Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
From the Gospel lesson, from St. John, chapter 8:
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Jesus spoke these words to some Jews who had begun to believe in him. They show very quickly how little of Jesus’ message they were willing to receive. They did not see themselves as slaves to sin and therefore saw themselves as better than the sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus typically associated.
Worse still, they did not see themselves in need of what Jesus came to bring—freedom from slavery. The Pharisees and those like them often stand out in the Scriptures as a strict warning to us to watch what we make of ourselves. It’s too bad that we so rarely step back and see such attitudes in ourselves.
Today, of course, is our observance of the Reformation Day, which actually falls on Thursday—All Hallow’s Eve. Yes, another one of the Christian holy days that has been co-opted and corrupted by our pagan society It’s grossly inaccurate and incomplete to say that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and thanks to him and that action, we’re finally free. First of all, when you read the 95 Theses, you are instantly aware that dear Father Martin, who was not yet Doctor Luther, is not yet himself Lutheran. Take Thesis 44, for example: “Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.”
Not exactly salvation by grace alone through faith alone, is it?
Second, it’s important to note that the 95 Theses are not part of our Lutheran Confessions, the Book of Concord. They are primarily a reaction against the selling of indulgences, pieces of “paper forgiveness” that could be bought with money. Father Luther doesn’t want people to buy forgiveness; at that stage he wants people to do acts of penance. That’s not Christian, and it’s not the basis for the revolution that would become the Reformation of the Church.
At most, we can say that the 95 Theses became the beginning of the period of inquiry and debate that would lead to the Reformation of the Christian Church. Overly simplistic or romantic notions of the Reformation do us no good. They merely pit us as the good guys verses the Roman Catholics. The real enemy is ourselves, Jesus says, and the most terrible part about it is that we are blind to our own slavery.
This can happen on a large scale with institutions and organizations like the Church, and it happens to us as individuals too. It happens because we fail to abide in the Word of God. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Those who have no time for the Word of God are not abiding in the Word. The longer a person stays away from the Word, the weaker faith becomes. Eventually, if faith is not nourished by the Word, it will die. The Word of God is the food of faith, the air that faith breathes, the fuel that faith burns. Without the Word—without Christ continually before us, with us, and within us—faith dies.
It will forever remain a mystery to me why some otherwise wonderful Christian people, even otherwise wonderful church people within this congregation, stay away from the serious study of God’s Word. I fully confess that I am not perfect in this area, either. No one is, but the attitude of staying away intentionally is not only wrong-headed, it’s sinful.
Yet every time I have grown as a Christian, it has been because of the serious study of, contemplation about, praying over, wrestling with, and mediation on God’s Word. It comes from the oratio, tentatio, meditatio process of which Luther himself wrote.
On the other hand, every time I have failed in faith toward God and in love toward others, it has been because I failed to take to heart God’s Word for me, and failed to live it out.
I’ve always found it more than a little ironic that in a church body that has such a problem with getting people to engage in the serious study of God’s Word, we once published something called The Concordia Self-study Bible. Many of you have it, and I have a copy myself. What they were trying to say, of course, was that you could use this Bible to study by yourself.
But it also can be understood ironically as the Bible that studies itself—just let it sit there on your shelf like your coffeemaker does on the kitchen counter, and maybe it will turn itself on at the proper time and give you some satisfying results. You can see how silly and ridiculous that would be.
Our Bibles—self-study or not—do us no good if they are covered with dust. Similarly our catechism does us no good if we do not meditate on it daily. And I can assure you that all your doubts concerning God and His ability to answer your prayers come from so little use of the fuel for faith, the engine of prayer.
I can further assure you that all the anger and arrogance you find leaking out of your heart in your relationships with other people is there because you have first failed to abide in the Word of God. When we live like this, we live like those in the Gospel lesson, completely blind to the slavery of our own sin. Therefore we remain slaves to sin.
In contrast to that, when we abide in the Word of God, we know the truth about ourselves and how God sees us. We know the truth about Jesus and what He has done on the cross to free us from sin and slavery to sin. That is the truth that sets us free.
The Jews answered Jesus, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” And you’re answering me, right now, in your hearts and minds: “But pastor, I’m already confirmed. I already learned the catechism. I pray the Lord’s Prayer every day. I don’t need to study it again. I’m not in slavery to sin. I just don’t like those sinners and tax collectors and politicians and criminals and that person who was mean to me. Don’t I have a right not to forgive them? I’m not a slave to sin like they are.” And so we remain completely oblivious to the Word of God which is spoken in the Lord’s Prayer, even if we actually do say it daily: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We are convinced that we are so close to the Word, and yet we are not abiding in it. We are practicing sin, through and through.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” These Jews to whom the Lord was speaking, however, were blind to their own bondage to sin, just as we often are. We were not meant to live this way, though. We were set free!
That’s why Jesus’ Word first must show us our slavery to sin, so that His Word can bring us freedom from sin. Law before Gospel. You don’t preach the Gospel to comfortable sinners, lest they remain unrepentant. God’s purpose is to first break our pride and bring us ever before Him as no better than anyone else. But Jesus says, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
The Word was written down not simply to give a list of do’s and don’t’s, for that would leave us in legalism, much like those in the medieval Church who sought indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, and penance to earn their way closer to God. The Word also wasn’t given so that we would have a list to hold over the heads of others. We have the Word of God—both Law and Gospel—that we might remain and dwell in it always. We never graduate out of it.
The Word preaches to us the truth, and that truth is Jesus Christ—serving, suffering, crucified, dying, and rising again for you. The truth is that truth which Jesus Himself speaks from the cross, from “Father, forgive them” to “It is finished.” He alone speaks this truth, for He alone bore our sin—even our sins of spiritual blindness and our prodigal attitude toward the Word of God. He has taken even these sins to the cross. From the cross flows the forgiveness won for us by Jesus’ perfect obedience and His steadfastness to the will of God the Father.
It also speaks to you the truth that you are baptized into Christ Jesus, your old self drowned. To know that truth is to live in it, to abide in it and to be free from slavery to sin. By that truth, we are also freed from our callous attitude toward the Word of God; freed to listen, to love, to treasure and yes, even to obey God’s Word. That Word sets us free. It abides forever.
Luther and the Reformers risked their lives and all they had for the sake of the Gospel itself so that those who came after them might be a people who abide in the Word of God. It was their hope that we and our congregation and all the people and congregations like us that cling to this confession of the power of God’s Word would be continually reformed by it.
So, take seriously Jesus’ invitation to abide in Him, to abide in His Word. He means to use to use it to reform you for the better and for the benefit of those around you, according to His own purpose. He has freed you, both now and forever. In His holy name, Amen.