Reformation Sunday October 29 2017 John 8:31-36
Happy Reformation Sunday! Today is a day when we hear the stories of Martin Luther and his struggle to reform the church in his day. It was an undertaking that lead to Protestantism and….well…to us. We hear again the stories of those who sought to refocus the church and return the center to Jesus and the gracious love of God made flesh and blood in Christ.
It was 500 years ago this Tuesday, October 31, 1517, when a German Augustinian monk, priest, and campus pastor named Martin Luther published a list of 95 items he felt needed addressing by the church. Over the years, Dr Luther would add many things to his personal list of worries and differences of opinion with the church, but this list focused primarily upon the corrupt sale of Indulgences as a way to raise funds for the church.
Priests who were Indulgence salesmen would go from town to town offering a way to get your loved ones or yourself out of years spent in purgatory and into heaven for a small price. Imagine sitting in the pew and hearing about anyone you love who as passed away and their time spent in purgatory, unable to make it to peaceful, eternal life with God, for a calculated number of years, waiting to be made good enough to get into heaven. But wait! If you act now, you can save them 10, 20, a hundred years of purgatory service! Release them now and free them to pass through the gate of heaven! You can do it for just a small (or not so small) fee, but what is that in comparison to the blissful life of heaven? Isn’t your loved one worth this price?
Some of these indulgence sellers even used the phrase: “when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Give us your money and buy your loved one’s, or perhaps even your own way into heaven. Maybe purchasing an indulgence might be good insurance against any of those future sins you might be interested in committing! How horrible is that? This was never the original intention for indulgences, but their abuse was spreading throughout the church along with other kinds of corruption. Martin Luther and others saw these abuses and the damage it did to the church, the faith, and the people of God. They began to push for change to the practice of selling indulgences and for several other reforms. The church pushed back, and thus was born the Reformation.
Lutherans, a derogatory and insulting title given to those who followed the teachings of Martin Luther, were not the only denomination that came into being as a result of the much needed reforms taking place in the church. Presbyterians, Moravians, Ana Baptists, and from changes taking place around the same time in England, the Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists. Every one of the various protestant denominations in existence today have roots in this period.
In the beginning, most of the Reformers did not set out to make a new church. They didn’t intend for there to be a line between Protestants and Catholics, let alone Lutherans and Baptists and all the other many dividing lines we Christians love to draw between “us” and “them”. Martin Luther didn’t want there to be a “Lutheran”. He wanted all Christians to have Jesus Christ as the center of their faith and to know that it was not anything in the world other than the grace of God that saves us. Today, we no longer need to fight against indulgence salesmen or the overwhelming majority of the other specific issues Luther railed against, but the need to always re-center and re-turn our lives to relying upon the grace of God in Jesus is a reform we will always need. The church and we are always reforming.
As we turn to our Gospel text for today, we see that Jesus is talking to a crowd of antagonistic people, most of whom are questioning what he teaches and what he is there to do. They’ve had several opportunities to hear him teach and see him in action. Back at the beginning of this same chapter was one such opportunity and it is probably a pretty familiar story. Some of the scribes and Pharisees brought to the temple a woman who had been caught committing a crime that merited the death penalty: adultery. They turn to Jesus and say, “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” They were, as they often did, testing him and hoping to catch him in some sort of way by whatever his answer was going to be.
Can you imagine what that must have been like for that woman? Drug in the temple by these Pharisees, standing there with a whole crowd gathered around, your personal life on display for all to see, hearing what the law of God said was your punishment, and then being used as an example in the questioning of this Rabbi, Jesus, as though you were nothing but an object to be gawked at. At first, he says nothing, but after their barrage of questions, Jesus finally answers by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
This was a wise move on Jesus’ part because the reality was that if any of them so much as stooped to pick up a stone, they were saying they believed themselves to be sinless. For as the reformed Pharisee, Paul, will write some years later, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of them leave, except Jesus and the woman. What he had said to the men was a good and shrewd answer; it saved the woman’s life and kept him from being tricked or trapped. But what he does next is revolutionary.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” he asks her. Where were the arms full of rocks, the prosecuting attorney, the death squad? “No one, sir.” She answers him. No one was there to condemn her. No one was without sin and able to pass a judgment of death upon her. And Jesus, the only one who was without sin, the only one who would have been able to pull back his arm as executioner, said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.” He had graciously set her free.
Now, in the text for today Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The people listening to him say, but Jesus, we’re Jews! We’re descendants of Abraham! This doesn’t make any sense to us. We don’t need setting free. “Everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.” That’s everyone. Everyone who couldn’t pick up a rock to throw at the woman. Everyone listening to Jesus regardless of whom their ancestors were. Everyone.
Jesus goes on to use an analogy of having a place in the household; having a place where you belong; a home. Slaves don’t have a place in the house where they live because it is not their home, but the Son has a place that can never be taken away. If the Son, who belongs there because it is his home, tells you it is your home now too, then you are no longer a slave in someone else’s house, but a free person in your own home. So, if the Son sets you free then you are truly free. Free in a way you could never otherwise be. Free to have a place in the household, a place in the family. Free to walk away from the ring of would be executioners.
It seems these days that we put such a high value on always being right; on winning and being on top. There are so many ways in which we try to be right. We try so hard to be perfect and never show our flaws. Sometimes we rely upon our intelligence or that of experts, our ability to think our way into the right answers, and the right way of life. We might rely upon our right living and making the “good” choices, our belief in our ability to do the right thing no matter what. Maybe it is money that we believe will make it all ok and having just a little more will fix all the problems we’ve got and make everything right for us. We want to cover up mistakes, make excuses for ourselves, blame others for our errors, or just plain deny that we might be wrong about something.
I know I have often used that dangerous word “but”. Well I shouldn’t have done this or that BUT it was only because so and so did such and such to me. Sometimes our desire to be right, which can take on the form of good or cool, acceptable or popular, lovable or needed, may lead us to judge others harshly and hold others to standards we could never really match ourselves. Or perhaps we simply hope people are looking at the other person’s flaws, the one we’re pointing and shouting at, and not noticing our flaws.
Maybe we are really smart, law abiding, ethical and moral people. Maybe we are nearly perfect (though I doubt it) and live exemplary lives. Maybe we are the coolest and most popular person in town. But at some point or another, all of these things will fail us. At some point or another, we will be standing inside a ring of people who could, rightly, condemn us. Or, perhaps we are standing alongside others in that ring, rocks in our arms and ugly words in our minds and mouths, knowing that we have no right to do what we are doing. It is then that Jesus, by the grace of God, the only one who could condemn us… doesn’t. We are set free.
If Jesus sets us free, then we are free in a way that we could never free ourselves. In a way that ignoring or hiding or covering up our flaws could never do. We are free in a way that striving to be perfect will never, ever do. We are free in a way that blaming someone else or condemning someone else could never do. It is in those moments of our lives, those moments that come along every day or, perhaps in a manner of speaking every moment, when we are like slaves to all that we wish we were and all that we cannot be no matter how right or good or smart or law abiding we are or how much money we have or have given away or who our ancestors were, that it is Jesus alone who can set us free.
That is perhaps at the very core of the Reformation: it is Jesus alone who sets us free. It is not any work or act you or I can ever do, perfection you think you can attain, it is not forgiveness granted for a price or anything else that can earn or make us free. It is our gracious and loving God alone, through his Son Jesus Christ, who can and does make us truly free. If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.