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Freedom to Sin - Sermon on John 8:31-36

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Freedom means we can do what we want, right? Well, as Martin Luther said, Sin Boldly. But own your sin and pray even more boldly!

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

October 25, 2015  - Reformation Sunday

"Freedom to Sin".  Text is from  John 8:31-36

Good morning my sisters and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God.

I want to first look at the Judeans in this passage and make it clear that they when we say that these are Judeans who had believed in Jesus and his mission, they no longer do so. And now some of them are in fact feeling antagonistic toward him.  

So there is a conflict opening up here in the gospel of John, but it is in direct response to Jesus.  Jesus is once again inviting the Judeans to be his disciples, the call that he has out for everyone, an offering of the understanding of what true discipleship is, and the freedom that comes from that understanding. But the Judeans have hardened their hearts toward him, and are particularly sensitive to his choice of words.

Remember a little bit about Jewish history, that all of the Jewish people have in their cultural makeup an exodus in which they left the bonds of slavery. Jesus is offering them freedom but what is this that he is promising them? Since they cannot be slaves, they are not possibly bound to anyone. As far as they know, freedom is something that they already, in their minds, have and relish. 

But physical freedom from life of servitude to another human being is not what Jesus is offering. No, in fact by the very virtue of their lives and the manner in which they live it, by the fact that these people go from day to day, making sure that they follow a specific guidelines of rules, all of them handed down from a pastoral era in their history, some practical, others that just seem absurd, these people are bound to those rules and regulations. How can you call that freedom? And the fact that there are not 10 but 613 commandments in Torah, and then there is this entire subgenre of rules and regulations that have already stemmed from those 613 commandments that in order to live according to the strictest guidelines is effectively a life without any consequence whatsoever, without experimentation, without waver, without variety, without meaning. A life of freedom from bondage in Egypt but slavery to torturous rituals from their waking moments to the onset of sleep, day in, day out until the sweet relief of death take hold.

So what Jesus is offering them is a different kind of freedom. That sin, or the violation of those strictures is itself binding them to a more base life, because it becomes clear, that among these people are those who plot to murder him even as they claim to uphold the Law, and expect to do so without repercussions, freedom to act, but bound to sin. But here he is, the Son, who has the ability to forgive their sins, can set them free to a brighter future. He brings them a new life, one in which freedom is itself from sin. And with that freedom that he offers, they are no longer slave to a life of rules and regulations and failure to adhere to those rules and regulations. 

But in acknowledging that we need freedom from sin, Jesus is also acknowledging that we are, in fact, sinners, which is a hard thing to admit about ourselves sometimes. We sincerely want to believe that we try our best to be perfect beings, but as we all know, no human being is perfect, and each of us is subject to some flawed behavior and action from time to time. And there are some of us for whom the concept of sin is one that is totally humiliating to us given that we were told by those that we loved that based on who we were and the way we were that we were sinners hopelessly lost in our sin, and so when we hear talk about sin we shudder, we shut off, we shy away, putting our hands on our ears because we've been hurt so many times by that kind of talk before. I myself have been attacked with the sword of condemnation from time to time and have become shy to any sort of discussion about sin, but I have come to understand, and there is ample scriptural support for this, that sin can be loosely described as that which causes us to hurt others, to hurt ourselves and/or to separate us from our relationship and love of God.  

And very simply, so many of us can point to moments where we were so angry at another that we wished physical harm to them, or so angry at something we ourselves had done that we wanted to die. And many of us have become so caught up in whatever drug, drink or activity that we become consumed by the very addiction that those things have caused, depriving us of our contact with God, and being able to love him and our fellow human being. 


Today, or more specifically, October 31, we celebrate...well, besides Halloween...the 498th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther, the founder of the denomination of Christianity from which this church emerged, enumerated 95 specific sins of the Catholic Church in Rome and posted it to a church door in Wittenburg, thus setting off the chain of events we now call the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther is often known by the simple, two-word phrase: "Sin Boldly."  

I know some of you may have never heard those words before, and might be shocked at the license they seem to portray, but be aware that there is a particular context from which they emerged, in an August 1521 letter from Martin Luther to Philip Melanchthon, who is quite arguably the second most influential figure in the development of Lutheran Christian theology: 

Luther writes:

"If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; 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. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . . . Pray boldly-you too are a mighty sinner."

Luther tells us to own claim our sin, because we have sin, but also that in owning that sin and laying it at Christ's table that Christ forgives that sin.  And this is one reason why we in the Lutheran Church don't claim any patron saints of our religion, we idolize no figures in particular, above anyone else, even brother Martin. While he wrote such foundational missives such as that one to Melanchthon, life changing treatises, such as 1520's On the Freedom of a Christian, and inspirational sermons; Martin Luther was also regularly known for hurling invective and bile at figures in the Roman Catholic Church as well as his contemporaries such as Zwingli or John Calvin, frequently devolving into childish scatological insults, he wrote the 1525 screed "Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants" which is just as the title would indicate, and finally, later in his life, perhaps most unsettling, in 1543, Martin Luther published "On the Jews and their Lies", which, in addition to condoning acts of violence against Jewish people continued to be influential in the 20th century most seriously in the years approaching the Holocaust. We cannot have a patron saint in our church because a saint is just as flawed a human being as any human being is a sinner. 

Jesus tells us "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."  Then are we not slaves to sin? But despite the darker and rightfully rejected parts of Luther's legacy, he contributed us this reformation which taught us to get back away from the constant rules and regulations, these bizarre behaviors that the Roman Catholic Church had been unapologetically proliferating and stand by the Word itself, that God is love, that his gift is grace, and that by faith alone he saves us. Virtually nobody could read the bible at the time of the reformation and it sparked off the printing of sacred texts in the languages of the common man, that understanding took off and that literacy proliferated. 

But that agent of liberation from slavery to sin is not the words found in those texts, it is the freeing power of Jesus Christ who lives among us today. Because when we sin today, when we knowingly take extra change at the grocery store, or we persistently take pain medication that we know we don't really need or when we stalk someone we're obsessed with online, when we act in ways that harm others, harm ourselves or separate us from God, we can't always look at texts written long before currency, pharmaceuticals and the internet and say, hey, that's not right. And when we live life with privilege we do not even always know when we are actively harming others...

We have someone who makes us right. We have a savior who pardons it all, by his saving grace, who in offering his death offers us life liberated from the bonds of sin. 

The difference between freedom in society and freedom of the gospel is in society freedom means we have access to everything.  Whereas in the gospel we are free to love our neighbor, love God, and yes, in fact, love ourselves. 

Marin Luther says to Sin Boldly. I concur. Sin Boldly.  You are sinners.  It's what we do, we cannot help it. But we be not ashamed in admitting our sin, just as we may be even bolder in claiming our righteousness, because God has made you right, and in that righteousness, you are sanctified. 

And through Jesus Christ, we become saints as well. And that is phenomenally good news.  Amen.   

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