October 29, 2017
A brief note: Today we commemorated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses intended to initiate a reform of the church. We remember with gratitude his commitment to God’s grace through faith as a free gift to all people. We lament the ways his movement resulted in the fracturing of the church. We wonder together what might be next for the church.
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:
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.” – John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
But you know, sorry Jesus, I’m not actually sure I want to be free. Because being set free is kind of scary. It’s unsettling at least. Being set free means that I don’t have someone or something helping me make every decision, directing what, when, and how things get done. Being set free means being set loose on a new adventure, one without rules and guidance, maybe without structure or direction. I’m not actually convinced that Jesus’ words here are the kind of good news we’d like to make it out to be.
That may very well be the reason that the Jewish religious leaders claim in response that they have never been slaves to anyone. Surely we who read this story are meant to remember the central identity-forming story of God’s liberating the Israelites from hundreds of years of slavery and oppression in Egypt, or the history of the city in which they stand having been destroyed and the people taken into Babylon or scattered into the diaspora, or the present circumstances in which they live under Roman occupation. But if we were to acknowledge the slavery under which we live, then we might have to accept the freedom that is offered. If we were to name the truth of the ways in which we are bound up and oppressed, we would have to acknowledge our own fear of the unknown that is associated with freedom.
As we mark this week 500 years since Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, as good a date as any to mark the larger movement of the Reformation in the church, we might do well to consider what it is that still binds us as the church and what we might risk by living into the freedom that Jesus offers.
For Martin Luther it was a deep conviction that God’s love and grace was freely offered and accessible to everyone, and the concern that some things the church of his time was doing were interfering with the proclamation of that good news. Though his intention was not to create a split in the church, he soon found himself, along with many faithful colleagues, lay people, and political leaders, leading a new church outside of the long-standing institutional structures that was all he had known. The reformers’ proclamation of freedom and the gospel was transformative, a message that still resonates with us today. But it must be acknowledged that for all the positives, that freedom paved the way for other abuses by church leaders. It led to arguing, persecution by the reformers of others, and outright violent war that left thousands dead. Martin Luther himself was anti-semitic and anti-Muslim among several other things that we must confess and disavow as 21st century Lutherans.
And what ultimately emerged was another institutional church, another structure that had its own abuses of power, its own need for reformation. And we stand today in such a church. A church where in scripture, in the water, bread, and wine, in Christian community, we hear the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of life, love, and grace for you and for everyone. And a church which, despite all that is not, in fact, free.
I fear that we have too long been in denial of the ways in which we, not just Immanuel, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but many of the churches in our time, are still bound up by things that hinder the gospel. I fear we are still bound by buildings and bureaucracy. I fear we are still bound by a new kind of clericalism and clergy-centric ministry. I fear we are still bound by the subtle insider language and customs that keeps new people and new ideas out. I fear we are bound by a timidity and a reluctance to claim our power for the sake of justice and peace. I fear we are bound by the way we’ve always done it before even when we try to do otherwise.
Friends, it is a challenging time to be the church. It’s always a challenging time to be the church, but the pace of change in the last half a century is faster than anything seen since the era of the reformation. I don’t know what the church will look like in 20 years, much less in another 500. I don’t have all the answers about what we ought to be doing now. But I do know that we have to acknowledge with honesty the truth that we, the church, are not yet the kingdom of God.
It’s terrifying to acknowledge that things aren’t yet as they should be and that God might be working to set us free from some of the things that are comfortable and familiar. Oh, yes, there are wonderful things ahead. In some ways I can’t wait to see what God is doing with a new and ongoing reformation in our own time. But I don’t yet know what I will have to let go of for the church to emerge.
But that’s the way of love and grace. That it exists, without question, as a gift from God is something we take on faith and hear promised in baptism and communion. But what it does to us, what it opens us up to, is something wildly unpredictable. To live from a place of love and grace is to live beyond the place of right and wrong, beyond the place of simple answers, beyond the place of finite resources. It takes us to a place where we figure out what it means to give shelter to an undocumented immigrant being torn from his family. It takes us to a place where we make a place of welcome for people who don’t look like us or act like us, people who struggle with internal demons, people who can’t pay us back, people who don’t follow the rules. It takes us to a place where we give food away until everyone is fed. It takes us to a place where we put our privilege on the line so that one day the concept of privilege will no longer have to exist. It takes us to a place where we take bold risks because we no longer fear death and all that it brings. Because the new church that is emerging, that is always emerging, is sprouting from God’s very self who led the way through death into resurrection. The new church, whatever it will be, and the new creation that is emerging in each one of us, is God’s work and thanks be to God that we have been welcomed into that wild and crazy adventure of God’s ever reforming church where love and grace from God well up in us and welcome us into possibilities we cannot yet even imagine.
-Pastor Steven Wilco