Gospel: John 8:31-36 31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re having confirmation here today, but the message today brings in something I hope these young people have not had to encounter too much yet. I have no doubt it touches all of us eventually. Shortly after I arrived as the pastor here at Concordia, there was a “Ladies’ Night Out” event at a local restaurant. I was offered some wine, and first refused, but then changed my mind. Later, one of the other participants revealed to me how glad she was that I had changed my mind and decided to have that glass of wine.
Why do you think that might be? What is behind the anxiety that watches to see whether the pastor will drink a glass of wine?
A colleague of mine was searching through his congregational history in preparation for preaching this Reformation Sunday and shared with us his cringes at rules such as, “no card playing,” “no dancing,” and “no drinking,” denoted in that history. It is not all that uncommon to find such things in our histories, particularly if we have some of the Norwegian Free in our background. The “Free” of that title was however actually not free to dance, drink, or use playing cards!
One of the first classes I had in Seminary included a classmate who’d grown up in a part of Minnesota heavily influenced by that kind of Lutheran “freedom.” He stated that as a pastor he would never drink alcohol anywhere that it was possible one of his parishioners might witness him doing so. I asked him if he believed it was wrong to drink alcohol. He said no, but he was afraid that seeing their pastor drink it might send the wrong message to weak-minded people.
That man is not a pastor today, but every once in a while, his words come back to me. There’s precedent in Paul’s writings in the New Testament, about refraining from doing things that might lead others to believe you to be unfaithful, even though you know there’s nothing unfaithful in those actions, but there’s more to it.
Today’s reading has Jesus speaking about being slaves to sin—he says that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. He says this in response to the question about freeing people who believe themselves not to be slaves in the first place. Their question seems to me to be, “Where’s the good news in promising to free people who don’t really need to be freed?”
So let’s talk about the law. It’s the law that keeps people locked up, isn’t it? In Lutheran circles, there is much fuss and debate over the uses of the law. The first use is defined as keeping order in community. The second use is to show us how badly we’ve behaved, in order to convince us of our need for God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The fights start over whether there’s a third use for the law once you’ve already learned to trust in God’s grace. Is the law then to determine how to please God, or does it merely revert to keeping order in community? Is there such a thing as church law that’s separate from civil law?
Today we observe Reformation Sunday, close to the anniversary of the date Martin Luther announced a scholarly debate over whether the church should use people’s fear over the consequences of their sin for fundraising. To say that another way, Luther was asking whether we should raise money for the church by threatening people with fiery punishment after death.
Where’s the good news? Well, of course the good news is in the promise of forgiveness—but at what cost?
Will the cost of that forgiveness mean that we cannot buy needed insulin this week? Does it mean that there will be no electricity or running water in this home for another month? Does it mean that someone will have nothing to add to the school lunch account? Does it mean ketchup packets mixed with water to create some semblance of soup for a meal or two?
That’s what Luther wanted to debate all those years ago, though his issues took forms slightly different than those that afflict the people of this community today. Where’s the good news of God’s love, and how does it reach the people who live their lives in today’s world?
My classmate all those years ago knew that there were people who believed all alcohol to be sinful, and as such, he could not drink it in their presence. My first call was ten miles from his hometown… So, when that member expressed gladness over my glass of wine, I wondered what that actually meant.
Recently, the issue has been raised in this community that it’s almost impossible to find a celebratory gathering at which alcohol is not served.
I grew up within a German family. Some of my relatives were so stoic they would not allow themselves to smile until they’d had a beer or [a] few. It’s almost as if the drink gave them the community’s permission to laugh, or dance, or play.
We Lutherans have a history of forbidding things that in themselves contain no fault, though we’d labeled them as if they did. Of course, some go so far in the opposite direction as to claim that nothing we do matters, because God is grace, and will forgive.
The thing is, though my sin may not matter to me, though God may forgive me for whatever I do, my sin matters very much to the person I may harm in doing it.
Abuse has a victim. Theft has a victim. Adultery has a victim. Dishonor has a victim. Libel has a victim. Coveting creates envy, and murder has consequences that extend far beyond the primary victim.
Neglecting the worshiping community robs all those gathered of your presence. Misusing God’s name robs people of the blessings of God’s name. Idolizing that which is not God detracts from what is God, detracts from the expressions of God’s care for you… for everyone…
So, where’s the good news?
The good news is that God loves you, that God’s Son Jesus sets you free from all the worry that you may be missing the boat, not doing enough, or doing too much of what is not helpful.
You are free, so you CAN worship, you CAN share God’s love, you CAN give thanks in community and in solitude, you CAN smile and play and enjoy the life God has given you, with or without unnecessary extras.
Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you you’re not good enough, that you need something more to be acceptable. God loves you as you are. God chooses you. You are free. You are loved. Be glad, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name. Amen.