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Free Indeed

A multi-voiced sermon on John 8:31-36.

“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)

I think that might be the most ironic verse in the Bible. It offers the promise of freedom born of truth… but what is truth? I don’t ask that only because, in our current moment, there seems to be so much dispute about what is true, what sources of truth can be trusted, or whether there is even such a thing as truth.

I also ask because the idea of “truth” can be used to capture and control, rather than to free. Hence the irony. “Truth” – when understood as propositional claims – can be (and frequently is) used as a weapon to beat down anyone who doesn’t conform… to enslave people to the dominant narrative.

So, from the beginning I need to make one thing clear: in John’s gospel, “truth” is not referring to concrete, inflexible truth claims. John's might be the most theological gospel, but it is NOT fundamentally about doctrine. It’s about relationship. In John 14:6, Jesus declares “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” so when Jesus says that knowing the truth will set us free, that means knowing Jesus himself is our source of freedom.

It is Jesus, the Living Word, who sets us free, and the way he does that is by taking on human flesh and entering into the reality of sin that holds us in bondage. It’s a dynamic, relational truth that frees us by engaging the particular forms of sin that hold us in bondage.

There are probably infinite examples of this, but since today is our celebration of Reformation Day, I though we might hear from the voices of other Lutherans who have encountered the Truth that has set them free over the past 501 years.

* * *

Martin Luther

“Hello, my name is Martin Luther. You have probably heard of me as the man who started the Protestant Reformation. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about starting a separate branch of the Christian church. I did not want to split the church apart… and I certainly did not want a church to be named after me.

My motivation was always about reform. About “the truth making us free,” as today’s gospel promises. In my life as a priest I heard the fear in my parishioners’ confessions, and I experienced it in my own life as well. Fear of judgment and punishment. We knew that we were slaves to sin, and there didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it.

But I found freedom in the promise of God – found in scripture – that, through Jesus, God gives us the gift of faith and that is all we need! That freedom changes everything!

I wrote a lot about Christian freedom, but I want to share with you just one example, because it clarifies the relationship between truth and freedom. This example comes from my German Mass. You see, I wrote a new worship liturgy that I hoped would be more accessible to the common people. The people needed music they could sing, and words they could understand in worship.

But I didn’t want to just make a new rule – as though there was one “true” way to worship God. I encouraged the practice of Christian Liberty, including changes to the mass I wrote myself. I had done my best to create a liturgy that expressed the truth of the gospel in a powerful way, but I knew that these truths might need to be expressed differently in different contexts.

I also taught that the use of this freedom should be guided by a larger purpose. I wrote:

"while the exercise of this freedom is up to everyone’s conscience and must not be cramped or forbidden, nevertheless, we must make sure that freedom shall be and remain a servant of love and of our neighbor.” [1]

The truth get twisted when we try to boil it down to a formula. But freedom gets twisted when use it for our own pleasure and purposes. We are made free to serve love and our neighbor. That is an important part of what the truth of Christ frees us for.

* * *

Henri Muhlenberg & Aree Von Guinea

That is an interesting point, Luther, and one that is relevant to the early beginnings of the Lutheran church here in this country. I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Henri Melchior Muhlenberg, and I am sometimes called the Patriarch of North American Lutherans. I was a German Lutheran pastor, but I travelled to North America in 1742, because the Lutherans in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey colonies needed guidance.

I am best known for my motto: “the church must be planted.” I believe in the importance of the church as the central means of sharing the truth of Christ.

But I also know that the church is not really living in freedom when we fail to serve love and our neighbor. I saw that first hand in the challenge of navigating the tension between Lutheran communities of different national backgrounds in the New World.

Even though I was named the Senior Lutheran Pastor in North America by German, Swedish, and other Lutheran churches, I still had to navigate a lot of conflict because of disharmony and disputes among these communities.

(Aree Von Guinee) Indeed, my church was one example of that. I am Aree Von Guinee, the sponsor of the oldest Lutheran Church in New Jersey: Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oldwick.

If anyone understands the importance of freedom, I do! I was a freed slave. I was brought to the New World by the Dutch, but was granted my freedom, and I managed to achieve both education and landownership.

But I knew that my freedom was not for my benefit alone. I had a deep Christian faith, nurtured by the Dutch Lutheran church in Manhattan. When I moved to New Jersey I was concerned about the spiritual welfare of my family and neighbors – including many Germans who had fled war and economic strain in their home country. I arranged a pastor to hold the first church service in New Jersey in my home, and I later donated land to build and support the church.

But we ran into problems. The series of German pastors who came to lead the congregation clashed with our blended community. That’s how Henri got involved with our church. We reached out to him for help.

(Henri) Yes. I was not able to help initially, with so many churches to care for and conflicts to manage, but after a time I was able to relocate to Oldwick and offer pastoral care to the people. I may be best known for my missionary passion, but I have a pastor’s heart and I cared about the healing of this community.

It’s not enough for churches to just be planted. They need to be nurtured too. It’s not enough to just “know the truth;” it is in living it out that the truth makes us free.

