In high school, I attended a church that was what we might call “contemporary.” In place of an organ, there were two guitars, a piano, a bass, and a drum set. Instead of an ornate, eye-catching altar, there was a simple wooden cross between two projector screens. And, instead of an alb, Pastor Steve wore slacks and a button-down shirt to lead worship every Sunday.
Every Sunday, that is, except one that I particularly recall. He showed up for worship on the last day of October in a big white robe and a red stole. The rest of us, attired mostly in jeans and sweaters, looked around at each other, wondering if we had walked into the wrong building. He didn’t say a word about his change in uniform until the Children’s Sermon. Pastor Steve invited the kids to come and sit down as usual, and then asked them why he was wearing the red stole. They answered, “it’s your Halloween costume!”
Oops. What was supposed to be a lesson for the kids about the Reformation turned out to be a lesson for the adults about how little they taught their children about Lutheranism. Pastor Steve’s outfit for the day was little more to the kids than a white robe with a red scarf. Now, I’m not saying this to make an argument for or against any particular style of worship, but what I am saying is that what we teach about our church matters.
So, it’s Reformation Sunday. So what? Why do we celebrate and dress up the church and the pastor with red? What’s so important about this day that we treat it with special attention?
Well, one of the reasons we celebrate the Reformation is that what Martin Luther and his friends did was a pretty big deal. They had a lot of big ideas about church practices and theology that shape what our church is today, like “Law and Gospel” or “Salvation by Faith Alone” or “Freedom in Christ.” It’s like what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel reading.
I think it’s safe to say that nobody likes to be called out as a slave. It’s uncomfortable to be labeled a “slave,” especially for a group of people who think they’re doing just fine, thank you very much. When Jesus describes the Jews who believed in him as in need of being made free, they are indignant. “We are descendents of Abraham,” they insist, “and have never been slaves to anyone.” Except, of course, 400 years in Egypt, except subjugation by Assyria, except a few centuries of exile in Babylon, and, oh yeah, at the moment, except a puppet king whose strings are pulled by Rome. It is a truly impressive example of selective memory.
These Jews are so caught up in their pride at being descendents of Abraham that they forget what else goes along with that lineage, like centuries of slavery at the hands of foreign rulers. Or perhaps it’s their shame at the memory of subjugation that leads them to protest the label of “slave.”
It’s almost as if they said, “We remember our ancestor Abraham, but we’ve forgotten just about everything else that has happened since God made that covenant with him. We don’t need your freedom, Jesus, because we’re perfectly content with our own version of it. We go to worship at the Temple, tithe from our income, don’t lie or steal, never cheat on our spouse, only gossip when there’s something particularly juicy to share, and are generally all-around good people.”
You and I hear their protests and easily identify the irony of their insistence that they “have never been slaves to anyone.” But what does our response to Jesus sound like? Mine might be, “We are descendents of European immigrants, of farmers and teachers and businesspeople, and have never been slaves to anyone. This is America, after all, and you of all people, Jesus, should know that this is the land of the free.”
Except for our own history of indentured servitude, except importing human beings like chattel, except racially-motivated servitude, except rampant sex trafficking, except the world’s largest prison population, we insist that we are as free as it gets. Our picture of freedom is summed up in Bald Eagles, Apple Pie, and the right to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’re proud to declare that we are free to think, say, and do whatever we want.
I think that Jesus’ idea of freedom is something different. To the Jews, after all their protests, he says, “anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” But, we say, I don’t sin as much as THAT person, so surely you don’t mean me, Jesus! I’m the exception; I’m not a slave to sin… at most, I’m a part-time employee. Like the Jews, we are free, “except.”
This all sounds good, only our New Testament reading won’t let us worm out of our predicament so easily. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes Paul. This “sin” is not just thoughts or actions that we should not have done, but a pervasive and malignant stain that has invaded our very being. It’s inescapable, and just when we think we might have wriggled out of its power, we find ourselves more trapped than ever.
So if sin is really what this slavery is about, the sin that we cannot escape, maybe we need to think a little more about freedom. Not our apple-pie, “free-except” version of freedom, but Jesus’ version. If we are free from sin, what are we freed for?
It’s pretty simple, I’d say. We are freed for the home that God intends for us. Sin has no intention of making a space for us to be at home. Sin runs us ragged, trapping us in our pride and our shame, telling us that we don’t deserve a place to call our own. Freedom in Christ names us as daughters and sons of the Heavenly Father who has more than enough space for each of us, no exceptions.
How do we know that? By these words of Christ: “The son has a place in the household forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” And the Son does make you free. The Son has set you free in the waters of Baptism and continues to free you through his body and blood.
Three years after nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, the event that started the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote these words: Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them. If a touch of Christ healed, how much more will this most tender spiritual touch, this absorbing of the Word, communicate to the soul all things that belong to the Word.
This, then, is how through faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true, peaceful, and free, filled with every blessing and truly made a child of God, as John 1[:12] says: “But to all who … believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Children of God, be free.