31 Then Jesus 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 slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
Now, in theory, as a Lutheran pastor, I should be incredibly excited about today, and to be sure, I cannot help but feel that way. For us Lutheran types, today is sort of a company appreciation day, where we revel in our identity as Lutheran Christians. We have donned the red pariments at the altar, we have joined in the wonderful defiance of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and we have here read some of the texts that formed the foundation for the Protestant Reformation as a theological movement. But, I must begin with something of a confession; I am actually more excited about this coming Wednesday, November the 3rd. Why you ask? Well, because this coming Wednesday marks the ends of political ad season, and I might just be looking forward to that day more than the voting day that precedes it. And while one could rightly harp on these political ads for their cynicism and grotesque meanness, that is not what bothers me the most about them. Instead, what is so troubling, it seems, is the way that they capture this notion of freedom. These ads, you see, regardless of the candidate and party that they advertise, share this one, basic principle: they want us to believe that we are better off without the other guy or without the other woman. Genuine freedom means purging ourselves of those with whom we disagree. Indeed, freedom, that most central American virtue, is often defined, in these ads, as a freedom from, freedom from the tyranny of other’s opinions, freedom from the needs of others. These ads would have us believe that our freedom is entirely dependent on the election of the right person and the passing of the right legislation. Freedom becomes the way we beat up on those with whom we disagree, and ensure that nothing will stand in our way of determining our own futures, especially not those who disagree with our politics. Yes, indeed, dear people, I am looking forward to this coming Wednesday.
And the most central issue is how this word “freedom” is defined. For Christians, freedom can never be used in the same way as these political ads. No, the freedom that Christ gives us, the freedom that alone is able to place us on secure ground, that freedom is of entirely different sort, and it is this difference that accounts for the disagreement that Jesus has with the religious establishment in today’s Gospel text. Typical of John’s telling of the Jesus story, Jesus and the leaders of the Temple seem to be having a conversation in which they forgot to first define their terms, and studying the Temple Keepers’ response is indeed an exercise in looking at how human estrangement from God manifests itself. These religious leaders immediately bristle at the suggestion that they need something more than they already have by virtue of their political and religious status in the community. Jesus seems to answer a question that the religious leaders do not realize that they need to ask. They are not aware of their bondage to sin, assuming that their national identity ensured God’s favor, and so there is no need for another sort of freedom. Really, their question: “what do you mean by saying ‘you will be made free?’” is a question regarding their current situation. What do you mean, Jesus, that we need to be made free? To whom or to what, are we currently addicted or enslaved? Now, there is an obvious blindness in the religious leaders’ answer: the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon and under Roman occupation as they are having this discussion. This is a pretty selective reading of Israel’s history and current socio-political status, but even that is peripheral to the decisive point. The Pharisees, addicted to their own status, privilege and self-serving notions of freedom, are so deeply estranged from God that they can no longer recognize their estrangement as such. They are so completely and totally immersed in their own narratives of power and prestige that they are blinded to their need for God’s mercy, for Christ’s freedom. They do not even know how to ask the right question.
I dare say that we should not treat the Temple leaders with smugness or conceit, as though we would do any better. Indeed, their blindness and estrangement is, terrifyingly enough, ours, as well. So engrossed can we become in the stories that swirl around us, stories that suggest that our ultimate freedom is a result of our politics, or our race and culture, our wealth or our zip codes, or whatever else, so enchanting are these stories that we need God’s word not just to free us, but to first show us our own addictions to the ways we try and build a life apart from the living God. We need this Jesus to break apart our myths of self-sufficiency and reckon us as righteous in a way that we cannot, no matter our sophistication or correct opinions, do for ourselves. We need a freedom that does not separate us from the world that God sung into being, and a freedom that cannot be used to distance ourselves from those whose opinions we find offensive. We need a freedom that will name us as daughters and sons of the Most High and will do the same for the ones we would name as enemies.
Dearly beloved, we can be thankful that Jesus refuses the Temple Leaders’ suggestion that they are not in need of the freedom that He alone can bring. For it is not enough for this Jesus to merely describe the divine freedom that He embodies. Rather, He has come to enact this freedom in our lives, and to write the eternity of his love on our hearts. He has come in our midst, and through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, he comes here to create the faith that results in genuine freedom. The sort of freedom in which we can break with the trauma and brokenness of the past, knowing that Christ’s death and resurrection have returned us to the God for whom we were created all along, the sort of freedom in which we recognize that God, in Christ, is full of compassion and care, and has taken the consequences of our rebellion and estrangement into God’s own life, and rewards us not with what we deserve for the ways we say “no” to God, but rather has given us a home in the vast and open spaces between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need the sort of freedom that claimed Martin Luther in the 16th Century and instigated a cultural and religious revolution based on this one simple fact: the grace of God, effective through faith, cannot be contained or controlled by any human entity, be it religious, social or economic.
And this is the freedom of Christ who daily greets us with the good news of his truth and beauty. Having endured humanity’s estrangement from God and its consequences, this Christ will never leave you, never forsake you. Ah yes, in a word, you shall never be free of Him. He and the freedom he brings, a freedom we will soon take into our bodies, will abide with you from this point until you lay down in your graves, and this Christ will shepherd you into eternity where you will meet the light and glory of your beloved Father. And so we are indeed claimed by Christ and his freedom, but this freedom is not so that we may escape one another, this is not freedom as evasion. Rather, in the words of that old German monk whose faith we today celebrate: “ from faith thus flows forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.” May it be ever so among us. In Jesus’ name, amen.