We are slaves to deeper powers that shape our actions and behaviors, our sins, and only the Son of the Triune God can free us to be the children of God we’re meant to be.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Sunday of the Reformation
texts: John 8:31-36; Jeremiah 31:31-34
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“We’ve never been slaves to anyone.”
That’s a bold statement. The obvious problem is that these people’s central faith identity is they belong to the God who brought them out of slavery into freedom.
Maybe they just forgot. But that’s odd. It would be like Christians saying, “Jesus was never defeated by anyone.”
These believers have a problem deeper than momentary historical amnesia. Jesus isn’t interested in a history lesson. Jesus needs them to face a problem that is killing them.
John calls them “the Jews who had believed in Jesus.” Most of Jesus’ followers were Jewish, so that’s strangely non-specific. But he says these are believers, people who had found God in Jesus. Jesus has some investment in these folks already. He loves them.
And they’re enslaved, trapped. But they can’t see it. So they don’t need or want the life the Son of God is offering them.
That’s a problem. It’s also ours.
Like these believers, we misunderstand Jesus.
When Jesus says he can free them, they get confused and think he means from real, physical slavery. When Jesus says “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” we get confused and think he’s talking about individual things we do. When we confess our sins here, what crosses your mind during the silence? Is it things you’ve done or said, problems you’ve caused, individual sins? For many it is. It’s rarer for people to confess they are trapped, enslaved to the power of sin, and cannot be free. Yes, one of our confession prayers says just that. But when it comes to what we confess, we don’t often get there.
So we obsess with sins. We have long debates about what is sinful, we look for loopholes in God’s law, as we heard a couple weeks ago, to help us justify things we do, and when we do take time to confess, we try to name the list of things we can remember we did wrong.
It’s healthy to be able to name individual sins. We need that honesty to find healing from God. Consider, though: if critters are getting into your house you can try and eliminate all of them whenever they come. It would be better to discover the root cause of how they’re coming in, and deal with that.
That’s what happens when we ask ourselves about the power of sin that enslaves us. If we don’t address that, we’re just bailing water out of a leaky boat, and at some point we’re going down.
When we’re confused about what enslaves us, thinking of places we get stuck can help.
If you aren’t sure you’re enslaved to sin, ask this: how often do I get into the same kind of trouble, or cause the same difficulty, or do the same thing I always regret? When do I act in the same sinful ways, even though I’ve tried to stop?
And ask this: what is my deepest anxiety or fear, and how often do I make bad decisions because of it? What is the repeated habit, attitude, point of view, that leads to repeated mistakes?
We act as if every decision is a freely made, unattached moment, but virtually everything sinful we do is part of a long chain of behaviors and attitudes in our lives, sometimes stretching back years. Individuals get trapped in these patterns. So do families and groups. If we ever tried to stop doing something we knew was wrong, only to find ourselves doing it again and again, we begin to understand the power of sin to enslave us. The sins are symptoms of the disease.
So how do we know what owns us? And how can Christ Jesus help?
Well, other believers have done some work in naming our masters.
In the early centuries of the Church, teachers identified common places where we are trapped. These ancient teachers named what eventually became called a list of deadly sins. But it’s not about individual sins, it’s about those deeper masters that enslave us. That’s why they’re deadly. On that list, every believer can find what controls them, and it’s important we do.
For some of us it is our pride that owns us. For others it’s our greed. For some it’s our anger. For some it’s our lust and desire. For some it’s our envy. For others it’s our gluttony, insatiable need. For some it’s our laziness. There were teachers who added two more to the list. They said some of us have fear as our master, and some of us are owned by shame.
Pray about this. Consider your life and actions, the places you always get stuck. You’ll likely find your owner here. Knowing that truth is the only way we stop saying, “we’ve never been slaves to anyone.” This truth can free us, as Jesus said, and show us why we need the Son of God.
This is when we admit we can’t deal with this and let Jesus truly free us.
God promises a new covenant in Jeremiah today because the old covenants, especially Sinai, with the Ten Commandments, didn’t help God’s people cut to the root of their problem. It was a list of laws and rules, so people looked for loopholes. Or ignored them. Or pretended they didn’t understand. God needed to make a covenant that changed our hearts, that dealt with our deeper enslavement. But we’re going to need to want God to do this.
To admit we are trapped means clearing out space in our lives for God’s Word to come in and transform us. Jesus says today he’s rejected by people because “there is no place in you for my word.” As long as we keep him away from the deep problems that keep getting us into difficulty, if we can’t make room for him to heal and free us, we’ll keep spinning our wheels and digging deeper and deeper into the mud that traps us.
When we make room in our hearts, we find the true joy of God’s promise.
The new covenant the Triune God makes in Christ with the people of the world means we don’t have to be in control anymore. We will be given new hearts, with God’s path written on them so we love God and neighbor as if it’s our true nature, in our DNA. We are made into new creatures in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, freed from what traps us.
We still live in this world, and freedom takes time. The path God is writing on our hearts takes time to free us. Making room for the word of God in our hearts takes time. I’ve seen there are things God has taken more than three decades to free up in me, and there’s more work needed. But there is hope when we see even some things that trap us break apart, find a freedom we didn’t have a few years before. While we pray for the full freedom God will give us, that hope keeps us going along the way.
This may seem complicated, but it’s simple, and it’s life.
Jesus, the Son of God, loves us and wants to free us from the things that own us and trap us and lead us into sin. Our forebears have given us guidance to learn what each of us serves, what owns us, so we can ask the Christ for help with that. We have each other to support and help us as we all are being made free into the children of God we are meant to be. And at the end of this journey we will find our full freedom in Christ as we live in the presence of the Triune God forever. That’s it.
It’s actually life-giving to admit we’re enslaved if the Son of God is able to free us. And if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen