America the beautiful: land of the free. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to peaceably assemble in protest, freedom of religion. Freedom. Or is it? Is it freedom of speech? I can tell you a quick way to find out is to walk into any US airport and at the top of your lungs yell bomb. You let me know how that works out for you; and I promise I’ll accept the charges at least once when you call collect to explain. Freedom, of press; or is it when ESPN journalist Bill Simmons is suspended for publicly criticizing the NFL for its handling of domestic violence, granted it’s his job as a member of the press to report such things except when it’s not in the best interest of ESPN and its relationship with the #1 sport’s league in America. Freedom, to peaceably assemble in protest; although our brothers and sisters in Ferguson, MO might warn you that such freedom gets you arrested, tear gassed, and shot with rubber bullets. Freedom, of religion; only when it’s the right religion. Just ask, NFL player Husain Abdullah who was penalized for praying to Allah after scoring a touchdown, when Christian footballers pray to God in the endzone all the time without reproach. America the beautiful; land of freedom, or is it free-doom?
As descendants of slaves we’ve seen slavery play out and supposedly die out in history, and we’ve been told go get over it! Because we haven’t been slaves for years. That’s interesting when 29 million people are currently living in slavery worldwide; 15,000 of them being trafficked each year right here in the United States. So you might say, “well that’s not me I’m not a victim of human trafficking, and therefore I’m not a slave.” And at least half of that statement would probably be true. But Kanye West says that many of us are “New Slaves” in his song of the same name. Now while I almost never quote scripture from the book of Yeezus, especially new Yeezus, Kanye might be on to something with this New Slaves thing. You see he says that we were set free only to be re-enslaved by money, designer labels, fast cars, and shiny things. New slaves to addiction, and drama, and fear. And not so new slaves to sin. However we still deny that we are enslaved, after all this is America the beautiful; land of the free! You know Harriet Tubman freed a thousand slaves, and she said she would have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
But she wasn’t the first to attempt free slaves who didn’t think they were slaves. The Gospel text for this Reformation Sunday reads,
31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
You see Jesus knows something about trying to free slaves from free-doom, what he says to them is a challenge. If they “continue” or have a firm relationship with Jesus’ word, they will know the truth and will be set free. But much like we would if someone called you or me a slave, the Jews take offense at this, claiming that as descendants of Abraham, they have never been slaves and therefore don’t need to be freed. Ironically they say this, in spite of the fact that it was the descendants of Abraham who lived in bondage in Egypt, and were made captives to several neighboring states throughout their history, and were currently in a form of bondage under the Roman regime.
Jesus corrects their literal understanding of his statement. They may not be in slavery, themselves, but are certainly bound to, enslaved to sin. That he begins with a solemn preamble (“Very truly, I say to you . . .”) indicates the sincerity with which Jesus utters the truth: they are in bondage to sin, but he (“the Son”) can set them free.
One of the abiding themes of Reformation Day is that Martin Luther and the other Reformers discovered freedom in the gospel. Young Luther was particularly caught up in the problem of Jesus’ auditors. Though not strictly enslaved in a literal sense, like them, Luther was trapped in his own sinfulness. Through reading the gospels with fresh understanding, Martin Luther began to grasp its truth; the truth that Christ was not merely the Judge eagerly waiting to exact punishment on hapless sinners. Christ, through his victory on the cross, overcame sin so that those who live in it have the opportunity to be freed from it through the covering of His amazing grace. These were the principles upon which the Lutheran Church was built.
Any church or denomination celebrating Reformation Day can use this opportunity to consider the significance of the theology of the cross. The cross is the greatest irony in history. If you recall, the cross was nothing specific to Jesus; the cross was specific to criminals. And because you’re good bible readers I know that you’ll remember that 2 others joined Jesus on that Friday, hanging from a cross; criminals. The cross was an instrument of condemnation and death; yet it becomes the vehicle for triumph over evil and death. The word of Jesus is the word of the cross and it sets humankind free from our bondage to sin.
People are aware, however, that in one sense, we are not completely free from sin. Do you know that you are not completely free from sin? Do you know that you’ll continue in sin, just as before? Perhaps as believers, we sin less than before we learned to live in close relationship to Jesus’ words. Perhaps. Nonetheless, sin is ever present in life. The difference is Jesus’ act on the cross changes the game entirely. Before it, sin meant the just sentence of death. After the cross, sin brings the possibility of forgiveness. Death is replaced by forgiveness of sins. That is a striking reversal, one that affirms that sinners are free from the terrible fate we deserve.
[Drink from your own cup retreat] I attended a Men’s retreat where the theme for the weekend was, “Drink from your own cup.” But you see, in order to drink from your own cup, you’ve got to first know what’s in it. So we went around the room identifying what was in our cups; infidelity, brokenness, trauma, fear, finances, addiction, incarceration, family drama. You name it and we were carrying it around at the bottom of our cups. And as I listened to where these men had been and where they are now, and even as I reflected on my own cup, I recalled a time where I approached a homeless man who had a sign that read, “I’m not a bad person…I’ve just made some bad decisions.”
