Reformation Sunday: Free Indeed - John 8:31-36
When Martin Luther was a young monk he was obsessive about not sinning. He took the saying “fear of God” to a whole ’nother level. He was consumed with worry about being righteous in God’s eyes. He confessed his sins multiple times every day and was so anxious about sin that his confessor told him he needed to learn to relax and trust God’s love for him. One author said about this period of his life that, “Luther was struggling with the need to confess completely everything he had ever done wrong. He wore [his confessor] out, trying to remember every sin that his mind would try to cover up. On at least one occasion, he confessed for six hours straight.” Luther later admitted at that time he was angry with God for our apparent requirement to strive for unattainable righteousness. Reflecting back on those years Luther wrote, “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"
But one day while reading the book of Romans Luther had his big breakthrough. Reflecting on the phrase “the righteousness of God” Luther said the Gospel was truly revealed to him and he felt as though he was altogether born anew and had entered the gates of paradise! Luther’s big breakthrough sparked the Protestant Reformation, which we celebrate today. Martin Luther is said to have nailed the 95 Theses onto the church doors in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—the day we mark as the start of the Protestant Reformation.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the crowds that if they know the truth, the truth will set them free. The truth Luther discovered in the pages of scripture was something he’d read many times before but didn’t grasp. It took the struggle with his own doubts and failed attempts at righteousness to understand what scripture was truly saying. He discovered the truth of the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace and love. The truth that God is on our side. The truth that we don’t need to worry about earning our way into right relationship with God, because God has set the relationship right in Christ.
Now I think there’s something important to clarify about Jesus’s statement that the truth will set us free. You see, people have a tendency to want to know the right answers. Thinking we have all the right answer gives us a sense of control. Like we have God in our pocket. Human beings want to KNOW the truth, like it’s something we possess and thus have power and control over. But what Jesus is really talking about is that He is the truth. The truth which sets us free isn’t some piece of knowledge, it’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Not some idea. Not some salvation concept or atonement theory. Jesus is the truth which sets us free. And if it’s any piece of knowledge at all, it’s the discovery that Luther had that it’s all a gift. We can’t earn being righteous in God’s eyes but we are given that righteousness as a gift. So much so that when God looks at us, God doesn’t see a sinner anymore but sees a beloved child as free of sin as Christ himself. That’s Luther’s theology of “alien righteousness”. But even that concept is not the truth that sets us free, it’s the relationship behind the concept. Knowing about God’s grace can ease our anxiety, but it’s the relationship behind the knowledge that sets us free. It is the person of Jesus Christ who sets us free.
The idea that good deeds can get you into heaven, or what Luther called “works righteousness” is rejected by most Christians today, in large part because of Luther’s teaching. Luther looked at the Bible and saw that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. And Luther also wanted to assure Christians that it wasn’t up to them to conjure up enough faith to save themselves either. I remember being in elementary school and thinking “Well I think I believe in God strongly enough, I think I have enough faith for God to accept me. I try to believe as much as I can, but sometimes I doubt a little bit. Does that mean I don’t really have true faith?” And it scared me. I clearly didn’t believe as strongly as those preachers I saw on TV who all seemed 100% sure about everything. So I struggled with that for a while. But lucky for me, I was a Lutheran kid. And I soon learned that even our faith is a gift from God. Faith isn’t the ultimate good work like some Christians make it out to be. Rather it’s something that grows in us as we mature in our journey with Christ. True faith isn’t talking ourselves into being 100% sure that everything our parents or pastors taught us is true. Having faith is trusting in your relationship with God. Having faith is wrestling with God and asking the tough questions. Having faith is living on a firm foundation even when doubts come, and wondering, questioning, growing. And above all, having faith is itself a gift of God’s grace.
The main lesson of the Reformation is that it’s not our good deeds that set us free. And it’s not having the right ideas about God that set us free. And it’s not conjuring up enough faith or certainty that sets us free. It’s relationship with God through Christ that sets us free. And it’s all a gift of God’s grace. Certainly doing good deeds and having good ideas and having a wonderful feeling of peace and assurance can make our lives better, and good theology and conviction were very important in sparking the Reformation. But the root of all of that is relationship with God. Because Jesus Christ is the truth which sets us free!
This is the truth that Perry and these Confirmation students have come to know. The truth that God loves them no matter what and that he is saved by God’s grace. Not by good deeds or having the right ideas or having the right feelings. But simply because of God’s love for them. In Baptism they received the promise of God’s love. They are thereby called to a life good deeds and growing in knowledge and wisdom—not because those things set them right with God, but because that’s the life of a Christian, the life of someone freed by God’s grace.
And so likewise, we and all Christians, having been set right with God, are called to a life of love and service for our neighbors in need, of advocating for peace and justice in all the world, of exploring the mystery of God’s truth, of maturing in our spiritual journey—not because right action or right understanding or the right spiritual disciplines make God love us more, but because God’s love inspires us to respond by acting and living in a way that follows Jesus’ path.
The final gift of the Reformation that we celebrate today is that we remember the church is always reforming. The church is always growing, always being renewed, in every age transforming into God’s vision of what the church should be next. So the church is never static. We are always in reformation, just as each of us individually is constantly maturing and growing into fuller expressions of the daughters and sons of God we are called to be. And so we celebrate the gift of new life found in Holy Baptism and remember the promise that we are saved by grace through faith. Thanks be to God for such amazing grace and unconditional love. Amen.