Christ’s death and resurrection break all the powers of the world, break the chains that bind us and all people: it’s time to look at our current chains and pray for the truth that will free us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Text: John 8:31-36
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
When Martin Luther despaired whether he was worthy of God, his confessor sent him to God’s Word.
Luther’s anxiety over God’s judgment, his fear that he’d never be good enough to find salvation in Christ, persisted until his confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, ordered him to become a professor of the Scriptures. His job now demanded him to read deeply of God’s Word, and his confessor knew that in God’s Word, Luther would find freedom.
“If you continue in my Word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Luther found freedom in Christ when he began to “continue” in God’s Word, abide in it, live in it. The chains of fear and doubt that bound him, and bound many in the Church, were broken by the truth of God’s Good News in Christ. Five hundred years later we stand here in the joy of God’s love, knowing it is unearned and freely given, because Martin lived in God’s Word until he found the truth that freed him, and millions since.
But Jesus says, “The truth will make you free.” It still is freeing.
Later in John, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will come and teach us new things, when we are ready to bear them. Jesus understands that God’s truth frees continually, over time, even centuries. That’s why we’re asked to continue in God’s Word ourselves, live in it.
Our freedom from the chains that bind us – our sin, our fear, death itself – comes from Christ’s resurrection life that still breaks the world’s powers. But, as with all the work of the Holy Spirit, this is still happening. Luther wrote that we are not yet righteous, but we are being made righteous. We are not yet healthy, but we are being healed. In the same way, we are not yet free, but we are being freed. God is still working on us.
Freedom, therefore, is not a past event, a static idea we hold on to, package, print on signs and bumper stickers. This is a real problem in our country. In the name of freedom we do all sorts of wicked things that deprive others, including ourselves, of true freedom. We don’t understand our political freedom as an ongoing, living thing, a process of becoming free, that ever needs truth to break new chains.
It’s also our problem in the Church.
We’re tempted today to loudly proclaim Luther’s great insights, to box them up as our truth. To act as if these truths that give us life are all the truth there is, all we need. But over five hundred years the truth of God’s free grace, received by us in faith, has often become a formula for who’s in and who’s out rather than a freeing gift. Over five hundred years we’ve defended these theologies at all costs instead of living into them as continuing ways God frees us.
This also leads us to act as if there are no new freeing truths God intends for us. Five hundred years ago, when Luther began to find truth in God’s Word, one of the first things he did was post 95 theses, questions for debate and discernment. We date the beginning of the Reformation to that moment when Luther began to raise for the whole Church the truth he was finding in Scripture.
But there are other chains still binding us today, chains binding God’s people, binding the Church, binding the world. There are still more truths in God’s Word that call us out. There are still more things we need Christ’s resurrection life to break open, so life and healing can happen, so all people are free.
So when are we going to start posting our theses?
We hesitate to do this. We’d rather celebrate a truth of 500 years ago. Maybe because we fear what might happen. The Church splintered into hundreds of fragments because of Luther and the other Reformers. Good people on both sides struggled with the changes, even feared them. The cost of lifting up these freeing truths from Scripture was the disruption of communities and parishes, families and nations. Even war and killing. Maybe war won’t come if we raise God’s truths, but we don’t know the consequences.
But it’s time we realized that, like Martin, we need to go back into God’s Word and live there. If we truly abide in God’s Word, Christ promises we’ll hear truth from God that will be freeing, just as then. That will bring Christ’s Church into newness of life, just as then. And that will also run the risk of being perceived as threatening, something to be shut down, just as then.
What theses do we need to raise up today?
Here are some I think are overdue for conversation and discerning.
It’s time we took seriously the radical nature of the Triune God as the Scriptures proclaim and face the sin of our patriarchal use of language for God here at Mount Olive and across God’s Church. Our stubborn clinging to an ancient and careless use of language risks both heresy and deep exclusion. God’s truth in Scripture is that the Triune God is beyond gender, and includes all gender. When we persist in speaking and singing language using “he” and “Lord” and “King” when speaking of God’s fullness, when speaking of the Triune God, we deny God’s truth. It is also true, even if some here have not experienced this, that many women find such patriarchal language a barrier to experiencing or hearing God’s Good News of love and grace in Christ. We cannot misrepresent God. And we cannot leave up barriers to people finding God’s love and grace. So we need live in God’s Word and discern God’s truth meant to free us from these chains.
It’s time we admitted the Church’s deep and abiding relationship with structures of power, and our permitting that culture to shape our Gospel life. We willingly adopt the world’s power structures as if they were Christian, God-given, instead of modeling at every level of our lives the Scriptural truth that those who follow Christ give up power, lose themselves for the sake of others. We can no longer remain silent in the face of powers that oppress and kill and destroy, or we are endorsing them, as we long have. But we also can no longer ignore when our own life operates by the same rules, instead of by the way of Christ’s cross. We need to take seriously what it would be to be peacemakers. We need to take seriously what it means to divorce ourselves from our marriage to money. We need to take seriously our own power abuses, our own oppressive acts, in the name of the Christ who frees us.
It’s time we had an intentional conversation about the place of Christian faith in a pluralistic world. We cannot live in a defensive posture with people of other faiths, or live as if the important question is that we’re right and others are wrong. Not with God’s expansive desire proclaimed throughout Scripture to draw all peoples, every child, every creature, into God’s life. As Christians this won’t be easy, but if we live in God’s Word, Christ promises we will find freeing truth.
These are just three that I would nail to a door for discussion. There are certainly more, and many that people here could name. On this five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther raising questions for discerning, let’s all abide in God’s Word and raise new theses, based on what we find in God’s Word. Let’s raise these for us and for the whole Church, and never stop, so God’s truth can keep making all free.
We’re not fully free yet. But the Holy Spirit is freeing us, by God’s Word.
If Christ is risen from the dead, not even death has power over us. No chains can cling to God’s children on earth – not the chains of racism, or sexism, or classism, not the chains of hatred or oppression, not the chains of abusive power or wealth, not the chains of violence and killing – none of these chains need bind the people of earth.
Because they can all be broken through the life and love of God in Christ. We have Luther to thank that we know, more than anything else, that God loves us eternally. That at the cross, and then the empty tomb, we see the deepest truth about God’s love for us and for the world.
And we have Luther to follow as an example, that we all find our way back into God’s Word and live there, abide there, dwell there, praying that the Holy Spirit guide us to truth that will free all people. Until the whole world finds healing and hope and freedom.
In the name of Jesus. Amen