Have you ever made a bad decision? Some of us will make some bad decisions as soon as we leave church this morning! Maybe those decisions didn’t leave you homeless, but we’ve all made some poor decisions. We’ve all done somethings that we regret and probably wouldn’t be proud to share with others. We all used to be somebody else…and some of us are still fighting that person within us today. We all used to be somebody else…
I used to be somebody else even; a slightly entitled kid who felt like he had agency in this world simply because of his intellect or academic achievements. You see I felt like I deserved certain treatment not because of who I was but because of what I had done. Upon graduating from college, I thought I deserved a trip to celebrate my accomplishments (again, privilege). So I asked my family if they would all chip in to send me on a trip to London, Amsterdam, and Paris. They agreed. So I went and had a wonderful time, and on my last full day in London I’d decided I was going to go on a shopping spree. Being the dapper gentleman that I am, I spent almost $1000 on fine European haberdashery: suits, ties, French cuff shirts, wingtip shoes. I thought I was balling!
The next day I got to the airport to head back home and when I went to pay for my checked baggage, my credit card was declined. In an entitled tone I said, “Well that’s not possible, try it again please.” But in my mind what I was really saying was, “Uh I just graduated from Morehouse College, I’m headed to Northwestern School of Medicine, and I was JUST balling out of control yesterday. What do you mean it’s declined!?” And again it came back declined. That was my only form of payment. I had no cash, no checks, just this credit card that was now useless. I began to panic.
You see if I couldn’t pay to check my baggage, I couldn’t get on the plane, because airlines don’t allow passengers to travel separate from their luggage in an attempt to thwart terrorist who might check a bomb that makes it onto a plane that he or she does not end up on. Also, international flights generally fly just once a day. So if I missed this flight I’d be stranded in London at least until the next day, still with no money. At this point I’m petitioning to strangers, asking if they would pay for my bag based on promises that because I’d graduated from Morehouse College, was on my way to Northwestern University, and JUST balled out of control the day before, I was good for it once I got back to the states.
But no one cared about the merits of what I had done without knowing who I was and whose I was. It was in that moment that I remembered Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he wrote, “Don’t worry about anything instead pray about everything.” And so I closed my eyes and right there at the baggage counter I started to Pray if forward like Paul. By the time I had opened my eyes, a British Airways manager was standing with my ticket in his hand. He handed it to me and said, “We’ve decided to check your bags anyway. Have a nice flight.” And I had a silent internal praise session, and I prayed on the flight all the way back home thanking Jesus.
When I landed I learned that my little shopping spree was identified as suspicious behavior, uncharacteristic of my normal spending patterns, so they put a hold on my card preventing further fraudulent activity, until I was able to verify that all the charges were authentic. You see I took advantage of this material freedom I thought I was entitled to because of what I’d accomplished, when in fact my new enslavement to these things and possessions almost resulted in free-doom in London. Freedom, you see is not granted for who we think we are and what we’ve done. That’s not freedom.
Freedom is the fact that while we’re worrying about how we’re going to pay for our baggage, God has already checked it at the cross. While we’re worrying about what’s in our cup, Jesus has already filled it with living water and our cup runneth over with His amazing grace. Freedom is not in our ability to separate ourselves from our baggage; freedom is traveling with our baggage, knowing that it’s been checked by God.
Freedom, then, is the good news of this text. But, the word has two distinct prepositional directions. We can be freed from something, but we can also be freed for something. Clearly, by following the word of Jesus, we are set free from sin. But what are we freed for? To remain in Jesus’ word is not merely passive, as in to remain, to stay, or to wait. No one gets to the Promised Land by standing still. The word pushes also toward the active: to abide, to live, to continue. It is used this way repeatedly in John. How shall the disciple abide? In what shall the disciple continue? How shall he or she live? We are to live, my brothers and sisters and Christ, forward. That’s why live spelled backwards is evil and lived spelled backwards is devil. Living was not intended to be done in the past. Living is intended to be a motion of forward progress and to walk in the way of Jesus is to run a forward race. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians 3:12,
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
When Paul was in Corinth he also wrote in his 1st letter to the Corinthians 9:24,
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
You see the prize that Apostle Paul speaks of is Jesus’ word. Those released from sin are freed to live an engaged life in the word. This is an active life of staying near the word by performing it in the world. To live in the word is to live a life of justice, of faithful devotion and study, and a life of commitment to the things that Jesus is committed to. The resounding call of Reformation Day is both to celebrate the good news that we are free from sin and to move from celebration to action as Jesus’ agents in the world, never looking back in this race; always looking forward to the finish line.
If you believe that by continuing in Jesus’ word, Jesus will set you free, why are you still allowing your past or present transgressions to enslave you? My brothers and sisters in Christ, stop running from what’s behind you, and instead start running towards what’s in front of you, and when you run, run to win the ultimate prize in Jesus Christ. In doing so, Jesus promises you his eternal freedom in place of the free-doom offered by this world. So what will you choose Freedom? Or Free-doom? Amen.