Romans 3:19-28 19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.20For "no human being will be justified in his sight" by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
John 8:31-36 31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."33They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?"
34Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
I was a rebellious teenager and couldn’t wait to be free from the tyranny of Dick and Peggy, my parents. I pictured being able to stay out as long as I wanted, eat and drink whatever I wanted, and spend time with whomever I wanted. All I wanted was freedom. And as soon as I was unleashed from the grip of parenting I would be free to have as much fun as I could cram into a 24 hour day. That day finally came and yet, strangely there still was no freedom. For I had exchanged one form of bondage for another. Yet now it was bondage to self. In my late teens and 20s I just lived under the tyranny of my own selfish desires instead of the tyranny of my parents and I was far from free. I always thought freedom meant being able to do whatever I wanted but if that’s freedom then I was lied to. It ends up that real freedom is not the same as unfettered access to personal choices. Freedom in the form of me getting to do whatever I want is still being enslaved. Because selfishness is still a cruel master.
I mention this because in our readings for today Jesus claims that he will make us free. It’s just that I don’t think he means that he will create an environment where we get to be our own boss and do whatever we want. Plus when it comes to knowing the truth of what we are in bondage to and the truth of what real freedom looks like we often get things wrong.
This is what we see in the text we read from John’s Gospel. We know that Jesus is talking to some of his fellow Jews when he says his famous line “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. And then they’re like “Oh yeah, we’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone”. Um, are you sure? Babylon ring a bell….or, I don’t know… Egypt? what exactly was it that Moses led your people out of? A carnival? no. it was slavery.
Rather than give a history lesson, Jesus uses the opportunity to make the point that we are actually slaves to sin. And that weird denial of reality in which we say “Well, it’s not like we’ve ever been slaves” simply points to the delusions we all seem to have. In some circles those delusions are called Denial. And denial is a wonderful thing…until it’s not. My daughter Harper was a defiant and willful toddler. I’m sure you’re shocked. I know my parents were delighted. Anyhow, when she was 3 and we were about to go on a 2 hour car ride we told her she needed to go to the bathroom first. Not liking being told what to do she become recalcitrant. When I said honey you have to go pee. She stomped her foot and said No! Never! This I can relate to. I want to create my own freedom but when I do it just always seems to be just another form of bandage.
So when we are offered real freedom it’s like Jesus is saying exactly what is it that God leads you out of? a carnival? no. It’s our bondage to sin from which we cannot free ourselves.
But in an age of self care and therapy and high self esteem (and there is nothing wrong with these things per se) but in such an age, and especially in the so-called progressive church, sin is not a popular topic. As a matter of fact, in the church planting business these days, there is a trend toward eliminating any talk of sin at all…including the confession and absolution at the beginning of our liturgies. Why? Because it’s too negative. People don’t want to hear they are sinners. Partly because they think saying you are a sinner is just having really low self esteem. But in all fairness our discomfort with the term sin stems partly from the fact that the term has so often been abused and misused in the church. Especially when sin is preached as something totally avoidable by good people. Immorality is pretty avoidable…sin is not. My suspicion is that when people hear “you are a sinner” what they really hear is, “you are immoral” and if you are someone who doesn’t cheat on their taxes or their spouse and doesn’t murder or steal then you understandably don’t want to spend your Sunday morning having someone imply that you do. But sin, Martin Luther reminds us, is bigger than simple immorality. Sin is being curved in on self without a thought for God or the neighbor. It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Our being curved in on ourselves will fashion itself in endless variety. Pretending otherwise just never helps.
See, that’s the thing about truth…Truth…when it is real can cut deep and heal at the same time. And Jesus says that truth brings freedom. Freedom from having to pretend , freedom from having to defend, freedom from having to protect. And hearing the truth that we are in bondage to self and that no amount of trying to be good can change that cuts deep but it also heals. It heals because it simply gives us no choice but to be placed in the loving arms of Jesus, the great physician who heals through grace.
Martin Luther, in a letter to another preacher said “if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” That’s the other side of the truth coin. Yes, you are a sinner. But you are also a saint. Fully made new and alive in Christ. We are all simultaneously sinners AND saints. But sometimes being told that you are a saint can be just as hard to hear as you are a sinner.
You are a real and not a fictitious sinners and you are objects of God’s real and not fictitious grace.
See, Jesus brings real truth and real freedom. He isn’t just sitting in heaven waiting to see if we can pull off the impossible thing of becoming righteous on our own and then condemning us for our inevitable failure. Jesus subverts the entire paradigm. Because Jesus actually IS our righteousness. Despite our lumpy broken lives, we are righteous before God. But our righteousness is that of a Merciful and gracious God who comes to us in the vulnerability and suffering revealed in the cradle and cross. And the thing is….with the righteousness of Christ there is no extra credit to be obtained. It just is.
So the truth that sets you free is so much more than the truth of your personal and our societal sin. The truth that sets you free is also the truth of your unbelievable beauty and saintliness.
Because it is always the truth of who we are coupled with the truth of who God is that sets us free. And I’m in it for the freedom. And we are given not just the freedom FROM sin and death…we are without question given the freedom FOR the neighbor.
People often give House for All Sinners and Saints puzzled looks. They sometimes furrow their brow and tilt their heads and say Why do you bless bicycles and bring thanksgiving lunches to strippers and assemble bleach kits for IV drug users and sing hymns in bars. And smiling I always say “I don't know. Because we’re free?”.