Sunday, October 26, 2008
Sermon - Reformation Day - John 8:31-36
Reformation Day (observed)
“Truth that Frees”
There's a real temptation for us Lutherans as we observe Reformation day. It's a temptation to wave our Lutheran banners, thump our historical confessions, and puff ourselves up with the pride of our pure doctrine. We sing our Lutheran hymns with gusto, and sort of Lutheran patriotism exudes from our celebration. But where is our focus?
We too often make today about Martin Luther – a great man and hero of the faith, who famously faced down the most powerful man in the world in his great “here I stand” speech. Who translated the bible into the language of the people, who left the safety of the Wartburg castle because the people needed him, who debated the Roman Catholic false teaching persuasively, and whose work laid the groundwork for the church bearing his name. But where is our focus today?
It shouldn't be, and it's not about Martin Luther. It's about Jesus. It's always about Jesus. It shouldn't be, and it's not about Lutheran pride (as Paul says, boasting is excluded). But instead we mark and celebrate the rediscovery of the truth – the truth of the Gospel – the truth that sets us free – the Truth of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, like you and me. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone – not by our good works. This is the truth of the Gospel we Lutherans make such a big deal about on this Reformation day.
Of course, our heritage and history are important. We can rightly look to the reformers and our fathers in the faith and thank God for the work they have done. How Christendom might be different today had God not led these men to a clear and true confession of the faith. How many would have missed out on the assurance that a reformation understanding of the faith brings?
Jesus says in John 8 that the truth of his teaching is what frees us from the slavery of sin. A fitting reading for Reformation day. Not because today is a sort of “Lutheran independence day” in which we shoot off our liturgical fireworks. Not because we celebrate freedom from the pope and the Roman Catholic church. But instead, because we take note again, of the importance of truth and the freedom from sin the Gospel truly brings.
Some taught then, and still teach that freedom comes from your own efforts and your own work. That in order to be free from sin, one must fully commit, or earnestly endeavor to do what is right at all times in all places. Try your hardest, follow the law closest, and maybe, just maybe, you can get there. But this is slavery to the law. Human works will never free us from sin. Only the divine work of Jesus Christ can do the job. This is grace – not that we save ourselves, and not that we even help, but that he, Jesus, does it all for us at the cross. There is where true freedom is won. It was earned by him, for us. We can only receive it as a gift.
Likewise, the truth is under attack, now as then. Satan has always attacked the truth, from his first lie, “you will not die” to so many others throughout the ages. The Father of lies is a prolific author. He is crafty and slick, telling us what we want to hear. Stroking the ego of our sinful nature, playing to our pleasures and playing on our fears. “Did God really say...”? He assails the truth with doubt, challenges it with false claims, and demands evidence for all things unseen. Luther's hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” says the “Old evil foe” who seeks to “work us woe” employs “Deep guile and great might”. Deep guile – that is, an “insidious cunning in attaining a goal; crafty or artful deception; duplicity”.
Today, one of Satan's greatest attacks on the truth is a full, frontal assault. It's not enough to challenge whether what Christ says is true. Now he says there is no such thing as truth. At least there's no objective truth. What's true for you may not be true for me, or someone else. And no one religion has the truth, but all have part of it, or even when they disagree, they somehow are saying the same thing. Confused yet? Me too. But that's kinda the point.
To all this, Jesus word says again, “Hold to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. In an age when truth itself is in doubt, Jesus makes a very specific and bold claim of truth. It's as if he says,
“What I teach is true. Anything else, anything that says otherwise is false. You disciples of mine, remember what I say. Hold to, cling to my words. Always keep my teachings, my doctrine, before you. Only then will you be free from sin, death, and the devil's lies. But if you forsake my teaching, you are slaves again to sin. If you believe something else, you are falling for the falsehoods. I am the only way. Good works will not set you free. Praying hard, clean living, even coming to church every week won't set you free. The truth will set you free. My words are the only truth.”
And what are those words? Well there are too many for one sermon, but that's why we come here again and again. The main point, however, is what the Reformation re-discovered. That Jesus died for you, to pay for all your sins. That Salvation is a free gift. That you, the believer, live by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
And you do not just live, but you are a member of the family. The Son of God, the only Son of the father from eternity, has taken the form of a servant, and freed you from slavery to sin, making you a child of God yourself. You're part of the family, as Jesus says, “forever”. That's a truth we can believe in. That's a hope that does not disappoint.
So the proper way to celebrate Reformation day, fellow Lutherans, is not simply to talk up the German monk who nailed the document to the door. It's not to simply sing our Lutheran anthems with gusto. It's not just to point with pride to our historical heritage. The proper way to celebrate is to rejoice in the truth, and the freedom of Christ. To dwell on and in his word. To receive him as he comes to us, in his Supper, also according to his word. To give thanks for our baptism, where he washed us clean, made us his people, his children, according to his word. And to therefore live in the truth and freedom that only comes through the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
For his truth has set us free, and he is the way, the truth, and the life.