October 28, 2018/Reformation Sunday /Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Jeremiah 31:31-34/Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28/Gospel: John 8:31-36
The freedom we enjoy as Americans is founded on a shared understanding of what’s true. The Declaration of Independence, which is the historic assertion of our freedom as a nation, makes some explicit truth claims: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” Believing these claims to be both vital and true, our founders put their lives on the line for the sake of freedom by signing the Declaration. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of debate and wrangling over the wording. But ultimately they all affirmed the truth that was and is the basis for our freedom and independence.
Fast forward to today, and you and I still enjoy freedom as Americans. However, we are far from having a shared understanding of what’s true. These days truth is contested and disputed. We have trouble getting everyone to agree upon the facts. Instead we have “alternative facts.” Truth has become personal and tribal rather than universal. Instead of what might be commonly described as the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we now have “my truth” and “your truth,” “our truth” and “their truth.” Truth becomes something subjective and variable instead of being an objective and unchanging reality. Needless to say, this creates tensions and confusion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wisely observed: “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.” Nevertheless, many people still rush to embrace whatever “truth” works for them (true or not). Freedom becomes a shakier proposition when we cannot agree on the truth – when we are not able to say with shared certainty: this is true.
In his novel, 1984, George Orwell warned of the consequences for society when truth becomes arbitrary and changeable. In the dystopian society portrayed in that book, these are the slogans put forth by that government’s Ministry of Truth: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Orwell painted an extreme picture to make a point about the danger of propaganda, and the hazards of losing our grip on what’s true. Propaganda aims to stretch, bend, distort and deny the truth to the point where there are no objective facts, no core truths only fervently held claims – claims that cannot be proved and must not be questioned.
Scripture reminds us that as Christians, we live in this world but we are not of the world. First and foremost, you and I are children of God, citizens of heaven. Yet what is true politically is also true spiritually; that is, truth matters! Truth is essential. It’s everything. And so today’s gospel demands our undivided attention. Jesus speaks of truth and freedom, and proclaims that they are inextricably tied. Addressing a crowd of followers who believed in him, Jesus says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” These are momentous words, words that express the heart of the gospel message.
The good news Jesus brings communicates two essential truths, truths that make all the difference for us. 1) The first truth doesn’t sound like good news, yet it is the necessary prerequisite for the second truth which follows. It’s the truth about us. The truth is we are sinners. We begin our worship each Sunday by acknowledging this fact about ourselves: “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves”. This hard and undeniable truth is the starting point for making sense of the world we live in, and making sense of our own lives. Why don’t things go right? Why are you and I not quite right? Because this world is broken and imperfect and sinful, because you and I are broken and imperfect and sinful. Last week the prophet Isaiah hit the nail on the head: “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his/her own way.” Human sinfulness is a fact of life. Until we understand and accept this truth about ourselves, we cannot understand Jesus or appreciate why Jesus came into this world.
Grace has meaning and power only to those who know how much they need it. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “The gospel is only an answer to one who is asking the question; the question implied in our existence.” In today’s gospel, the followers of Jesus resist what Jesus says to them. They say “What do you mean by saying ‘You will be made free?’ We have never been slaves to anyone.” (They seem to forget that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and again taken captive by the Babylonians and Assyrians, and even now occupied by the Romans.) But Jesus points to a much deeper reality. He says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” It’s true! Think about that. Can anyone stop sinning? Paul puts it bluntly in our reading from Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s our collective track record. Jeremiah recounts how God’s people broke the covenant with God. We are by our nature incapable of holding up our end of the bargain. The truth is, we all mess up. So if the future depends on us – we are out of luck!
2) But there’s another truth that accompanies the truth about us. It’s an even greater truth. It’s the truth about God. You and I are captive to sin, yet Jesus assures us: “When the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Great news! The Lord helps those who can’t help it. The Lord helps those who can’t help themselves! The saving truth is that Christ came, and lived and died and rose again to set us free from our slavery to sin. We are loved, forgiven, FREE. It’s what love does: it sets us free, free to be the persons God made us to be. You and I are freed from our past, regrets, fears, old hurts and mistakes, worries about being loved, about being good enough, from the power of death. This world will try to convince us otherwise, but the good news is that we are not defined by our past, by our limitations, but by the gracious love of God. It’s true! Jesus sets us free to risk and to serve; to take bold leaps and ventures; to try, to struggle; to laugh, especially at ourselves. And above all, to love as God loves us.
As Christians we hold these truths to be self-evident: We all sin and fall short of what God intends us to be; we are captive to sin. The grace of God in Jesus Christ reaches us where we are, as we are, and sets us free. When asked to summarize the gospel in ten words or less, will Campbell, a Baptist preacher, put it this way: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” So, no matter how divided and confused this world may be about what is true, as Christians we point to the One who is the Way, and the Truth and the Life. Christ is true to his word and true to us. We live in freedom not just by trusting an idea, we trust a person, Our Savior and Lord. Truth matters not as a doctrine to be argued or defended. Truth is a relationship to be lived, lived in freedom.
Thanks be to God