Lectionary 30 – October 25, 2020
Faith Lutheran Church
People like traveling for a lot of different reasons. Some people really like to go to all-inclusive resorts where all their meals are taken care of and they can just relax by the pool all day long–That sounds like a pretty nice trip to me. Other folks really like to go on adventures where they explore the wilderness and get off the beaten path–which also sounds like a pretty nice trip to me. And while I like some aspects of both of these ways of traveling, my favorite thing to do while on vacation is visit museums.
No matter where I am traveling, one of the things that I make sure to do is visit at least one museum, because I LOVE learning about history and different cultures and different peoples. When I spent a year living in Washington DC after college, one of my favorite things to do was spend long afternoons in any of the beautiful museums that were open 364 days of the year.
Every time I would return to the museum was exciting for me because I would recognize something that I had forgotten and remember the impact it had on the world and people’s lives. No matter how many times I would return, there was always at least one item, one exhibit, one story I had forgotten. And thank goodness for museums and books and other ways in which we can record history, because without these things, who knows what all might be forgotten.
In our reading from the Gospel of John today, the Jewish folks who believed in Jesus seemingly forgot part of their history. They said to Jesus that they were descendants of Abraham and had never been slaves to anyone.
Now, unlike those of us gathered for worship today, they didn’t have museums they could go to, nor did they have access to public libraries containing books on any subject a person could desire to learn about. Yet, as a part of their worshipping life, they would have heard of the story of the enslavement and exodus of the Israelite people from Egypt countless times.
The narrative of how Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery and into freedom across the Red Sea, it was of primary importance to the Jewish believers.
But Jesus–the Rabbi, a person who knew the history of the Israelite people and taught about it–didn’t seek to instruct his followers of their seemingly glaring omission of having been an enslaved people, but rather uses their language of slavery to describe something else. To describe the experience of being people who commit sin, saying “Everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.”
Now in our reading from Romans today, the Apostle Paul wrote that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” which read with Jesus’ words serve as an indictment for those followers of Jesus who would therefore not be free, but rather would be enslaved to sin. Even though they didn’t remember their history as part of the Israelite people, as part of humanity, they were enslaved to sin.
In contrast with the early followers of Jesus, we live in an age when the answer to almost any question is available at our fingertips. Not only do we have books, but we have museums, galleries, and other places where we can learn our history.
Yet with all of these additional resources, there are times when humanity seems to ask the same question we heard the gospel: What do you mean by saying “You will be free?”
In the adult study on Martin Luther’s writing The Freedom of a Christianthat about 15 of us are participating in, we spent much of the first session talking about the concept of freedom. We focused especially on how the freedom spoken of in scripture is not the same as the freedom we hear of in the context of the United States.
The freedom spoken of by Jesus in the gospels is a two-fold freedom. In contrast with the idea of individual freedom being the ability of a person to do whatever they want without restrictions or accountability, Christian freedom is liberation from the forces that distort our humanity (what we call sin), and freedom to work for the liberation of our neighbors from those forces.
As Lutheran Christians, it can be easy to feel free from being enslaved to anything. But like the followers of Jesus, we can’t forget the ways in which Lutheran Christians have been captive, captive to sin throughout our 500+ year history. And even though our identity as Lutherans in 202 in Isanti, MN may feel far from the life and times of the reformers, there are painful impacts that they have which can still be witnessed in the world. Despite the good that they advocated for, the hurtful anti-Jewish writings of Luther cannot be overlooked or not acknowledged.
As people who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, this acknowledgment can be challenging. It can be challenging to name that as a people who claim this theological tradition, that desoite having had a great impact for good in the world, this is our history as people who identify with the Lutheran tradition. That the early reformers –especially Luther himself–could be simultaneously saint and sinner.
But Jesus acknowledges that his followers–despite forgetting their history, despite not acknowledging their captivity to sin can still be set free. That through Jesus, freedom is not only a possibility, but is an inevitability. Jesus says that “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The followers of Jesus, by this point in the Gospel of John had heard Jesus say that “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That the world might be saved through him. Through Jesus’ coming and living among humanity on earth, all of creation would be set free from its captivity to sin.
Even these followers of Jesus who did not remember their history of having been an enslaved people, Jesus told them of the freedom that was theirs through him.
And the truth that was Jesus, dear people, this is a truth that we have access to. Through Jesus’ life among humanity, death on the cross and resurrection, all of creation was witness to this truth.
When Paul wrote that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that is a hard truth to accept. For those earliest followers of Jesus, Paul’s message would have been confusing. But what allowed Paul to share that word of truth, was that in spite of humanity’s preclusion to sin–to miss the mark–to work against the will of God–what allowed Paul to share that word of truth was that the message does not end with that word.
No, this truth that all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God is a message that meant on their own, they could not boast of their own ability, but rather were fully reliant on God to lead them to freedom, just as God had done with those ancestors they had forgotten, the Israelites who were led out of captivity in Egypt.
Paul’s words conclude with the understanding that for the earliest followers of Jesus, that their reliance on Jesus was well founded because rather relying on their own actions to be in right relationship with God and neighbor, they were justified–they were set free from the bonds of sin–by God in Christ. What good news.
In a world where it seems harder and harder to know what is the truth, and where we are told multiple “truths,” being able to find this firm foundation is of crucial importance for us. Like those earliest followers of Jesus, it can be easy to seek out the person or place that will free us from the pain and suffering we experience.
Facing the constant barrage of messaging that says- believe in me, support me, trust in me–we can believe that our own actions will lead to our salvation. But in doing so, we forget that because of God who came to earth in the life and ministry of Jesus, our own attempts to bring about salvation will always fail.
As Lutheran Christians, on this Reformation day when we remember the desire to continually reform the church, we remember that we have been saved by grace through faith, apart from works. And this salvation, this freedom that we have received from God in Christ is a gift that frees us to serve our neighbor. This service can take many forms, and as Lutheran Christians we believe that our call is both to feed the hungry and to work that hunger would be no more. Throughout the history of our denomination–recognizing the times that the giants of our faith have sinned–we can continue to trust in the truth that is available to us in Christ. Truth that frees us to freely serve others.
History, in its fullness must be acknowledged. Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, a professor of mine at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, writes:
“The Akan [people] of Ghana have a wonderful symbol, known as the Sankofa Bird. The Sankofa bird has a long neck which stretches backward to its tail. Standing on one leg with an egg in its mouth, it is walking or flying forward. The proverb associated with the Sankofa literally means, ‘It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.’”
As Lutheran Christians, acknowledging the reforming work that has led to us here today, may we remember that in spite of the ways our church has and continues to fall short of the glory of God, that we receive our salvation through faith in Christ, the one who set us free. And because of this, we can freely serve our neighbor and all of creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.