Sermon given at WordAlone's Reformation at the Crossroads Conference, November 19, 2002.
Dear hearers of the word of God: Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Freedom—it’s the word, the concept, we use in Word alone and here we have the Magna Charta of the Christian faith, Jesus giving us in just a few words the heart of the Gospel. You that are his disciples and follow in his Word, will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. To know Jesus is to know the truth, to know Jesus is to be made free. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves of sin, we are free. What is a slave? A slave is someone who has been bought and sold, who has no say in his or her future. The only thing that can free a slave is a ransom, something that pays the price of the slave and the one purchasing has to set the slave free. It was possible, but rare, for slaves to find the resources to free themselves. In the economy of God, however, not one single one of us can free ourselves from the toils of sin. Only our Lord Jesus, by his death and resurrection, can free us from sin, death and the power of the devil.
How does this work? It’s very hard today to tell people they are sinners, even if it’s true. And still, each one of us is caught in the toils of our own making and cannot save ourselves. We are bound by our own limitations, our mortality. We know it, sicken of it, even as we try to free ourselves. It’s tiresome, as Matthew Arnold puts it, to be “Weary of myself and sick of asking what I am, and what I ought to be.”
Even our dreams of freedom catch us up and bind us. One of the great teachers at Luther College, Dennis Jones, when we were studying Dante’s Divine Comedy, used to ask the Freshmen in Paedeia, what their dreams were: he would get stories of law school, medicine, great jobs, good salaries, fancy cars, houses, perfect families, vacations, the good life. Remember the Divine Comedy? When Dante, caught, midway in his life’s journey, in the dark woods, about to drown in his life, suddenly sees a light from the highest heaven, sent to him by grace, by the grace of God. To the fresh-faced students listening to Dennis, their dreams seemed endlessly attractive, good things to be hoped for. And we wanted them to hope for these things, it spurred them on. But by the time they would get to mid-life, when people have their mid-life crises, they wouldn’t seem so grand, because they had been attained, and they didn’t seem so grand, they ended in the grave. After these good things were acquired, in mid-life, the song, he told them, would begin to change to another one—Is that all there is? Well, then let’s go dancing. Although part of life, and means to a good life, they were not enough. Only the intervention of grace, light, Christ, could save them, by giving them a different end to their story. Instead of ending in the grave, their story, in the Christian story, was joined to that of Christ, and in Christ, and through Christ, his death and resurrection, they would receive life, eternal life. Christ’s story would be their end. And that was freedom, freedom from the consequences of sin, from the fear of death, and the ravages of the evil one. Because their lives ended in Christ, life, ironically, was a gift, a rich pleasure. Jesus had come into their lives to save them from themselves—to take their sins upon himself and give them all his benefits. If you have the Son, Jesus says, you will be free indeed. God’s Son has made me free, yes, free, the anthem goes, from Satan’s tyranny. We can even laugh at death. Such freedom gives me an entirely different way to relate to the world in which I am now living because, in the words of Martin Luther King, we have seen the other side and the trials of this life don’t really matter all that much any more. We have seen the truth, the Son, and we are free.
This is the great theme of the Reformation on the freedom of the Christian: Free lord of all, servant to none; servant of all, lord of none.
Heinrich Bornkamm in his book on the heart of the Reformation says that what this freedom brings us is our vocation: and what that vocation includes is love, work and suffering. Love Calls us to the things of this world the poet says. God loves the world through us, we are drawn to it by love and we stoop to work and serve it because of this love which God has given us in Christ Jesus. We love because he first loved us. We work for our neighbor because we are free, now, to love, but we will also suffer. Suffering comes to Christians because we are marked with the sign of the cross, and we bear it wherever we go.
Suffering. It’s not very appealing, but it is one of the marks of the church. It’s worth some thought today. The religious authorities when they hear Jesus’ talk about truth, freedom, and his Sonship, react with rage and speak of killing him. The idea they are not free enrages them and they seek to lay hands on him. It’s dangerous to be counted among those in religious authority. The Bible, among other things, is a record of how the religious establishment hurts and betrays its own. We know these things happen; we see the record of it in history.
My friends in Word Alone, we have learned about this suffering in ways we would never have expected to some year ago, but we now know it first hand, in surprising ways. Who of us would have believed that the church that nursed us into faith, that gave us life, eternal life, when it gave us faith in Jesus Christ through our baptism, and nurtured this faith in Sunday school and confirmation instruction, that this church would break our hearts. That the church we have loved with all our being, because it gave us so much, good friends, good pastors, great schools, great music, great preaching, a world wide mission, connections with Christians around the globe, has abandoned its fundamental commitments and identity for reasons with which we disagree and, we believe, compromise the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The experience of the past 5 years has cut us to the quick, and it hurts, bad.
Some of our numbers have left, shaking the dust off their feet, eager to get on building a church that is not compromised on this dear treasure we have in the Gospel. Some of us have chosen to stay and fight from within. Others are conflicted and don’t know which way to turn. All of us have suffered, not only from the ELCA, but from each other as we struggle among ourselves to find a way to be faithful to Christ. It is hard not to brew a strong liquor of bitterness from these various experiences, but Jesus speaks sweet comfort to us here. He came to make us free, free to live without bitterness, without fear. In doing so, he made it possible for us to fight the good fight, to stand up against the powers that be, no matter what, despite the suffering it might bring. You see, we have seen the other side, and nothing can deter us now.
A pastor I know in Copenhagen noticed a young woman who started coming into the back of the church to sit for a time while she wept copiously. After some days of this, my friend went to sit beside the young woman to see if there was anything she could do for her. After some time, the woman dried her tears and pointed to a picture of Christ suffering on the cross. I came in here for the first time some days ago, she said, wishing to die, hating my life and its many sorrows. The pressures outside to be successful, to win, to conquer every problem has almost destroyed me. But as I have been drawn back day after day, to look at the picture of Jesus on the cross, I’ve come to realize that this is the only place I’ve ever found where suffering is allowed. As she came to sit there and see and hear the story of Jesus, she was free to plumb the depths of her grief, her suffering was allowed, because, on the other hand, in that place, death had no dominion, Christ had won the victory in his bitter death on the cross. The Son had made her free, free indeed!
This is what our movement is called to do: preach the Word in and out of season. If it doesn’t preach, it’s not worth much. WordAlone is called to tell the world about a Lord who understands our deepest woes, and who has conquered them with his own bitter death and resurrection. If the Son has made you free, you are free indeed!
Around 1528, Martin Luther, beset on every side by terror and trouble, the death of his dear daughter, his deepest melancholia, the siege of Vienna by the Turk, wrote the great battle hymn of the reformation, in which he confesses that no matter what the world, the flesh or the devil would wrest away from him, goods, honor, child or spouse, he was free because all his strength was in that little word that could fell all his enemies, that little word, God’s word, the Lord Jesus Christ himself! The Son had made him free, he was free indeed!
And now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.