Freedom is Greater than Safety
A sermon on John 8:31-36
In case you were not aware, it’s Reformation Sunday! The day that we commemorate the beginning of a 500-year transformation of Christ’s church that is continuing to this day.
And so, of course, the story we read in today’s gospel lesson is about a group of believers WHO DON’T WANT TO BE REFORMED! Makes total sense, doesn’t it?
In fact, they aren’t just suspicious of reformation. They don’t even want to be made FREE. Jesus tells them that continuing to follow him will make them free, but they respond (I’m paraphrasing here)
“Bwah… huh… Free?! What you mean? We’ve never been slaves to ANYONE!!!”
Apparently, they have forgotten BOTH their past and their present. Because their ancestors were literal slaves in Egypt, and their current reality is that of an occupied and oppressed country under Roman rule. So, freedom SHOULD sound like a really good offer.
So, why doesn’t it? The people Jesus is addressing here are not the story’s antagonists who have been looking for something to reject in Jesus’ teachings. They are the ones who had believed in him. Why don’t they want Jesus’s offer of freedom? Why does this promise trigger a defensive, anxious response?
As I pondered that question this week, I realized that this response to offered freedom is not actually that unique. It shows up in other stories too, including some from our contemporary culture.
In the Harry Potter series there is a small sub-plot running through several books that deals with the condition of house elves. In the Potter universe house-elves are a species of magical creatures who are born into slavery, and spend their entire lives not only dedicating every moment to serving the needs of the wizard family to which they belong; but also compulsively punishing themselves if they ever disobey, or make a mistake, or say anything bad about their masters.
Sounds pretty awful… and yet there is only one elf in the stories who wants freedom. That elf is Dobby, and after Harry Potter helped to free him, he finds paid work at Hogwarts School, but the other resident house-elves find this scandalous. Moreover, when Dobby starts telling Harry that he “likes being free” the Hogwarts house-elves “started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious.”
Sometimes, freedom seems threatening.
Or consider the character Brooks in the movie Shawshank Redemption. Brooks was imprisoned as a young man and spent almost fifty years on the inside. He made a life for himself there, serving as the prison’s inmate-librarian, making friends, even rescuing a baby bird.
When he is suddenly paroled at the age of 72, he doesn’t know what to do with his freedom. He is set-up with a job and a room in a half-way house, and from the outside his life looks OK, but he ends up killing himself. In the final letter he writes to his friends, he says that he is “tired of feeling afraid.”
I think that FEAR is what lies at the heart of the instinct to pull away from freedom.
Freedom means the walls are gone. Walls can entrap us; they can limit the scope of what we see as possible, and stop us from moving toward our dreams; but they also offer a sense of security. Walls can feel familiar and comforting. They tell us who we are, and give us an illusion of safety, and separate us from all the scary “others” outside of the wall.
And those walls aren’t just the physical walls of a prison. There are all kinds of constraints in our daily lives that can offer us the security of enslavement: that’s how addiction works.
Whether it be a conventional addiction to alcohol, or drugs, or the more socially acceptable addictions to food, or greed, or anger, or gossip … addiction is any compulsive behavior that enslaves our will.
We can know that our addiction is bad for us. That it hurts our bodies and our relationships… but it is so comfortingly familiar. And we are afraid of being free.
And then there’s the addiction to partisanship that is absorbing so much of the oxygen of our public dialogue. To be clear – not all party affiliation qualifies for this critique, but partisanship can offer a seductive enslavement:
the ego boost of presumed superiority;
the security of belonging to a defined group (with the added bonus of common enemies that group members can mock and despise);
and the protection against actually having to think critically about serious and complicated social problems, because our tribe has a position and all that is asked of us is loyalty, and moral outrage.
We get the emotional benefits of security, and all it costs is the freedom of thinking for ourselves.
I don’t say any of this from a position of superiority myself. I am just as vulnerable as anyone else to the lure of seductive prisons that promise us a (false) security; a way to not be afraid of the need for reformation.
And that’s why I know, that if anyone points this out to us, we are primed with our defensive answer: “What do you mean by calling us slaves. We’ve never been slaves to anyone?!”
Except, of course, we are all slaves to sin.
Jesus hears our bluster, and our defensive denial, and just shakes his head. “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
And, deep down, we know it’s true. The very lengths to which we go to hide behind our walls, and to cling to our addictions, and to try to hold back the fear, are the evidence.
Lutheran Pastor David Lose defines sin as “a state of existential insecurity – being fearful or anxious that you are not safe, not sufficient, not worthy of love and respect.”
Martin Luther agrees. He wrote that “the sin underneath all our sins is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands.”
Insecurity. Trusting the lie that we need to build a prison to protect ourselves, instead of trusting God. This is the essence of sin.
And Jesus recognizes that terrible insecurity. “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household.” The slavery we trust in is a false promise. It cannot keep us safe.
So what do we do?! When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge how anxiety can imprison us – and we recognize that this anxiety is the heart of sin. We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves.
But this gospel passage promises us that we CAN be free, as long as we are willing to admit that we are slaves! Jesus told us how we can be free – we can give up the illusion of our independence and rely completely on him.
And this gospel also shows us what that reliance looks like: the best translation of vs. 31 from our reading is “If you ABIDE in my word, you are truly my disciples”
As Abiding Peace church, this is a familiar word, but it is still good to remind ourselves what it means to “abide.” It is related to the word “abode,” which means house; but it is more relational. Abiding means making our home with, or “remaining as one.”
And Jesus calls us to abide in his WORD, this is, in HIMSELF. This is John’s Gospel, whose opening verses describe Jesus as the WORD that dwells among us. (John 1:1-14).
The Freedom Jesus is offering is the freedom of making our home with Jesus.
This is a very different kind of security. It is not the security of slavery or imprisonment, of being confined by walls or identities or addictions that limit us in exchange for making us feel safe.
Instead this is the freedom of relationship – of a home without walls. Of a freedom that moves in a constant reformation process, because it is defined by the One with whom we live. It is finding security in a life that is constantly moving:
From heaven to earth
From womb to manger
From Narazeth to the Jordan
From Galilee to Jerusalem
From the cross to the grave
From death to resurrection
From a human body to the church
From the church to the world
This is a true Reformation kind of freedom – a freedom that does not define itself by the small markers of history, or tradition that make us feel safe (lovely as those things are – they are not Reformation). Rather, this freedom is always reforming, always pushing us out of our sin-slavery of wanting safety, into the freedom of Abiding in Christ.
Truly, Abiding in Christ is the only way to live with Abiding Peace.
And this Reformation freedom, based in Christ, rather than in our efforts to save ourselves by enslaving ourselves, means we can take that peace with us, everywhere we go. And through our freedom in Christ we can do the never-ending, slave-freeing work of Reformation.
So Happy Reformation Sunday, church. Let us celebrate the freedom we have in Jesus. The freedom of Abiding in Christ.
Thanks be to God.
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,Scolastic, Inc., p. 378.
 “Reformation Day / Pentecost 20 A: Original Insecurity and the Power of Love”; http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/ref-day-pen-20-original-insecurity/. Accessed 10/23/17.
 Greek: μένω. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3306&t=RSV.