Jesus said to some of the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” They said to him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the son has a place there forever. So if the son makes you free, you will be free, indeed.”
Many of my favorite memories as a child include my older brother and the two kids who lived next door to us on Albon Road, in Holland, Ohio – our best friends Ev and Kristie. I was the youngest. Kristie was my age, but a year ahead of me in school. Brad is my older brother and Ev – short for Everett – is Kristie’s big brother. We were – and are, still – like siblings to each other in many ways. We spent all of our time together, vacationed together, felt as comfortable in each others’ homes as we did in our own, were disciplined and cared for by each others’ parents – we had that kind of a friendship.
Anyway, whenever we did anything as kids, it was always Mark and Kristie against Brad and Ev. The younger ones against the older ones. The smallest boy and “the girl” against the bigger, stronger, faster, older brothers.
And Kristie and I always lost. Whether it was kickball or basketball or red-light, green-light or whatever, we never mixed up the teams. It was always the little ones against the big ones. And the little ones always, always, always – ALWAYS – lost.
And we would get sick of it, Kristie and I. A lot of the time, we played separately –Kristie and I off doing our own thing and the older brothers off doing their thing. But just as often, someone would raise the notion that we play together – against each other, in teams. And the older brothers would convince Kristie and me to play kickball, for example.
We would resist, because we didn’t want to get our butts kicked, again. But they would offer to change the rules to convince us. They would give us 10 outs an inning, to their 1, for instance. Or they would give us a 10-run lead at the start of the game, for example. Or they’d agree to walk instead of running the bases, even. It was obnoxious and pathetic and embarrassing, really.
But it would work. Kristie and I would always fall for it. We’d always agree to their terms. We’d always decide to play by their crazy rules. We’d always hold out hope that things might go our way, that we would win, for a change. No matter what, though, we always… always… always – ALWAYS – lost. We were suckers, Kristie and I.
The older brothers dangled those ridiculous rules before us like they would make a difference – like they would be the secret to our success. And we bought it, hook, line, and sinker – believing and hoping that the rules would be the key to our victory. But it never happened.
And it makes me think about what we’re up to on Reformation Sunday: what Martin Luther was challenging in the Church of his day, and something like what Jesus meant when he talked about being a slave to sin, and how we could be freed from that kind of slavery.
See, I think God’s people on the planet are called “children” for some very good reasons. Since the beginning of time, we’ve been pretending that the rules can save us. So we’ve messed with the rules – creating our own and breaking God’s – in ways that work to our advantage, in ways that disadvantage others, and in ways that make winners and losers of God’s people. And I think, like me and my friend, Kristie, we’ve convinced ourselves that by fudging the rules, by bending the rules, by massaging the rules in our favor, by playing by the rules at all – we can come out on top; that we can win, in the end.
In other words, we have convinced ourselves that our best chance for salvation, our best chance at freedom, as Jesus says it this morning, our only hope for victory is wrapped up in the Law of God’s rules.
Which is what people were up to in the days of Martin Luther – back in the 16th Century. They were keeping score with rituals and rules and restrictions and riches. You could pay cash for salvation, by way of something called an Indulgence, for example. The church was acting like a bunch of big brothers, convincing people they could buy their way out of purgatory and into heaven, for the right amount of money. People were told they could make a spiritual pilgrimage or visit a holy shrine to earn favor and forgiveness in God’s eyes. We call this “works righteousness” – the notion that we can behave our way into God’s good graces.
And all of this made Martin Luther sad. It made him angry. It made him want to change and reform so much of what was happening to God’s Church in the world.
And it wasn’t much different than what was going on in the days of Jesus, either. The followers of Jesus were screwing up even while he was still walking around on the planet. The Pharisees were finding fault, the Sadducees were slinging stones, the Scribes were scribbling down their rules, and the disciples were doubting that the grace Jesus proclaimed, promised and embodied, could really be true. And the faithful were falling for it.
All of it was about who was right and who was wrong; who was earning God’s favor and who was reaping God’s judgment; who was playing by the rules and who wasn’t; and who may or may not win, in the end.
God’s children were under the impression that following the rules – keeping the Law, at all costs – was the only way to win… the only way to be free …the only way to be saved. And, like me and my friend Kristie, people fell for it – people fall for it – all of the time.
And we still do. Too many of us are holding onto guilt for the sins of our past. Too many of us are “doing Church” and practicing our faith out of obligation. Too many of us cling to the cross as not much more than a good luck charm.
Like those people listening to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel, we forget, don’t we? We forget that we have been – and are, still – slaves to Sin. And as slaves, like our confession reminds us, we cannot free ourselves. There is no amount of rules to follow… there is no correct Law to abide… there is no way, even, to tweak or twist a Law so that it leads to our victory.
Because we need more than the Law. We need the Son. We need the grace of a God, who isn’t keeping score; who isn’t dangling the rules before us like a carrot; who isn’t twisting the Law so that we’ll keep playing at this thing called FAITH, as though it were a to-do list for some cosmic task-master, rather than a grateful response to a generous God, which our faith is supposed to be. We need the grace of a God who already loves us – and who always, always, always – ALWAYS will – because we are, indeed, children of God. Nothing more and nothing less.
See, I imagine God watching all of us children – you and me and all of creation, I mean – the way the parents must have watched the four of us from the kitchen windows of our houses back on Albon Road when I was a kid:
Smiling and laughing, plenty, I’m sure. Shaking their heads in dismay, enough of the time too, I’m certain. But waiting for the day to come when we would realize that it was never about winning or losing whatever game we played. It was never about the rules or the score, really.
All that matters – God knows, and wants us to believe – is that we’re all set free and we all come home, safe and sound, brothers and sisters, still; neighbors and friends, in the end; loved always – no matter what; and invited to live differently and to love more radically and to hope more earnestly, and to play more fairly … for our own sake and for the sake of the world – thanks to the grace that belongs to each of us, that frees every one of us, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.