In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Reformation, everybody! I’m liturgically accurate here, with my red. I generally give the same sermon pretty much every time Joe asks me to do this. I swap out jokes and pop-culture references, but the substance, I like to think, is generally similar each go-round. Let me tell you what: This was probably the most difficulty I’ve had with preparing a sermon. I spent days and days agonizing over this text, just so completely confused.
This Sunday, of course, is Reformation Sunday. I don’t know if you remember or were here, but I preached this same Sunday last year. In fact, Reformation Sunday is my favorite Sunday of the church year, so this is a bit of a treat for me.
Last year I decided that I wouldn’t spend my message bashing on the Pope. I spent time talking about Mormons, instead! Well, this year I’ve decided to give a ceremonial pardon once again to the Holy Father. Papa Francis is so nice, isn’t he?
Instead I’m going to talk to you about a different kind of pope: You. Or more specifically, your flesh. Let me tell you about the trouble I had with this sermon. I spent days and days agonizing over the text, specifically over the Gospel reading.
You see, Jesus is speaking to Jews who had believed him, as in, they do not believe him anymore. They had, for whatever reason, scripture isn’t clear, left him and gone back to their Judaism. So Jesus is speaking with them and he says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples,” and, “If you sin you are a slave to sin.” Of course, they hem and haw at this. “Oh, we’re the seed of Abraham, we’ve never been enslaved to anyone.” You can almost hear the eyerolling that must have been happening, right?
You hear this same thing from atheists today, right? “I’m not a slave to anyone or anything,” they shout at you from behind $18,000 worth of Star Wars figurines, crippling alcoholism, obsessions with politics or pop-culture, nightly Netflix binge watching.
We could spend this whole time discussing the kings of this world and how easily they enslave us all without our even realizing it. We’re not going to, but I think it’s a very worthwhile consideration for you in your own private time.
Instead, I want to talk about my own reaction to this text because I had the exact opposite reaction to these words, I think. Every time I came to our Gospel reading, all I saw in it was the law.
If you sin you are a slave to sin. If you abide in my word, you are my disciple.
The difficulty with this text is that it says what it says, and it doesn’t say anything else. You can’t make it say anything else. Raise your hand if you’ve sinned at all this week.
Right? Do you get it? It’s a simple if/then statement. I have sinned, I am therefore a slave to sin.
In my prep for this thing I read at least a dozen sermons on this same text from various other pastors. Let me tell you, did not help me at all. I read one guy who spent his whole sermon talking about and pondering the phrase “abide by”. What does it mean to abide by the law, or abide by a judgement, or abide by the rules? Then he asks, are we abiding by the Words of Jesus? And how it looks when we abide by the words of Jesus.
Then, right at the end, he hits you with this little gem: Jesus said abide in his words, not by them. Oof! Now I’m sitting here, a slave to my sin, wondering if I abide in the Words of Jesus, or if I just abide by them.
But the more I chewed on the text, the more I came to realize something: Jesus is right! Go figure, He’s God. At the reformation a little over 500 years ago, Martin Luther realized that the Western church had redecorated and crawled back into the same cage that the pharisees had found themselves in. The same cage that atheists decorate and paint up. The same cage that your average Baptist or Calvinist lives in. The same cage we’re so tempted to crawl into ourselves every day.
The cage of good works. It’s this idea that you can good work yourself into heaven. And the thing is, you just can’t. You can fast all you want, do your penance, hold the correct political views, give a dollar to every homeless person on the street, and be kind to every single soul you run across. You can be like the Jains, an ancient religious group out of India, who carry straw brooms with them to sweep the path in front of them, lest they step on an insect and do harm to a living creature.
Even if you’re the most magnanimous person in the world, loving and kind to everyone you meet, and it changes nothing about your condition: If you sin, you are a slave to sin. Sons of Abraham or not. Kind or not. And slaves get cast out of the house. They don’t get any inheritance.
So then the big question we come to is this: Who do you trust? Do you trust yourself and your own works? You see, that’s what Jesus is telling these people. He’s saying, in effect: You can trust yourself, and your ceremony, and your ritual, and your law all day long. But at the end of the day, you’re a slave to sin, and just like a slave you will one day be cast out of the master’s house.
But there’s an alternative to trusting yourself. The alternative is trusting Jesus. Because, you see, if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. If the Son sets you free, you are actually free! Now this doesn’t mean you’re free from sinning, or free from addiction. But it does mean that you’re free from slavery to those things.
It means, as Paul says in Galatians 4, ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.’
Sons, unlike slaves, are not cast out of the house. They are, in fact, rulers in the house and heirs to everything that is their Father’s. For you and me, that means that we are no longer slaves to sin and bound to death. Rather, because of baptism, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” (Romans 8:17). We are born again by the washing of regeneration. Born by the water and the word. Born again as sons and daughters.
I want you to have hope today. It may seem sometimes that we are slaves to sin. Sometimes we do thing we shouldn’t do or avoid doing things we should do. But we have a blessed hope in Christ our Lord that, despite our best efforts, we are saved. We are adopted as children. We are sons, not slaves.
And it is in the name of Him who sets us free, our Holy and Risen Lord Jesus Christ that I say, Amen.