Truth, Freedom, and Reformation

Text: John 8:31-36

One of the things that I have really enjoyed about the Bible and history seminars that I have been doing over the past few years, is those who come really appreciate the work that I’ve been doing to give the historical background as to how the Bible came together. It’s interesting to learn how stuff fits in history. The same has been true for our latest foray into Revelation. This is more than just a “when was it written” kind of approach, but understanding the events that were going on when a particular book or section of the Bible, and how they addressed those events… If anything the Bible makes far more sense when we really get a feel for what both the people of Israel experienced through the Hebrew Bible, as well as the genuine struggles that the early church faced… Revelation is part of that story and that struggle.

Even so, it would be a mistake for us to think that those experiences and struggles ended in the early 2nd century. After all, it may surprise you to learn that the Creeds that we say around Baptism and Communion you won’t find anywhere in the Bible. Why? Because they came later… when the church faced both threats of persecution from the authorities, as well as a kind of infection from within that undermined and distorted the core message of God’s grace.

But even when it survived all that, the church itself would suffer under the weight of its own bureaucracy… so much so that by the 15th Century, it and the people had largely forgotten the message of grace. The church in Western Europe was more about political power. It bore divine, and therefore absolute authority, being able to dictate policy to rulers. There were those who questioned the church’s political role, but they were often ruthlessly suppressed. Yet change was coming, and on October 31st, 1517, a young Monk hammered a handwritten list to the door of a church in Wittenberg, in what is now eastern Germany. Not particularly inflammatory, because nailing notices to a church door was quite common… but the content of that note. 95 arguments with the Status Quo with the church in Rome… Martin Luther would enjoy the support and protection of local officials, who themselves wanted to reign in the church’s unfettered power… Finally here was someone either brave enough or stupid enough to tell the truth about the church’s abuse of power, and it gave them a sense of real freedom… Luther’s ideas spread, and with that the Protestant Reformation was underway.

Of course the history and development of the Reformation is much more complicated than that, but it does echo that line from the Gospel of John: “and you know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Jesus was speaking a real cautionary note… The disciples seem to be confused with what Jesus was saying. After all, as far as they knew, even though they were poor fishermen, they were slaves to no one. God had set them free under the leadership of Moses over a thousand years before. Those that also heard Jesus were puzzled. They didn’t regard themselves as slaves in any way… pointing out that they were descendants of Abraham and slaves to no one. But very quickly Jesus reminds them that all of us are capable of falling into Sin’s trap…

I’ve often said this before: the moment that we somehow believe that we are incapable of sin ourselves, is the very moment that we become capable of the greatest evil.

We saw this loudly in three hate-fueled events in the United States, most tragically the anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburg yesterday. It breaks my heart, and yet we have to take ownership that we can also fall into this if we are note careful.

In the time leading up to the Reformation, the very legacy of the disciples had fallen into this trap… and it was only when someone stood up and began to ask questions that the church began to free itself from the very sin it had become enmeshed in. The truth set the church free to be the church of Christ again.

So why are you telling us this?

This is not the first time that I have preached on “Reformation Sunday.” That’s not a bad thing, but at the same time marking the anniversary of the Reformation is worth doing. I think it’s helpful to occasionally re-connect with our roots… it’s an important part of our history, and a very important reminder to us that the church is not perfect… far from it. Yet somehow we think that once the Reformation had passed, all the necessary work was done. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten that the call of the Reformation was that the church is always in need of reformation. In order for the church to be constantly renewed for the mission of Christ’s Reconciling work in the world, we must constantly be reforming the way we do things as a guard against being too comfortable with our role. I’ll be honest, we haven’t done all that well… but that’s not exactly news to us is it? We need the reminder that the church is in constant need of reform. We are very much a work in progress… and we should never get to a point where we are resting on our laurels. If we do, we stop moving, we stop being the church that God calls us to be.

I get very leery of anyone who claims to have it all figured out. Jesus speaks of the truth, but this concept of truth is not a list of provable facts… I think that’s something that we get hung up on. The Truth that Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel is something that we are constantly moving towards as we grow in our faith. The truth that Jesus reveals is the ultimate reality of God… and that in a healthy relationship with God we are free to be who God calls us to be. This is what Jesus is saying about the truth setting us free. As Martin Luther, and later John Calvin, John Knox and many others would proclaim that the business of the church is to trust in God, and not to become mired in the politics and economics of trying to control people. This was true in John’s Community, this was true for Martin Luther, and it’s true for us. Believe in what is possible… and don’t be afraid that God might be doing something new.