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Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 30, 2022

Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

On October 31, 1517, exactly 505 years ago tomorrow, a monk named Martin Luther went up to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed his 95 theses to the church door. These theses, or statements, were theological points Martin Luther wanted the church to debate. You see, Martin Luther wanted to lead the church back to the truth. Luther had the opportunity to study the scriptures, and the more he studied, the more he saw that what the church was doing and saying didn’t line up with the truth he found in God’s Word.

As a young man, Martin Luther had turned to the church seeking truth. He turned to the church specifically seeking the truth about salvation. Luther was troubled by all kinds of doubts and fears and anxieties. He was troubled by a guilty conscience. He had a keen sense of his own sin, his own failure to live up to God’s commands. And so, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery. He thought this would surely be the place which would help him find the truth that would set him free. But the teachings and practices of the medieval church just kept turning Luther back on himself. It taught him to look to his good works. It taught him to look inside himself to his own strength and will and insight. Luther quickly realized that this wasn’t going to do it. Luther understood that his self was the problem!

Thankfully, Martin Luther was given the opportunity to study the scriptures. Remember that this is just on the cusp of the invention of the printing press, which will play such an important role later in the Reformation. But at this point printed materials, including Bibles, were hard to come by. Luther was given access to pursue scholarly study of the scriptures, and so he got his hands on God’s Word. And it was there, as Luther continued in God’s Word, that he at last found the truth that set him free. Luther came across passages such as we heard in our epistle reading for today from Romans, where Paul announces that “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” Here was a truth that came from outside of himself, a truth that could truly save, a truth that could truly set him free. Salvation and joy and peace and freedom were not to be found by looking at himself, but by looking to Christ, by trusting in his saving work.  True freedom was not to be found by looking within, but by looking to God’s Word.

Fast forward 505 years. The world today is a very different place than it was in Luther’s time, but even so, some things are strikingly similar. People today continue to look inside themselves for truth. They look inside themselves to find what they think will give them salvation and joy and peace and freedom. Postmodernism is the current intellectual operating system for most people today, and it teaches us to search ourselves and decide individually what is true for us, to “live our truth.” It teaches us that freedom is the freedom to choose for ourselves what is right or wrong. It teaches that we define our own reality based on our feelings or desires.

Postmodernism is a recent development in intellectual history in many ways, but it is also as old as the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve, under the influence of the serpent, thought that they could decide for themselves what they should do, that they knew better than what God had told them.

There’s a brand-new book I got this week, hot off the presses, and I love the title. It’s called “Live Your Truth – and Other Lies.” It is by a brilliant young theologian named Alisa Childers. Childers was once was an evangelical Christian. In fact, she was a successful singer in the evangelical world, touring extensively with her contemporary Christian band, ZOEgirl. She got burned out on evangelicalism and left to join a radically progressive church. Unsatisfied with both extremes, she has now found her way to what she calls “historic Christianity,” or what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” or what is sometimes called “classical, creedal Christianity,” or what I like to call, simply “Christianity.” In her newest book, “Live Your Truth – and Other Lies” she takes on several of the cultural platitudes of our time and compares them to what scripture and historic Christianity teaches. When discussing our current, but also ancient, temptation to “live our own truth,” she writes:

“The self is a faulty foundation. It’s a structure with cracks in it. It’s broken. Anything we build upon it will be vulnerable to the current positive affirmation that sounds right to us in the moment. At best, this can send us on fruitless searches for meaning. At worst, it can propel us into ruin. This is why it is so vital for Christians to ensure that our foundation is Christ, not ourselves. Live your truth verses live the truth. It’s a big difference. The call to be true only to one’s own feelings and desires is the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus and the historic Christian faith…..God is our Creator, and he knows what will bring us peace, joy, and happiness. And guess what? It’s not a mirror or a selfie stick. It’s him.”

“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.” When people heard Jesus say this, they objected to it, saying, “What do you mean ‘you will be made free?’ We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” Set aside for now the fact that their ancestors were slaves to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, and they are currently under the foreign rule of Rome. Rather than calling them on their self-deception, Jesus clarifies that he is talking about their slavery to sin. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” Jesus says.

When we look to ourselves, this is what we should see. We should see that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Anything else is self-deception. To “live our truth,” is often a vain attempt to be our own gods. That didn’t work out well for Adam and Eve, and it won’t work out well for us either. The truth about us is that we are slaves to sin. It holds power over us. Even if you can get control over your outward behavior, it holds our hearts and minds captive. Looking inside ourselves only makes the problem worse.

To truly be Jesus’ disciples, we look not to ourselves, but to him who is the Word made flesh. We don’t go searching our feelings or desires, we instead continue in his word. We don’t strive to “live our truth,” instead we humble ourselves before God’s truth.

It is here, Jesus promises, that we find true freedom. This freedom is not a freedom to live as we please, as is sometimes thought, this is a freedom from this power of sin that holds us captive. This is not a freedom to define our own reality, it is a freedom to live as we were created to live, in right relationship with the one who created us.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old fish illustration of Christian freedom. When is a fish truly free? A fish is not free when it is “freed” from the river to explore the grass. When a fish attempts to free itself from the limits and confines of the water it actually destroys it’s ability to move. Outside of the water, the fish cannot even breathe! This kind of so-called freedom leads to death. The only place a fish is truly free is in the water.

Our culture has been attempting for decades now to jump out of the water, to free us from all limits, all norms, all moral restrictions, all boundaries. And where has it led? This push for freedom from all external restraints and responsibilities isn’t a new phase in the evolution of human society, it is the same old bondage that has been there since Adam and Eve and the serpent and the apple. It is not true freedom. It only creates new ways of being a slave.

We are only truly free when we are in Christ. He is the Son who gives us a permanent place in the household. God sent his Son to set us free from our bondage, to bring us into the house where we can live and breathe, the house where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved and forgiven children, the house where we have a place forever.

When Martin Luther swung his hammer nearly 505 years ago, he wasn’t trying to build something new. He wasn’t adding a new innovative room to the house. He was instead calling the church back to the truth of scripture. He was calling the church back to the gospel. The Reformation was not a remodel project for the church so much as it was, at least initially, a simple effort to restart the fire in the fireplace, the fire of God’s truth, the fire of God’s Word, the fire of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is, we are captive to sin and unable to free ourselves. Within ourselves should be the last place we go looking for peace or purpose or meaning or joy or salvation or freedom! But another truth about us is the Son of God has come to rescue us from ourselves. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are now saved by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

And so we continue in his word. We look not to ourselves, but to him. He has come to give us a place in his house, where we can live, where we can breathe, where we can be truly free. The Son has made us free, and if the Son makes us free, Jesus promises us, we are free indeed.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church