Reformation Day Sermon: John 8:31-36

What is this nonsense?  How can the Jews who were listening to Jesus say, “We are Abraham’s descendants; we’ve never been slaves of anyone”?  Have they never read the Old Testament?  Have they never eaten the Passover, which celebrated and remembered God rescuing them from their slavery in Egypt?

Even more, look at the time in which they lived.  The Jews hadn’t been free since the Macabees ruled Israel.  That’s when Judah Maccabeus restored the Temple and removed the pagan objects of worship.  And now the Jews were under Roman occupation.  Have they not seen Roman soldiers proudly marching with their banners, decorated with the image of Caesar?

But it gets even stranger.  Who were these Jews who told Jesus, “We are Abraham’s descendants; we’ve never been slaves of anyone”?  Our Gospel reading tells us.  They were “the Jews who had believed in him.”  How ironic, Jews who believed in Jesus were telling Jesus that He was wrong!  They said that they had never been slaves of anyone, that they were, even then, free!  How could this be?  It’s because of something called pride.

Yes, those Jews just heard Jesus preach–and they even believed in Him!  But it’s a seed of faith that will die soon after it germinates.  That’s because–although they believed in Jesus–they weren’t willing to live in the freedom that Jesus was giving them!  They still wanted their works to count for something.  Because of that, they wouldn’t have true freedom until they recognized that sin, their true enslaver!

Of course, as Lutherans, we love this passage.  After all, we’re celebrating Reformation Day!  We hear the Gospel reading, and we, in our pride, think, “I’m glad I’m not like those Jews.  I’m glad I don’t somehow think that my works contribute to my salvation.  I know the truth.  I’m free!”

And if our Lutheran pride swells even larger, we then begin to see the Reformation as God triumphing over those corrupt Roman Catholics.  We know who we are in the Reformation story–and it’s not them!  We’re the free ones.  We know the truth.  We know that we are saved by faith, apart from our works.  We know the truth.  We know that Christ came to save us sinners.  We know that our works don’t get us into heaven.  We know the Gospel, and we know that it’s for us.

But what did Jesus tell the Jews, the same Jews who had believed in Him?  He said, “I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”  Ouch!  Jesus, why did you have to rain on my parade?  I was just getting into my Reformation fantasy, proudly boasting that I’m not like the Jews, like the Roman Catholics, or even the Protestants, who make salvation depend on a prayer they pray.

Yet, Jesus continues, “I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”  That hurts because both you and I sin.  We are all “doers of sin.”  With those words, Jesus hits us in the solar plexus and knocks all the reformational hubris and arrogance out of us.  Jesus won’t let us think that being a slave to sin only applies to others: Roman Catholics or Protestants.  Jesus also means those words for us smug Lutherans.

Now, of course, during Luther’s day, the Church had seriously gone astray.  Corruption was rampant.  Sometimes, even ruffians and unbelievers became bishops in the Church by paying large bribes.  After all, being a bishop back then had many perks.  Yes, the Church had strayed from the biblical teaching that God saves by faith, apart from works.   Let’s face it: If your works are somehow saving you, then Christ isn’t.

Luther was right when he called the Church to change course.  But rather than rejoicing in the Gospel through which God saves us, the Pope, instead, excommunicated Luther.  How sad!  The Church in the west would now splinter and fragment into many pieces.  Today, we have over 25,000 denominations, some of whom are even now outside the true Church of Christ!

Know this: The true Church did not excommunicate Luther.  The Pope made a mistake; he messed up.  If Luther lived today, I’m certain the Pope wouldn’t excommunicate him.  But the 1500s were different times.  And if we are honest, we have to admit that Roman Catholicism today is much better than it was 500 years ago, although it still strays is some significant ways.

So then, what about us?  How is the Reformation being lived out at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church?  We’ve heard the Lord’s word.  Yet, we sin, just like Roman Catholics, Protestants, and even like the believing Jews to whom Jesus was speaking.  So, even for us, Jesus’ words ring true: You and I are still slaves to sin.  Yet, do we say in our arrogance, “We’re descendants of Luther; we’ve never been slaves of anyone”?

We were born as slaves of sin.  Our flesh came into this world enslaved by sin, death, the devil, and decay.  Like those in the Old Covenant, we also endured our own slavery in Egypt–the unflinching eye of God’s unrelenting Law.  And just like Israel longed for their days of slavery after they were in the desert, so also do our bodies long for the sin that still clings to our inner being.

And so, it’s not only that we were slaves, but that we still are slaves.  We are still slaves to sin.  Jesus speaks in the present tense.  That’s because sin is what our bodies still know, long for, and want.  The lust that lurks in each of us even taints our most pious and holy wishes.  That’s why as saints of God, we still fight, moment by moment, against the sin that remains in each of us.

But if Jesus sets you free, you will be free indeed.  How so?  Jesus has freed you by becoming the ugliness of sin, even the ugliness of death.  That’s why a dead Jesus hung on the cross.  He had to become that ugly, so you could wear His robes of righteousness.  That’s why Jesus has done it all!  Indeed, Jesus is in His Father’s house, and He has prepared a place for you!

Freedom isn’t frightening.  There’s nothing to fear in the Gospel.  When Jesus says you will know the truth, He means that you will know Him.  When Jesus says the truth will set you free, He means that He will set you free.  And that’s exactly what He’s done.  He entered this fallen world.  He waded through all the filth, the muck, and all the mess that fills us.  He took in all the evil of the world, robbing it of its power to oppress you.

Now, there’s nothing the world can throw at you that it hasn’t already thrown at Jesus.  Jesus had an eternal target on His brow, hands, feet, and side.  As He trudged up Golgotha, Jesus stared Satan in the face and said, “Go for it!  You can’t accuse me of my sins, for I have none.  But I’ll take the sins of everybody else, even Tom, Dick and Harry, even Naomi, Jane, and Judy.”

That’s what Jesus did.  And Satan couldn’t resist the chance, the opportunity, to murder God.  And so Satan in his bluster accused God in the Flesh.  He laid all of our sins at Jesus’ feet.  He charged Jesus with them all, and then he put Him to death.  Now it’s over.  All is done.  On the cross, Jesus suffered what you and I deserve, all so He could set us free.

You’ve done the crime, but He’s done the time.  You’re free.  You got off.  Jesus chose to give you everything and more.  By the Holy Spirit working through the Word, Jesus has breathed a living faith within you.  He feeds you with the preached Word.  He places His body and blood into your mouth.

That’s freedom.  That’s what the Reformation is about.  It’s not about being Lutheran!  It’s about Jesus for you, God’s Son who sets you free.  You’ve heard His Word.  Now live in Jesus, the Word incarnate.  For you know the Truth, Jesus Himself, and He has set you free.  For if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.  Amen.