As election day approaches, each side of our two-party system invokes an essential core value of our nation, freedom, claiming it as their own. Both sides like to quote the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And, polarized as we are, each side interprets this core value with a different spin, to the derision of the other.
Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door, was a declaration of independence too, or at least an invitation to debate the freedom of a Christian in the early 16th century, a scant 200 years before Jefferson and the other signers put ink to parchment. The church had come to a turning point. It hadn’t come overnight, and it wasn’t just Luther. It was wide and deep, and at the bottom it rocked the question of the authority in the church. And the Spirit was moving the real church, the people, to listen and respond.
If the colonists in America felt enslaved to the mother country, so too did Martin, the Augustinian monk from Germany, feel enslaved and oppressed by the wrathful God that was taught to him. A God who threatened hell and demanded obeisance and good works, which the church regulated and controlled, and which no Christian could ever really measure up to. As we know now, there was a sea change with the Reformation, shifting where authority would reside in the Christian movement. The authority of God for the previous 500 years resided in the hierarchy of the church, symbolized in the Pope, to, sola scriptura, holy scripture as the sole authority. Suddenly, Jeremiah’s prophecy was clear as a bell, “I will make a new covenant with them… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Luther’s personal quest to find a merciful and loving God, channeled the spirit of the time that was moving through all believers of the church. Luther wrote that, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and at the same time, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther resolved the divisiveness that threatened the church with a new authority, written on our hearts.
Unfortunately, too many Reformation celebrations over the centuries have come at the expense of other traditions and denominations, especially Roman Catholics. Too often Lutherans expressed their reason for existence in what they are not, tearing down others, instead of celebrating what is positive about who we are. Too much preaching on Reformation Day turned John’s gospel into a bombastic boasting, “We are the descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”
“But truly I tell you,” the only intention of Luther was to reform the church, not to start a new one, to invite Christians into a new and genuine relationship with God. The spirit was moving, and they knew that, “if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
It is rather ironic that in our gospel reading today, the Judeans, along with the disciples of Jesus, and thousands of other pilgrims, were all gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Booths. Ironic because, this Feast was a celebration of the Exodus, a celebration of their being freed from slavery in Egypt. And yet as soon as Jesus mentions freedom to them, they respond that, as children of Abraham, they have never been slaves to anyone! Who’s fooling who!? Not only was it a celebration of the Exodus, but also for their return from 40 years of Exile in Babylon after that, and their hope of being released in the present, from Roman occupation.
Or maybe they just conveniently blocked it out their minds? Let freedom ring! It was festival time, after all!
I think you know what I’m talking about because, we do the same, don’t we! We deny that we are dutiful servants as well as free lords, which impose duties and responsibilities on us, and we pursue an American dream of becoming free from all that. Some want the freedom to make as much money as they want, some want the freedom to own as much land and property as they want. Some want limitless freedom of time, others want unlimited enjoyment on their own terms. This devolving of the American dream believes that there are no consequences to worry or think about in the pursuit of freedom. “We have never been slaves to anyone,” and because no one should be slaves, then we should be free to do as we please. There’s a libertarian streak in us all! But this sinfulness comes at a price. Our land, water and air suffer and die. Pre-emptive wars are waged, and trade and foreign economies are controlled, all so we can feed our limitless appetite for, freedom?
Martin Luther, and other reformers, pointed to a different kind of freedom, the spiritual core value of the gospel, that we are both “slaves to sin,” and at the same time, “free indeed.” We are both ‘lords and servants.’ We are people of ‘cross and resurrection.’ None of us can free ourselves just by wishing it so, or even by working harder. But the good news is, Jesus has freed us already. We are “made free” to trust and be in relationship with God and each other. This is a freedom for something, for life, and also a freedom of servant-hood to be accountable to one another. Instead of freedom to get all I can for myself, without limits or accountability, the reforming spirit of every age, is a spirit of inter-dependence and trust.
Ironically for us, we are in the midst of another sea change, 500 years after the Reformation. The authority of scripture is changing, and is not holding us together as the church any longer. We do not yet know where the spirit is moving the church, or where the truth of authority will reside that will bind us together. But we continue to learn new truths, from the same old God. It’s hard to believe now, but at the same time that Luther helped to pioneer a new freedom for the church to thrive and grow, the same church was complicit in the slave trade of Africans. While that battle still continues for a full freedom, and after struggling against a host of other sins the spirit has revealed to us, like classism and sexism, we also fight perhaps the last major battle, that of gender inequality, the struggle of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered children of God. The push back against all this change today is that we are too ‘politically correct.’ But the injustice, the bullying, and the hunger for the truth are real. We can feel the church flinging apart as much as yearning for a new day of unity. And the truth is that none of us are free until all are free. If we don’t confess our sin, turn around and live a new life, we are just like the Judeans who celebrated the freedom of the festival of tabernacles, believing they never were enslaved in the first place.
God is taking us to a new place, you can be sure of that, and faithfulness is required like never before. We hunger and thirst for the truth, and even as we are buffeted by the boldly blowing wind of the spirit, we hold on tight to this core value of the gospel, “if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed!” Come to the banquet, taste and see that the Lord is good.