“We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves to anyone.” (John 8:33b)
There’s quite the irony to these words. “We have never been slaves to anyone.” Apparently they forgot about that whole Egypt thing that was so foundational to their identity as God’s people, when God rescued them from slavery by leading them safely through the Red Sea. I can see Jesus’ jaw dropping when they respond this way, although I have to say, he plays it off quite well.
And another thing, what does their status of being descendants of Abraham have to do with anything? What connection are they making between their belief of not having ever been slaves and being descendants of Abraham?
And another thing, if these people indeed are not slaves, although occupied by the Roman empire, exactly what does Jesus mean by suggesting they are enslaved?
And another thing? What does all of this have to do with us? Well, think about it. Any of us could say: “we are Americans, and we’ve never been slaves to anyone.” But here are Jesus’ words for us, suggesting that we are indeed enslaved in some way, and in need of being set free.
Jesus makes it clear that he was talking about slavery to sin: that we are “captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves.” This of course still applies to us today. And of course Reformation Day is the perfect time to talk about this, as the question of our bondage to sin and how God frees us from it was central to the reformation.
Martin Luther, for who our denomination is named, defined sin as our self-centered “ness,” the word he used to describe sin literally translates as us being “turned in on ourselves.” Basically, part of being human is that from time to time we inevitably fall into a pattern of thinking it’s all about us and wanting to be in control.
Luther saw how this led people to their own attempts at self-justification-that is, our efforts to live thinking that “if we are good enough, and do the right things, we will be rewarded, God will love us, our lives will be successful and we’ll get to heaven.” A walk down the self-help section of a book store will reveal that this is still alive and well: we try to make our lives meaningful based on the things we do: how successful we are, or how happy we are have become the signs of a meaningful life, and we will follow any prescribed plan to obtain those things. Like “10 habits of successful people do that you should start doing right now” kind of Facebook posts.
I think this kind of sin of wanting to be in control is rooted in our insecurity: our inability to trust that God has things under control. If we want to be ok, or “make it” in life, we better take things into our own hands.
All of this has to do with us trying to make meaning in our lives in a way that ignores our relationship with God. Luther was concerned that people were afraid that they weren’t good enough for God to love them. People are still afraid of that today: that if they aren’t good enough, God won’t love them.
And so we are in bondage to our self-righteousness – our quest to get more stuff and status to believe that our lives have meaning.
But these attempts will ultimately fail: cannot buy love, working more hours will not make your life meaningful, popularity does not necessarily mean acceptance, and ultimately, death will level out the playing field in the end when it comes to acquiring and accumulating all of these things.
We are bound to a sin that traps us in a life that feels like a rat race in which we can never really get anywhere.
Jesus’ solution to our slavery to sin is the truth, which will set us free.
Luther would have almost certainly understood this truth to be the Gospel. The fundamental foundation of the reformation was the assertion that absolutely nothing we do makes us “good enough” to earn God’s love, or to make our lives meaningful. It’s the Gospel, the “good news” that God loves us no matter what we do, and in fact God makes us righteous, worthy people just by sheer grace, despite our failed attempts of self-righteousness to make ourselves perfect. God is the meaning of our life, not how successful or righteous we are.
In short: we do not have to earn God’s favor, love, or forgiveness. It’s not about whether we are good enough. God doesn’t keep score of our shortcomings. This was the spark of the reformation, and it is the Good News that we continue to proclaim today in a world that tries to make us doubt that God would love us the way we are by telling us we need to be richer or more attractive, or more popular or important. The Gospel frees us from the rat race of a life where we slave to be successful when the truth is that our efforts can’t actually ensure our happiness, health, or even our lives.
Luther talked and wrote extensively about the freedom that was a Christian’s-because we don’t have to worry about earning God’s love by being a good enough person, we are free from that burden. We can live, celebrating the grace God has shown us, free to enjoy the lives God has given us, free to do our best in life, free to serve others and share this good news with the world. We are free to proclaim that our destiny is secured not by our own achievements, but is guaranteed by the one who died on a cross and was raised again, proving once and for all that God’s love is more powerful even than death.
The Good News is that in God’s Kingdom we are not accepted because of what we’ve done, or accumulated, or accomplished-we are accepted simply because God loves us. And our identity and lives as God’s people is not a title we have earned by how good we are, but as an act of sheer grace.
So, in the words of our psalm today, God says “be still and know that I am God.” Let the truth set you free from your fears, your worries, your anger, your guilt: know that God knows you, and God loves you, and that dear friends is all that we need.