Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 33:15 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). If there ever was one, that is a battle cry for the Church of the Augsburg Confession, especially as we observe the Festival of the Reformation! The truth. We want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Or do we? It’s hard not to hear Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men growling, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” We laugh, like Tom Cruise’s character, but the shadow of doubt clings to us like, well, a shadow. The new Jewish believers in John 8:31 thought they could handle the truth. They had heard the message of Jesus of Nazareth, and they had believed. It didn’t all make sense to them, but they believed. The thing about truth, though, is that it doesn’t do what we want it to. Despite the rhetoric, there is no such thing as “your truth,” or “my truth,” or someone else’s truth. If it is truth at all, it is the Truth, regardless of who you are or what you think. We can’t change it, smooth out its rough edges, make it conform to our standards, or melt it down and reshape it in our own desired images.
So it is for these new believers in John 8. Jesus says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32). But Jesus’ audience cannot handle the truth. Its sharp edges cut their hands, and they throw it down in disgust. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’” (8:33)? This, of course, in spite of four hundred years of Egyptian slavery, and captivity to Assyria, Babylon, and Rome. And are you not free? Are you not an emancipated, modern, autonomous individual, who can take care of yourself? You are offspring of the American dream and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that Jesus says to you, “You will become free”?
This idea of freedom is enshrined—we might say, idolized—in this country: you have the freedom to choose your city, your grocery store, your house, your school, your job, your church, and even, with a little manipulation of genetic technology, your family. You have never been slaves to anyone! This, of course, in spite of slavery to clocks and schedules and your own shifting desires, rivaling anything the Israelites ever saw in Egypt.
And Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Sinner is as sinner does. To those who would be His disciples, Jesus says, “You want freedom? You can’t handle freedom.” Because you imagine freedom as the removal of all constraints, all boundaries. You imagine that freedom is being able to do whatever you want to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. The truth is, that sort of freedom is only slavery to yourself. And don’t you ever get tired of that kind of slavery? If you think that the Reformation Gospel means freedom from obedience to all authority but your own conscience, the tyrant who rules you wears your own skin. And this myth of freedom goes all the way back to the Garden. There, in the midst of true freedom, the man and his wife thought that, perhaps, freedom meant only being completely free from and not also being free for. They believed the words of the serpent, and in so doing, they exchanged their true Heavenly Father for the father of lies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). They began to think that their freedom was really slavery to a tyrant and they bought a new “freedom” that was really slavery to sin. And this remains our terrible, twisted irony, as well: from your perspective and mine as sinners, receiving the freedom of God’s truth looks like slavery and aiming at the slavery of sin looks like freedom. Sinner does as sinner is. Truth and lies blur together as our spiritual eyesight goes bad. Who can say anymore? What is truth?
Truth is not mere words, not a statement of fact, not a feeling, not an abstract thought. Truth is a Person. The Truth that sets you free is the Son who is Freedom. He alone is Freedom; He alone is Truth. Apart from Him all freedom is slavery and all truth is a lie. Oh, but if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed! Truly free. This is freedom in reality and not freedom in name only. What does it mean to be truly free? It means you no longer have Satan as your lord. You have renounced him and all his works and all his ways. True freedom is freedom from your sinful nature that ruled you from conception: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:21-22). To be truly free is to have a new Lord, who claims you for His own. “The Good News is not that ‘we don’t have to do anything’; the Good News is that we get to have Jesus for our Lord instead of the devil” (Yeago). In this true freedom, life is lived for the sake of others: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Beloved, the Truth of the Reformation is not a religious idea that has been carried out more or less successfully in various denominations or at various times. The Truth of the Reformation was and is Jesus Christ, the Son who sets people free from all our multiplying slaveries. It is the Son who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He says, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). He says, as He prays to His Father for you, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). It is the pure Gospel of unearned, undeserved welcoming of all people, for whom Christ died—and the very best emblem of salvation by pure, freely given grace is the baptism of an infant. Here, the person is doing nothing, bringing nothing, earning nothing, and Jesus gives all; you are saved by grace, not by works.
Can you handle this Truth? Can you handle this Man and His Word? Not if it means that you carry Him around in a special compartment of your brain and bring Him out when it’s comfortable for you. You can’t handle it if it means that you keep Him safely within the lines of your religion or your spirituality or your worship experience. You may not put this God in boxes of your own making because He has already put Himself in the box of human flesh to save you from your slavery to sin. He will not be kept within the boundaries of your religion because He has already put Himself within the boundaries of true religion: the boundaries of water, words, bread, and wine. You cannot handle Him like you handle an object, because He is the everlasting subject who acts for and upon you—you, who are the object of His mercy. There is only one way to handle this God, this Truth, and that is to put your finger into holes made by nails and to put your hand into a hole made by a spear—all for you. “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). Take and eat; take and drink. Here is the Truth made flesh, and this Truth sets you free today and always. In Jesus, you are free indeed. Remain in His Word of forgiveness and freedom; hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
Today we remember and give thanks for some who have gone before us who also trusted in the Word of Truth, Jesus Christ. Five hundred years ago, give or take, the Truth began to reform His Church, as He always does. At that time he chose to use a German monk. But reformation and renewal are simply the way of Truth. He does not leave His Church, His Body, without Himself. The Truth may sometimes look like the smallest seed in a forest of towering and thickly-planted lies. But nothing has prevented that plant from sending out roots that reach from Jerusalem to Rome, from Wittenberg to Augsburg, from Saxony to St. Louis, from Africa to Asia, to all the ends of the earth. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). In the mouths of His servants, the Word stands and bears testimony before kings and it is not put to shame (Psalm 119:46). A mighty fortress is our God!
“Preserve Your Word, O Savior, to us this latter day/And let Your kingdom flourish; Enlarge Your Church, we pray…Preserve Your Word and preaching, the truth that makes us whole/The mirror of Your glory, the pow’r that saves the soul” (“Preserve Your Word, O Savior,” LSB 658, st. 1, 4). “Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word” (LSB 655); Your Word is Truth. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). You are the Way, the Life, and the Truth.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/29/21