* * *

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I agree. The truth of Christ calls us into lives that are transformed by that truth, and that transformation is what true freedom looks like… even if it costs us our lives.

I know all about that. My name is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I was a German Lutheran pastor and seminary professor under the rise and reign of the Nazi regime. My faith would not allow me to stand by while millions of innocents were slaughtered, and so I became part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot failed, and I was captured, imprisoned, and eventually executed for treason.

It might not sound much like a story of freedom – feeling compelled to participate in an illegal plot, and then being imprisoned and killed – but there are different kinds of freedom. The truth of Christ promises to free us from slavery to sin… so when the structures and powers of our society are deeply sinful, freedom from sin will put us in conflict with those powers. Freedom means that we won’t bow to them or justify them anymore.

In a sermon before my imprisonment, I wrote this:

"Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”[2]

In my lifetime, I saw how easily the Christian church in Nazi Germany became enslaved by the worship of power, but I also came to understand the radical freedom to be found in the truth of the gospel… the Truth that shows up as God, willing to take on flesh and even to die in order to free us from our worship of the sins that hurt us or our neighbors.

* * *

Nadia Bolz Weber

You know, I appreciate that sentiment, but I have to say… the sin is not ONLY in the structures and powers. We have to look inside as well.

Hi folks. I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber. I guess I’m, like, the closest thing that the Lutheran church has to a celebrity pastor. I tend to get a lot of attention because I have tattoos and I swear like a sailor and so people don’t expect me to want to talk about Jesus.

And I guess my style of pastoring is a little unusual, too. You see, I practice confessional preaching. I believe in the power of saying “we’re all pretty messed up, and I know how hard that is to admit, so I’ll go first.”

I’ll give you an example. It comes from the way I had to confront my own inner conflict in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict. For the record, I believe in gun control, and I believe in standing up against racism and valuing black lives. And when the innocent verdict was announced I wanted to protest and rant along with all my liberal friends.

But I also knew the truth about myself. That when it was MY mom who was threatened, I was glad there was someone with a gun to protect her. And that forty-four years as a white American woman had trained me to clutch my purse when I saw a group of young black men. I hate it, but it’s true. I couldn’t claim a moral high ground.

What I could do was to confess the sin from which I need Jesus to free me. Here’s what I wrote about sharing this struggle with my congregation:

That evening I admitted to my congregation that I had to look at how my outrage feels good for a while, but only like eating candy corn feels good for a while – I know it’s nothing more than empty calories. My outrage feels empty because what I am desperate for is to speak the truth of my burden of sin and have Jesus take it from me, yet ranting about the system or about other people will always be my go-to instead….My opinions feel good until I crash from the self-righteous sugar high, then realize that I’m still sick and hungry for a taste of mercy.”[3]

Mercy is the freedom we find in Jesus, and we get there by knowing the Truth; the truth that we ARE enslaved to sin, and we desperately need Jesus.

* * *

Denis Mukwege

I have just one thing to add to this conversation, which is that this gospel promise, that “the truth will set us free,” is a reason for hope.

I am Dr. Denis Mukwege. You might have heard of me because I recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Nadia Murad, for our work to address war-time sexual violence.

That might not that sounds like a very hope-filled topic. As a Congolese gynecologist I have treated more than 1,500 women who have survived conflict-related rape, and I have seen the pain caused by these assaults. I have spoken out about this trauma and been targeted as a result, including an attempt on my life.

But I still talk about hope. I talk about hope because of my faith. Last year I was the keynote speaker for the Twelfth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Namibia. Speaking on the theme “Liberated by God’s Grace” I encouraged the gathered Lutherans from around the world to recognize that our heritage of freedom in Christ can and should be a source of hope, even in the face of the most horrifying realities in our world.This is what I said:

“Lutheran theology, especially as regards women’s place in society, is a message of hope for all the women in the world who are victims of violence, whether moral, physical or sexual. It is up to us, the heirs of Martin Luther, through God’s word, to exorcise all the macho demons possessing the world so that women who are victims of male barbarity can experience the reign of God in their lives.”[4]

I have seen the evil of the world. Believe me, I know the destructive power of sin. But I also know the freedom that comes from the words of Jesus. And I know that we are called to tell that truth in the world.

* * *

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Twelve words that contain both comfort and challenge; both confession and hope.

Because “knowing the truth” is not about assenting to some static, doctrinal statement that then protects us from the pain of the world. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus who frees from slavery to sin:

from slavery to the sin of fear,

and the sin of distrust for those who are different,

and the sin of the worship of power,

and the sin of self-righteousness,

and slavery to any demon of violence or dehumanization that assaults the value of any other human being.

From all these things Jesus sets us free, and from whatever sin in holding you. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (Mark 10:36)

Thanks be to God.

[1] Martin Luther, The German Mass and the Order of the Liturgy.

[2] Deitrich Bonhoeffer in a Sermon on II Corinthians 12:9.

[3] Nadia Bolz-Weber. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. P. 29.


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