October 27, 2019 / Reformation Sunday / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28; Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Freedom is universally acknowledged to be a good thing, something to be desired, something to be preserved. Freedom is essential to being fully alive, to exercising and enjoying all that life has to offer. A bird in flight is a wonderful image of freedom: unrestrained by limits or boundaries or regrets or doubts – being fully all that it was born to be. A bird in a cage is still a bird- but without the freedom to fly, it cannot be all that a bird is meant to be.
Back in 1993 the BoDeans released the song, “Closer to Free.” The opening verse sums up our shared human longing:
Everybody wants to live, like they want to live;
And everybody wants to love like they want to love;
And everybody wants to be closer to free.
An early taste of the goodness of freedom came for me each year at Lindenwood Elementary School on the last day of school. There were no lessons, no assignments to do. Instead, the whole school participated in a parade around the neighborhood – each class wearing festive hats and outfits lovingly made by dedicated room mothers. After the parade, we all went to an amusement park for a picnic. Each of us was given several free tickets for rides at the park. And of course, as we rode the bus to that amusement park, we all sang the sweet song of liberation: School’s out, schools out, teacher let the monkeys out; No more pencils no more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks. We were set free to enjoy the seemingly endless goodness of our long summer vacation. Everybody wants to be free!
Martin Luther certainly longed to be free. He wanted to be freed from the burden of guilt and regret – from a pervasive sense of his own unworthiness. So it was with great joy that he discovered in the scriptures what the church had somehow buried, misplaced, lost or forgotten: namely, that the Gospel of Jesus is an Emancipation Proclamation. The gospel is the liberating message, telling how God’s grace truly sets people free – free to be the persons God created us to be. The freedom of salvation is not a reward that must be earned – it is a gift lovingly offered to us in Jesus Christ.
Today we are reminded that the freedom which is our heart’s desire is actually ours in Christ. We need to claim this freedom – embracing it and living it – because the temptation is always there to slide back into the old ways of guilt and doubt and regret and fear and despair. How can we live closer to free?
Know this: We have been set free from our past. No matter how checkered, or disappointing, or shameful our past history might be – you and I are not defined by it. We are not doomed by a record of mistakes and failures. We are living in a New Covenant with God. God has made a great promise: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Since God not only forgives but also forgets- we have no business feeling trapped by our past, no need to dwell on our failures. The permanent record of all our faults and misdemeanors has been tossed away. Freed from the constraints of the past, we are welcomed to enjoy the future now open to us.
Know this: We have been set free from having to prove our worth. Life is not an endless effort to think well of yourself – and to convince others to do the same. God has chosen to love us as cherished daughters and sons. In Christ, God lets us know that you and I are worth dying for. So, instead of wondering if we’re loved, if we’ve done enough to deserve being loved, know we are loved, just as we are.
Know this: We have been set free from guilt. We are not without sin, but we live in the grace of God’s forgiveness. You and I do not live under a relentless indictment – with an accusing finger forever pointing at our imperfections and contradictions. Our baptism into Christ removes the burden of guilt and opens the way to the glorious liberty of the children of God. When guilt creeps in – make the sign of the cross!
Know this: We have been set free from fear. Nothing in this world can separate us from the redeeming love of God. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Fear is the absence of faith in God’s love which casts out all fear. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but rather a spirit of power, and of love, and self-control.” ( 2 Tim:1:7)
Know this: We have been set free from the power of death. We will die, as Jesus died, yet because he lives, we too shall live. Death cannot hold us or those we love. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus announces the liberating promise: “I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Luther offers a paradoxical description of the freedom he discovered in the gospel: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. Christians are set free – and in our freedom we are empowered to serve others.
Freedom involves appreciating the difference between what you “have to do” and what you “get to do.” Because Christ already died and rose again to bring us salvation, we don’t have to do anything. That’s freedom! Because we are not weighed down by regrets and doubts and fears, we are able to love and serve others. We get to be useful. That’s freedom too!
There is a memorable line in T. S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, that articulates the dual nature of Christian freedom: (worth remembering) “Teach us to care and not to care.” That sums it up quite well, I think. Christians care deeply about the well-being of others, about the state of the world, about living truly and faithfully as children of God. At the same time Christians can be carefree, in that we are not weighed down by worries about: what others might think or do, what might go wrong, having enough, getting loved back, getting our way. Bit by bit, we learn both to care and not to care: to be compassionate and to be lighthearted; to gladly bear one another’s burdens, and yet not get weighed down by life.
Our freedom derives from knowing and loving and trusting Jesus – completely. Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus is the truth – the truth we know personally and relationally – not only as an idea or a doctrine. Jesus embodies the freedom he promises, the freedom to which we aspire. Jesus is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. And Jesus is the perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.