“We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves to anyone.” I’ll cut him some slack on the “We are descendants of Abraham” line. 100% true. But really: “Have never been slaves to anyone…” I think he either forgot, or is repressing Israel’s bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, from which Moses led them to freedom and the promised land. And then there was the Babylonian exile. More: even as these religious leaders speak with Jesus, they are subjects of the Roman government – far from free citizens in a free land.
But that’s the thing with being held captive. We don’t want to admit it. Denial is a powerful impediment to all sorts of health that awaits us – whether we’re denying our addictions, our lack of control, or – more to the point of this day and these texts – our sin. Many of us would line right up and say, along with our brother in John’s Gospel: “What are you talking about, Jesus? We are not slaves.” The slavery to the bottle, to the job, to the reputation, to the next best thing that might happen to us, notwithstanding.
We are independent thinkers in a free society and it is difficult for us to come to terms with the fact that there might be anything that we can’t manage on our own. So why even bother with God at all, except to have God available in case of an occasional emergency or a tight squeeze that may feel like a temporary jail cell, but nothing we can’t handle with a little good old American ingenuity and bit of fervent prayer.
And then like a ten-ton truck, we run up against St. Paul in Romans. Those complicated yet familiar words that Lutherans read every Reformation Sunday – our annual heavy dose of theological reality therapy. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
For those who are willing to hear those words, there is a lock and a key in their short cadence that even our deepest denial will not cut through. We might deny that we are slaves to our jobs. We might deny that we are enslaved by our competitive spirits to keep up with those around us, socially and economically. We might deny that though living in the free of nations, we are held hostage by a dysfunctional and paralyzed government. But if we take the Bible seriously, we cannot deny that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Since, as St. Paul reminds us, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
So there you have it. Maddening, isn’t it? We’re so good at so many things. We are people of great ingenuity and promise. And yet – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
There’s more to the story, of course. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And with that powerful proclamation comes the second maddening truth about the Gospel: we are now justified by his grace as a gift. A gift? That can’t be right. We’re used to working our way out of a bind. We want to DO something. But God will not have it. We are now justified by his grace as a gift. Arghh… Not our usual way of operating. You might even say that we are slaves to our own ambitions.
So the message for today, just the same as it was for the day that Jesus spoke to the Jewish leaders that John records for us in chapter 8, is this: The Gospel. First it will make you mad. And then it will make you free.
The rich, complete freedom that Jesus offers us – no questions asked – is ours to have, but first we have to get over ourselves enough to know these two things… We really do need Jesus. There’s nothing we can do to lure him onto our team. He’s been there all along. He is with us still. And always will be. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We really need him. There’s nothing we can do. Maddening, isn’t it?
First it will make you mad. And then it will make you free. There will still be the next door neighbor with the bigger car or nicer landscaping that you might feel enslaved to keep up with. There will be the job that seems relentless, or the unemployment that seems like it may never come to an end. There will still be the finite prisons of cancer or diabetes, the marriage that didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped, the parents who are quite what you need them to be. These will not magically go away just because we gathered together for our annual celebration of Lutheran renewal – Word alone, grace alone, faith alone.
But here’s the freedom that will make all the difference. The freedom is that God is in it with us. For us. There is no place we might go that Christ has not already been. It will sometimes be tempting to hang back, to succumb to our weariness, or our sadness. To buckle under the weight of our own cynicism, our own ambitions, our own lack of motivation, or, or, or… You can fill in the blank. The one thing certain is this: There is no place we might go that Christ will not be. Even in the deep rut of everyday doldrums, even when that rut turns out to be a grave, a dead end, even there Christ has gone for us. And is for us, with us. We have a permanent place in the household of God, for the Son has set us free, and we are free indeed.
There is nothing we can do to earn that kind of love and partnership with Jesus. It is a free gift. And that can be maddeningly frustrating to can-do over-achievers like us. But it is a gift. And it is ours. And Christ is right here once again for us today in Word and Meal. In fellowship and prayer. In song and promise.
First it will make you mad. And then, it will make you free. And since the Sons sets you free, you will be free indeed.
In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.