Reformation Sunday: The Truth About the Truth

John 8:31-36

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I suspect that the Gospel doesn’t mean very much to the self-made man or woman.

Do you know what I mean? We define “Gospel” in a variety of ways – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life, and so on. Today Jesus adds another way to speak of the Gospel – freedom. Good words, all. But the common denominator among them is that they assume need. The one who values salvation knows that he or she needs saving. The one to whom grace is important is aware of the need for grace. Forgiveness implies sin. And so on.

No wonder Jesus’ interlocutors are offended. Jesus says, apparently to persons who already believe in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The promise of freedom – awesome! Except it’s not, at least not to those to whom Jesus makes this promise. They are pretty much the opposite of excited by or grateful for Jesus’ words, as they answer, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Do you see what I mean? No, “Thank you, Jesus.” Or “Praise God.” And definitely no “Awesome!” Instead, just a rather offended, “What do you mean?” or, probably even more, “Who do you think you are, anyway?!?” And, truthfully, I understand. By offering them freedom, Jesus implies that they are not free.

Now, there is admittedly a certain absurdity to their reply: “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Really? Did you somehow forget the Egyptians? Or the Assyrians? Or the Persians? Or – take a look around, folks! – the Romans? As the old saying goes, “Denial. It ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

But here’s my question: are we really all that different? How good, that is, are we at naming and admitting our need, our hurt, our brokenness, even our mortality? Not in a “poor me” kind of way that invites pity or lends itself to manipulating the sympathies of others. But rather in the sense of honestly admitting that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect, that there’s room not just for growth and improvement but also for help, repentance, and forgiveness.

That’s not terribly easy to do. Especially not today, when there is so much cultural pressure to act as if you have it all pretty much together – a great life, great job, great relationships, great future, great…more or less everything. And the thing is, we’re often contributing to our own problem. For while social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter have proven for many to be a great way to keep in touch with people and share greetings and experiences and the rest, they also and increasingly have proven to be vehicles that demand greater and greater levels of effort and, ultimately, pretense that we are the ideal person living the ideal life. And because it is pretense – “We are descendants of Abraham – or Washington or Zuckerberg, or Luther – and have never been slaves to anyone!” – it takes a toll. In fact, a recent study indicated that four of the five most popular social media platforms increase negative feelings in users, particularly among teens and young adults.[1] It turns out you can only look at so many pictures of someone else’s wonderfully happy and exciting life on Facebook or Instagram – even if most of the pictures and posts are relatively artificial – before you begin to feel like yours doesn’t compare very well and feel even more pressure to pretend you’re perfect.

So what do we do? As we approach this Sunday and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’m struck by the fact that the first of Luther’s 95 Theses is about repentance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We’re not all that big on repentance these days, but some of that might be our confusion about what it actually means. And that’s not new. Luther goes on to say that by repentance he’s actually not talking simply about confession and penance as administered by the clergy (2nd thesis), or an inward, cathartic kind of feeling-really-bad moment (3rd thesis). Rather, true repentance for Luther is a kind of truth-telling that allows you to be honest about how you are deceiving yourself, or letting yourself be deceived by the world (or both!), that gives you an opportunity to think and speak and act differently. Or, to put it another way, to live in freedom.

Jesus’ invitation to freedom however, demands an act of repentance as truth-telling before it hits home and does its saving work because it demands that we come clean about our need, which isn’t easy for self-made men and women to admit. Or, to put it another way, just as with Jesus’ earlier conversation partners, the truth of which Jesus speaks is actually two truths, first about us and then about God’s response to us. Which means that his promise of freedom will sound more like bad news before it’s good news. Another old saying that rings true, this from alcoholic recovery literature of the 70s (and later adapted by Gloria Steinem): “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you feel miserable.”[2]

Because, Dear Partner, the truth of the Son, the truth that makes you free, the truth at the heart of the 95 theses which Luther nailed to the door at the Wittenburg church, the truth of the Reformation that we remember and celebrate this Sunday, is that we are sinners – God’s fallen, at time flailing, regularly confused, and always imperfect children – from birth to death. Sinners that no amount of indulgences or good works or good intentions or status updates or creative social media posts can redeem. But – and here is the (second) truth which finally sounds like good news – we are also those sinners who are simultaneously God’s beloved children, those sinners who God calls blessed and holy and perfect, those sinners for whom Christ died, those sinners whose futures are not determined by their regrets and mistakes but by the possibility created by resurrection, those sinners whom God loves above all else. We are not perfect…and we don’t have to be in order to be loved. But it’s hard to trust that we’re really loved – let alone the experience of freedom that comes from knowing you are loved and accepted – if we’re not honest first.

So perhaps the best way to celebrate the Reformation is not to celebrate it at all, but rather to repeat it. To remember both halves of Paul’s mighty words, first the difficult truth that “all have sinned and fallen short” in order to hear the blessed news that “all are now justified by God’s grace as a gift.” For here, indeed, is a truth that sets you free. And it is a truth that still has the capacity to change lives, the church, and indeed the whole world.

Blessings on, and gratitude for, your truthful proclamation and the mighty ways God will use it this week and always.

Yours in Christ,