[John 8:31-36 RSV] 31 Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, 'You will be made free'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This week is a very exciting one because we get to celebrate an amazing anniversary. I shaved my beard for the first time
since my marriage and half my family bought tickets to go to Germany to celebrate because it is such a big deal! It has been 500 years since Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the Church doors in the Wittenberg Church. If you have been a Lutheran all of your life, you have probably heard this story before, but maybe you forgot since confirmation or maybe you didn’t grow up in a Lutheran Church, or any church at all. So here is what was happening that caused the beginning of the reformation.
Like a lot of stories, it begins with sin. People in the church knew that Jesus Christ had died to forgive sins and only by the grace of God could people get into heaven. However they also knew that every sin had two parts. One part was a sin against God, and the other part a sin against the world. If I lose my temper, get really angry, and kick you in the shins I have both broken God’s commandments and I have hurt your shin. Christ died for my sins, even my temper. So through his sacrifice Christ restores the relationship I have with God and I do not get the just punishment (hell) for my sin of wrath and violence. Remember, only perfect people get into heaven and I have just proved I am not perfect—thus I deserve hell. However, does Christ’s death make your shin feel any better? And what if, because of my kick, you fell down and broke your foot? You still need help while you recover. So the church said, what you need to do is both seek forgiveness through Christ, and also help right the wrong that you caused in the world. It is not only that I have hurt God, but I have hurt you too. So while I cannot make it right with God (Christ does that part) I could make it right with you. For instance, I could help you with errands until you recover. I could run to the Market Place for groceries, do your laundry and do other things until you were well again. That way I help in the world to make up for some of the evil I do. That makes sense, right? We seek to balance the scales at least in regards to this world. If we hurt someone we also seek to help that person.
Then the church reasoned that sometimes you cannot make up for the evil you do in the world. Let’s say I kick you in the shins and while I am still mad I walk away, just fuming. As I walk up the street I repent to God, am forgiven and immediately after I am forgiven I am hit by a train and die. Remember, Christ died for my sins and I confessed them so that I get to go to heaven. But I haven’t paid my earthly dues yet! I cannot go to heaven yet because I am not perfect, not having made up for my evil. But eventually I will go there because of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf. So the church decided that there was a purifying place called purgatory where I could go and be punished for the earthly part of my sins until I was ready to go into heaven. Heaven is eternal and for kicking you in the shins I may only have to suffer for a year or two in purgatory. Great! I still get to go to heaven, right? Understand that these developments in thought actually helped people rely on God; even though you did not make up for your sin, you still get into heaven!
However, many people thought about it and asked, hey, since I don’t want to suffer for years for my sins before I get there is there any way to get out of all that extra time? The answer was yes; you could go and do other good things for the people in the world. These good deeds would help you balance the scales of the world. Sure, I may leave the world worse in relationship to you (your shin still aches). But I helped Mrs. Johnson over here a great deal so the whole world is better off for my life. This was seen as good for the world and if everyone lived that way we would be better off as a world. So when someone did some great work they would be given an indulgence meaning that they had done a good deed in the world.
There is just one more step, and it becomes dangerous. Let’s say that you don’t have the time to go and make up for the evil in the world that you do. Couldn’t you just pay someone else to do it for you? I mean if I got you a full time helper until your shin was better wouldn’t that be good? What if I just paid someone to do a good deed on my behalf? I may be too busy so I pay someone to go do good deeds in my name, surely that makes up for some of the sins right? Well I told you it started with sin, and once all these rational decisions had been made it became very easy to turn the whole system sinful. There were preachers whose job was to convince you that you were going to spend thousands of years in purgatory but you could by your donations get the good deeds of Christ and the Saints to be accredited to you. After all, Christ and the Saints had plenty of good deeds to spare so they could cover you, and wouldn’t your money help the Church? This then became selling indulgences. Wouldn’t your donation be doing good in the world? Whenever the church needed money they could auction off the good deeds of the saints.
In the Germany that Luther lived in the system had become like a prison and the people slaves, trying desperately to free themselves from an afterlife of punishment. Compared to eternity, a couple hundred years of punishment is not bad, but compared to life on this earth a couple of hundred years of punishment feels like forever. So why not pay with money here in order to free yourself from years in the afterlife.
Luther read scripture and there found, instead of a bean counting God who wanted to make sure that every sin had been balanced and every account had been called in, a God who loved people so much that he died for them. Who gave away his body and blood for free out of his love. He found this incompatible with the system that had formed around the notion of sin. And so, that morning 500 years ago, Luther put his complaints against the system up on the church door. He really wanted to talk about how what began as a good practice had wound up enslaving much of Germany. That is the history part. If you read the 95 theses after the service you will see many of Luther’s problems with the way people were enslaved. However it is not just history because sin is still around and it is still seeking to enslave us. Sin and the Devil are ingenious at making things into traps, trying to take the good and make it into our slave master.
We are Americans and like the Jews in today’s text who say, “Hey we are not slaves to anyone—we can do what we want.” Really? Have you ever been in the same room with someone who has the same cell phone ring tone as you? How quickly does your body respond to that ring tone? I find when I have a text message and it dings my whole body wants to see who messaged and why! I would hesitate to say I am a slave to my cell phone, but I am certainly not free either!
That may be a little tongue in cheek but it reminds us that we are not free—we have many things that call out and demand our time! Not only that, but as long as we live we will have some sort of obligations on our time. We will never be free in the sense of “not having anything make demands of us.” Whether it is job, spouse, child, or ideology we have these obligations and indeed life without any obligations would be rough; no one would make any commitments to us and we would make no commitments to them. Of course that is a lie too because we would make a commitment to our own wellbeing. The freedom Christ calls us to is not a freedom from all obligations. No, instead it is a freedom in Christ to live up to our obligations in life and light and love. It is not that you get to say, “God freed me, so I am just going to do what I want all the time.” Instead it is this radical call that says, because God has freed me I can now live free as a child of God. Loving and living as God would want me to. Not because I have to but because the price has been paid and I can life in Christ. That cell phone can either be my taskmaster, or it can be a great tool of ministry! It depends whether I am living in Christ, or listening to the world. In Christ I can declare, thank the Lord for the phone which lets me know when people need me, or I can declare, that blasted thing never gives me any peace and quiet. The same is true of all of our skills, money, and talents. We can either be beholden to them, and keep them or we can see them as gifts from God to be used for God!
For Luther these good deeds, indulgences, had become enslaving. He was trapped and a slave as long as he had to do them and get more and more. However God freed him to do good deeds for nothing more than the love of God. Today we are trapped by other desires, the desire to do more and be better and to win. We have this desire to be the best and not a loser—we want to succeed at life! Yet wouldn’t God say, I won for you, go live in my name knowing you are already victorious! May God bless you so that you may know you have been freed to forever live in him. Amen.