Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”John 8:31-32
“If you continue in my word,” Jesus tells us today, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I don’t think that I could have guessed, early in my ministry, that truth and freedom would become such controversial topics in our world today. A lot of the arguments taking place in our world these days, when you stop and think about it, center around these two fundamental themes of life. Truth and freedom are obviously important to us all, but they are also important to our lives of faith, and they are prominent themes in scripture. So, I hope today that we can find some safe and common ground, as we consider the freeing truth of the Gospel. It is the only truth, after all, that can truly set us free.
So today, as we celebrate Reformation Sunday together, let’s revisit this basic aspect of our Christian life, and remind ourselves of what Jesus means when he tells us that the truth of the gospel is what will set us free.
Truth’s Bad News
When we think about the truth of the gospel, we actually have to start with the bad news, before we can get to the good news. And the bad news is pretty obvious – that we have to be set free. If Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free, then we must not be free, right? That is exactly what the crowd thought when they first heard these words. And they didn’t like it. They didn’t like being told that they were not free. They said to Jesus, we have never been slaves to anyone; so how can you say, “You will become free?”
Well, how can Jesus say that? It’s because he knew something that they didn’t know, or didn’t want to acknowledge. As Jesus puts it, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). This is the bad news that we must believe and accept before we can receive the good news. The bad news that the truth of the gospel begins with us accepting the fact that we are all captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.
As Paul reminds us in our second reading, “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We all have sinned, and so we all are captive to sin. None of us can free ourselves. No matter how hard we try, we cannot help but fall short of the glory of God, over and over, every day. We are all the same in that way. We disappoint ourselves. We disappoint each other. We disappoint God. We are all ruled by sin. Whether it is greed, or pride, or fear, or apathy, or hatred, or envy. You get the idea. Fill in the blank for yourself. Whatever it is that you are captive to, it is sin. We are ruled by it. This is simply the truth. And until we know and accept this truth, we will never truly be free.
This is true for us as individuals, but it is also true for the world in which we live. It is true for our community, our nation, and our world. It is ruled by sin at every level. One look at your preferred news source, whichever it is, should remind you of this – that our world is captive to sin. Our news sources may not agree on much, but they all show us this truth, that sin is a powerful force in our world. Too powerful for any individual or government to combat. We can argue about many things, but we should not need to argue about the simple fact that the world is ruled by sin.
Our world, to put it a little differently, needs saving. It needs a savior. Maybe that is one reason why superhero movies are still so popular. Because we all know that our world needs saving. We all know, at some level, that our world desperately needs to be rescued from sin’s mighty grip on us.
Truth’s Good News
But this brings us to the good news – that our world has, in fact, been given such a savior. Not a superhero, per se, but something even better: the Son of God himself. He is not a fantasy, but very real. Jesus is the one who was sent to rescue us from this mess. He has come to set us free. And if the son of God sets us free, we will be free indeed. Jesus died for this reason – to set us free from our sin. He died to reconcile us to God, to make us right with God, to justify us by grace as a gift, to use Paul’s famous words from today’s second reading.
This is also the truth, the gospel truth, the freeing truth. It is freeing because it frees us from having to get it all right. When we think that we have to get it all right, it becomes overwhelming. When we think that we have to save this world, it becomes a burden too great to bear. Trying to get this world, or even our life, right is an impossible task for any of us.
But the good news that we celebrate today is that Jesus makes it right for us. He makes it all right. We don’t have to get it all right, because Jesus does this for us. And once we are freed from the need to get it right? Well, then we can live confidently and graciously, filled with love and joy and peace and hope, and in a way that offers freedom to the world around us, too.
Martin Luther was set free by the truth of the gospel a little over 500 years ago, and that is what we celebrate today – the freeing truth of the gospel. That is something that we can all agree on. That Jesus sets us free, and when Jesus sets us free, we will be free indeed.
Living in this Truth (By Continuing in His Word)
But we can’t end there. Freedom is not the end of our journey, but the beginning. Jesus sets us free for a reason – so that we can live freely as his followers. Just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt in order to live as God’s chosen people, we are freed from slavery to sin in order to live as God’s freed and chosen people. We have been freed for this reason. We have been called into the freedom of the gospel to live out the call of Jesus.
How do we do that? That is the question of a lifetime! But Jesus tells us one way to do this in this gospel reading – by continuing in his word. He tells us that if we continue in his word, we are truly his disciples, and we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Continue in his word.
We know what to do with our freedom. Think about what a gift this is. Amidst all the competing claims to truth, and all the competing views of freedom in our world, what a blessing it is for us to have a word from God that we can believe in, and that we can use to set our course in life. The word of God that is the truth, and the word of God that offers us freedom. And when we continue in this word, we are truly Jesus’ disciples, as he tells us today. And we will always know the truth. And this truth will set us free.
Okay. But how do we do this? How do we continue in his word? Well, the obvious way to continue in his word is to read his word.
Martin Luther’s Legacy – God’s Word In Our Language
It’s worth remembering today, on Reformation Sunday, that one of Martin Luther’s most important achievements was to translate the entire Bible into the language of the people. Luther’s courage changed the world and brought the church back to the freeing truth of the gospel. But he knew that it would not last if he didn’t help people continue in the word, as Jesus teaches us today. And the best way to continue in his word is to read his word. But there was a problem. The Bible was only available, at that time, in the original Hebrew and Greek languages, and in a Latin translation. Priests and scholars could read and study God’s word, but no one else could. So, Luther decided to translate the Bible into the language of the people. While confined to the Wartburg Castle, where he was being kept to protect him from being killed, Luther began the task of translating the Bible. A task he completed, and that remains one of his most important achievements.
To this day, we are recipients of this incredible gift: the Bible, translated into a language which we can read and understand. I think that it is one of the greatest of all of Martin Luther’s legacies, and one of the richest of our blessings: That we can read God’s Word, and by doing so we can continue in this word.
But it’s all for naught if we don’t read it! If we don’t study God’s word, and pray with it, and strive to live by it. How can we continue in God’s word if we don’t open the book that contains God’s word? To be disciples of Jesus, we are called to continue in his word. When we do, we stay grounded in the truth, the truth of the gospel that sets us free, the truth that keeps us connected to our savior as a branch to the vine, the truth that feeds our souls and that gives us rest. The truth that we celebrate today, on Reformation Sunday: that if the Son of God sets us free, we will be free indeed.
God’s word teaches us this freeing truth. The truth that is bad news before it is good news. The truth that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. The truth that we need a savior. And the truth that we have a savior in Jesus, who has come to set us free.
Yes, we are here because we know the truth of the gospel, and this truth has set us free. Free to do all of those things that our confirmands will be doing today when they affirm their baptisms and promise to continue living in the covenant that God made with them. We are all now free to do the things they will be promising: Free to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
We are free to do these things because Jesus has freed us. This is the freeing truth of the gospel. May we never use this freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, as Paul cautions us, but instead, always live out this freedom by continuing in the word of God, and by loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self. To the glory of God. Amen.