Yesterday, we commemorated the Reformation in worship at St. Paul’s. Reformation Sunday is one of the days in the church calendar that is assigned the same readings every year. So, even though I haven’t been doing this too long, I already feel like I’m running out of things to say about John 8. I tried to focus on just one part of it–what does it mean to be captive (a slave) to sin? And how does Jesus set us free from that?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever been offered something you had no idea you needed? Something, in fact, that you thought you most certainly did not need? It’s happened to me more than once, but the most memorable, and probably funniest, time for me was when I was in third grade. My teacher sent a note home to let my parents know I needed glasses.
I was devasted and more than a little bit offended. I could see just fine! How was he to know what I could and couldn’t see anyway? I maintained this stubborn conviction that I had no need of glasses at all until the moment I walked out of the optometrists wearing them for the first time. And suddenly, everything was clear. I had thought I could see fine, but only because I had no idea what I was missing. Trees had leaves! Like, leaves that you could see individually!
A week before, I was positive that I had no trouble seeing at all. And I would argue endlessly with anyone who would suggest otherwise. It was only after the fact that I realized, I did, in fact, need help.
When people point out help that we don’t think we need, it’s a natural reaction to become defensive, offended, or upset. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
“What do you mean?” they ask, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. Why are you telling us ‘You will be made free?’” We shouldn’t miss the irony here, that these people are descendants of Abraham, and therefore their ancestors have been enslaved by the Egyptians, by the Babylonians, and now they are living under Roman occupation.
But in offering them freedom, Jesus has implied that freedom is something they don’t already have. That they are the opposite of free right now. No wonder they were upset. Imagine if Jesus walked into our sanctuary this morning and said to us, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” We are Americans, Jesus. We are free, who are you to tell us that we’re not?
But we, and they, have missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about political freedom, as he explains. He’s talking about freedom from sin. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, he says. I’m honestly not sure if that is more or less offensive than what they originally assumed he meant.
Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin—pair that with our reading from Romans, where Paul writes: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are left to assume that all of us are slaves to sin. In fact, in a prayer of confession that we often use, we say the words: we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We say the very thing that Jesus says, and that Paul reiterates: we are slaves to sin.
But what does it mean to be captive to sin? To think about that question, I want to look at what happens just before Jesus says this in the Gospel of John. When we read these lessons in church, we always have just a short snippet of a much larger narrative. And we have to, or else we’d be here for hours each week. But sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s going on around the piece that we read. Because Jesus didn’t just start talking about freedom from sin out of the blue.
Jesus had been teaching his disciples, and the other Jews who believed in him, when the scribes and Pharisees who didn’t believe in him brought a woman before him. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law says we are to stone such women. What do you say?”
It’s admitted that this is a test. They want to catch Jesus making a mistake, so that they might bring a charge against him. Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt. We’re never told what he writes. But he straightens up and says: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, they leave, until it is just the woman and Jesus. “Where are they?” Jesus asks her, “has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies.
Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. Being captive to sin means that we’re stuck in this vicious circle where we know there’s something wrong, but we can’t do anything about it. Sin becomes a power over us, and we are unable to do the right or just thing. Instead, we try to justify ourselves.
Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can feel the weight of our sin—of our inadequacies or our vulnerability—and we try to cover it up by pointing the finger at others, by blaming, by making excuses, by working harder, by never taking a day off. We try to cover it up by putting our trust in our ability to at least not be as awful as everyone else.
That way doesn’t lead to freedom, Jesus says, but there is a way that does. When we are able to accept that we are, in fact, in need of help, the way forward is there. Stop trying to free yourself from what binds you—for it is God who will make you free. It is God who calls us daughters and sons and gives us a place in the household. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. We are set free from sin—from needing to prove ourselves, from seeking glory, from hurting one another—not by anything we have done, but because of God’s righteousness. And that freedom is found in relationship. Relationship with Jesus, relationship with God. A place in God’s household forever, not as slaves, but as children.
Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. We still mark that event today in our church, not to celebrate the history or to remind ourselves what happened. We still commemorate the Reformation because we still need to hear its truths today. Luther and the Reformers sought to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done.
We are justified by God’s grace as gift, Paul wrote in the first century. We still need to hear that unbelievable promise today: God’s love is not something we can earn, because we already have it. “The truth will set you free,” says Jesus. Free from the need to prove ourselves. Free from the need to earn our place in the household. Free from the guilt and shame that we feel when we don’t measure up. Free to experience God’s love—with no strings attached—and to let that love permeate every part of lives. Free from living the cycles of sin and free to live God’s way of righteousness.
If you continue in my word, you will be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. May the truth of God’s unconditional, unearned love and grace set us free this day, and every day. Amen.