October 31, 2016

Reformation Sunday, The Rev. Dr. Robin Steinke, President, Luther Seminary

Today’s scripture readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36

Grace, mercy and peace to you in the name of the Triune God. The key words from our Gospel text today may be familiar to us all. “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” In my ministry as seminary president I often am the bearer of a kind of truth. Part of my ministry involves communicating with students, staff, faculty, the board or the wider church about not only joys but also challenges as we engage in the ministry of preparing leaders for churches that are changing. The truth telling unfolds something like this: The audit is complete, it was a clean audit but structural deficits remain… The transformation we need to do as an institution means the work you have been doing for a decade will end … and your job as well … We had a graduating class of over 100 students but together with the other seminaries we are only meeting 35% of the need for pastors and deacons…I have rarely come away from these conversations about the truth of some current reality, feeling a sense of freedom. People seem to go away rather worried, disturbed or frustrated, not celebrating freedom in the truth.

When one hears the word of truth that the biopsy is cancerous, it has spread and there is nothing else we can do; the marriage is over and your ex was granted custody of the kids; the company is downsizing and the jobs including yours, will be outsourced; membership in Christian Churches in the US continues on decades of decline; your adult children inform you that they are “done” with church; This truth sharing doesn’t seem to open the way to freedom but rather worry, fear, frantic activity and even chaos. Hearing the truth can at times seem to rob one’s freedom, not grant freedom.

You will know the truth and the truth will make you … crazy, or fearful, filled with anxiety or victimized, angry, or frantic with activity. What can our Gospel writer mean that you will know the truth and the truth will make you free? Perhaps this dilemma reflects something of the incredulity of the community when they respond to Jesus’ statement with “What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free?”

Truth about Discipleship

Earlier in the text we read “if you continue (abide) in my word, you are truly my disciples.” What is the truth of what it means to be a disciple? Is our expectation that discipleship inoculates us from the present power of sin and ensures a life of personal comfort and prosperity? Is our expectation that somehow discipleship paves the way for freedom from struggle with the truth?

Luther poses a very different reading of what it means to know the truth and be free. He writes, “And if you persevere…through cross and suffering, then you are my disciples … I know that it is easy to believe in the beginning. But where are those who remain steadfast, who persevere, endure and say: ‘Let come whatever God send me! If I am not to be well, then I am satisfied to be sick. If I am not to be rich, then I shall be content to remain poor. Whether I live or die, I shall remain with Christ.” (Vol 23, p. 393)

Luther’s comments reflect a very different truth about discipleship and freedom. To abide, remain, to know the truth is to be a child of God. You are beloved, you belong to Jesus, no matter what. Last Wednesday we celebrated three seventeenth century hymn writers in the commemoration of saints. One hymn writer, Philip Nicolai, provides a helpful illustration of what the truth of discipleship in Christ and freedom means. Whilst Philip Nicolai’s parishioners were dying of the plague in 1597, sometimes at the rate of 30 a day, he wrote hymns like “Wake Awake, for Night is Flying.” The last stanza begins “Now let all the heav’ns adore you and saints and angels sing before you…lead us to bliss beyond all dreaming with angel choirs around your throne.”

This testimony points to the power of the Word of God in Christ Jesus who invites us to place our trust and hope in the only one who can bear with us the reality of the truth. The one who calls us into relationship and is present in the midst of the most desperate circumstances and who opens the way for us to freedom and who invites us to call a situation what it is, without pretense or false optimism. The one who says you are beloved, you belong to Jesus, no matter what.

Truth about freedom

There are times when the power of the truth is so unsettling that we prefer to live with the illusions of our own making. The desires of our own heart distort our view of reality and redirect our attention from God to a host of alternate little gods, idols of our own making. The idol of self-sufficiency which tells us that we are on our own. The idol of self criticism which tells us we are not very important. The idol of self-interest which tells us we are the only ones who matter. Luther described these distortions in the Large Catechism in response to the question what does it mean to have a god? “A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. … Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” (BC, 386:2-3) The truth and freedom to which our Gospel writer points is freedom from making idols out of our lives, jobs, our congregations, our families.  You are beloved. You belong to Jesus, no matter what.

From what are we free?

What this means is that we are free from needing to justify our own existence, free from the need to create illusions which insulate us from the reality of struggle, sin and death. We are free to be the one whom God has called us to be with all the uncertainties, problems, failings and frailties that accompany what it is to be human.

This freedom is not just personal freedom but communal freedom, freedom to be the church. We are free from the need to vilify those who think differently or worship differently. Tomorrow morning Lutherans and Roman Catholics worldwide will jointly commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation for the first time in 499 years! This prayer service bears public witness that there is more that unites us than divides us as Catholics and Lutherans. As Catholics and Lutherans share the document “Together in Hope” we sketch the possibilities for this global public witness: “In a world struggling with breakdowns in communication, the increasing recurrence of inflammatory, divisive speeches and growing violence and conflict, Catholics and Lutherans will draw from the depth of our shared faith in the Triune God to state publicly:

  • It is possible to leave conflict behind
  • Hatred and violence … should be emphatically rejected;
  • Clouded memories can fade away.
  • A painful history does not exclude a bright future;
  • There is power in reconciliation, as it sets free to turn to each other, … in love and service.

This freedom is not freedom from responsibilities, accountability, but a freedom for the other, freedom for the world, freedom to enter into the pain, isolation, loneliness and poverty of the world.  Luther writes, “…if [the Gospel] had meant freedom from the cross, a free and comfortable life at home, exemption from taxes and subservience to no one. If the gospel were such a doctrine, I would be able to convert the whole world in one hour.” (LW, Vol. 23 , p. 399) “For truth does not consist merely in hearing Christ or in being able to blabber about him at length (always good counsel for a preacher) but also in believing in your heart and in experiencing with your heart that Christ wants to set you free. This is what makes a true Christian.” (LW, Vol. 23, p. 401)

Truth about the cross

The truth and freedom to which this text points us is that we no longer need to invest our whole life into an unachievable quest to be of worth. God says yes to us as persons set into community, the church. You are beloved, you belong to Jesus, no matter what. We dare not equate this with the notion that we are always right or that the church is somehow immune from the bondage to sin but in all humility, we have the freedom to be bold and to take risks for the sake of the good news that God comes to us as we are with the word of truth that sets us free.

We need not anesthetize ourselves from God’s truth for us with overwork, incessant activity or the din of an overscheduled life. Our Psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God is good at writing straight with crooked lines. To know the truth is to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. You are beloved, you belong to Jesus, no matter what.

Is there a truth which you have been too fearful to see? Have you been harboring a denial of your gifts or hiding from a truth which you simply can’t face? God’s love in Christ makes it possible for us to hear the truth of our personal and communal illness, failure, inadequacy, injustice, and respond with the sure confidence that Christ is here in the midst of the mess and does not abandon us in the hour of need. You are beloved, you belong to Jesus, no matter what. That’s the good news today! Amen!