All this red and all this organ music means this is Reformation Sunday. All over the world Lutherans and other members of the mainline Protestant churches gather to celebrate it. Sometimes there’s a question about whether or not the Reformation was a good idea—the preacher on a Reformation Sunday asked this when I was serving as a missionary in Argentina. Didn’t the Reformation break the church, he asked. Of course, this a rhetorical move, a question asked only to affirm the necessity of the break and to congratulate the Protestants on being Protestants. In some places this morning this question isn’t even a question. In a lot of places, it’s Lutheran pledge of allegiance day, a rally day. Of course the Reformation was a good idea—those corrupt and horrible Catholics. Let’s party!
Here is what Jesus says to us today from the Gospel of John: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” This is the kind of thing that makes all our denominational fights seem misguided and, frankly, boring. I believe Jesus is more interesting than Lutheranism, and I Luther himself said that most of his writings were worthless. And when we put the figures of the Reformation, whether it’s Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Zwingli, or Cajetan or Erasmus or even Ignatius of Loyola and the Council of Trent, or any other name you can think of: Paulo Coehlo or Deepak Chopra or Joel Osteen or Jerry Falwell or Nadia Bolz-Weber, it’s as if we clap the chains that Jesus broke back on our hands. It’s an irony—the whole point of the Reformation was to preach the liberating power of Jesus Christ, and we discover, sometimes, that we instead preach the liberating power of someone else.
And it could be that, in some ways, the liberating power of Jesus Christ can seem disappointing. I know I’m not supposed to say that. Jesus’s power is the best thing ever. Still, look around—look at who’s here. We all know and love one another, but could it be possible that looking at our lives someone could point to us and say, “These people live constantly in an awareness of God’s liberating power and are somehow filled with a spiritual energy that makes me want to change the way I live.” I’m not so sure. No one would probably look at my life and say, “If that’s what following Jesus means, sign me up.” I am, unfortunately, probably too much like everyone else. We’re talking about the saints next week—perhaps they are better examples, but what can it mean that we are all claiming that Jesus has set us free, and yet we are so caught still?
This past week I had to read a very tiny book by Leo Tolstoy, that great Russian writer. And one of his chief complaints about Christians was precisely this: they come to church on a Sunday but don’t actually live up to the standards of people who claim to have been set free by Jesus. He hated this so much, even while desiring, with every scrap of his being, to be somehow united with God. But he couldn’t meet a Christian that he thought was worthy of the name. So he came to the church—and left it again, having found no one that could live up to what he read in the gospels. But I think Tolstoy ended up missing something very important that the Gospels teach and that we remember today: We are not free because of what we do; we are free because the Son sets us free. And we are always, and always imperfectly living into that freedom. Scour this whole world and you will not find a single Christian worthy of the name of Christ. That person has never existed and will never exist. Examine the life of every Christians, just like Tolstoy did, and every single one of us will be found wanting. Christians will always disappoint you, they will always, in the end, let you down. This community, this church, is made of sinners and the hopelessly flawed. We are all together too much like the world. We are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves. And there are days, many days, in which I wish I could be free and live in the glory of God somehow, in some dream that I have of what it must be like to be really and truly free.
But this is the dream that still places me and my deeds in the center of the story. Jesus might make me free, but I’m still the hero of the story. And so, the story ultimately fails. If Tolstoy met me, he’d be disappointed, I’m pretty sure. But the truth is, I have to place my failures and my disappointments on the shoulders of Jesus, because it is he who frees me, he who saves me, his work that breaks the chains of sin, over and over, even when I keep clapping those chains around my wrist.
On his deathbed, legend has it, Luther had written on a scrap of paper: “We are beggars. This is true.” And this is something I think is really true. When it comes to our lives and our salvations, that’s all we can do: beg. Even Tolstoy wrote a story about this, about Ivan Llych dying at the end of his life, begging for meaning, for something to be shown him. Luther himself died in great pain, screaming in his pain that God so loved the world he gave his only Son. We are beggars for life, beggars for redemption, and in the end even the most magnificent among us fails. And this is why the Son sets us free, not by anything we do. And that’s why we need faith—faith in the Son, who frees us despite our failures.
What difference does this make? I think it makes all the difference in the world. When I was a child, we lived in Madagascar, about as far away from America in every sense of the word as you can get. Church there was often very boring. I remember my Dad telling me that when he got back to the states, he remembered that American Lutherans in general liked short sermons, so he figured he probably ought to cut his down to about 45 minutes or so, since we didn’t have the stamina of the Malagasy churches. But part of his job was to visit many villages, to preach and bring Bibles and hymnals to the churches there. I remember going with him one time. We began on a motorcycle, and then met some people and took a canoe, and then from the canoe walked to a church, far away from our home. The church was made of pillars and palm branches, and it was lit by the light that broke through the branches into the church. There were no pews. I don’t remember if there was even a cross. But there were hymns and songs and Scripture.
Those Malagasy people were not better than me; they were not worse than me. I’m sure if Tolstoy met them he would have found them as disappointing Christians as all the others that he met. Did Jesus set them free?
Karl Barth once wrote that faith in Christ is the abolishment of religion. I don’t know if I understand exactly what he meant, but I think he meant that the reality of Christ in the world puts an end to any sort of human action that seeks to satisfy or understand God under our own power. Christ writes the covenant on our hearts; Christ sets us free; Christ even makes faith possible, calls it forth from us. There is no bargaining, no deals made. There is no magic, no manipulation of spiritual forces. There is simply the real movement of God in our lives, making us free by supplying our lack, cutting our bonds, loving us despite our frailties and failings. There has never been a Christian who could not have lived a better life. But that’s not the point. The point is God set us free. Jesus saves us.
I have seen this everywhere I have worked. Sin is strong and tears things down. Everywhere the church is dying and struggling. But none of this means anything, because those are not the signs that guide us to truth. Instead it is the living Christ, the one present here and now, the one we cannot see, but yet yearn for and somehow touch, Christ, who sets us free. Amen.
The Rev. John Z. Flack