of Christ without obligation. Blessed to have our eyes directed again and again to the cross of forgiveness and freedom. This pure gospel is what sets our church apart. You know the Gospel that sets us free from the burden of works and law. Let this Reformation weekend be a little reformation for you. Turn away from every false teaching that points you to yourself instead of Christ. Rejoice in the freedom of forgiveness freely given. Serve your Lord not by command but in thanksgiving. You are no longer a slave. Instead you sit at the table of God, with Christ as your brother and the almighty as your Father. A permanent child permanently free. That is the truth, and it has set you free indeed. Amen.