By Jim Vitale
The year is 1517 and you are a hardworking blacksmith in a small village in the German countryside. You have devoted your life to the church, attending mass every Sunday and donating much of your hard-earned money. You pray for your dead relatives to go to heaven and you do as many good works as you can to ensure that you go there yourself. You strive to abstain from sin, but sometimes you can’t help it: you cut corners on your work, you blow up at your children, you drink a little too much. You’re stretched thin financially, emotionally, spiritually—this week you’ve made barely enough money to feed your family.
Then, one day, you hear trumpets blowing outside your door, drums banging, someone hollering. You walk outside, wiping off your soot-covered hands, and there, in the town square is a small band of travelers, ornately dressed, and wearing the seal of the Pope. An armed guard stands beside a big wooden chest, as a short, sulking man climbs atop a barrel and hollers: “Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives crying out to you and saying, ‘Pity us! We are in dire torment from which only you can redeem us!’” He gestures to the chest. The man is selling indulgences—a financial way of freeing your dead relatives from the torment of purgatory to a life of bliss in heaven.
You’re skeptical; is this how God works? But the church is not to be questioned and earning your way into heaven is hard, nearly impossible work. You dump your change purse into your hand and stare at the precious few coins resting on your palm. It was meant to buy food for your children. But would I trade my grandmother’s soul for a loaf of bread? You wonder. Slowly, you walk up to the preacher and drop your coins in the chest.
This was the situation in Medieval Europe. The sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins was what ultimately led the young monk and scholar Martin Luther to protest the Church. At the time, the church had a strong hold on the hearts, minds, and souls of European people. In those days the church taught that you were ultimately responsible for your own fate. God gave grace as a sort of booster-shot to strengthen you for more good works. There was an ever-tipping scale, sin on one side, good works on the other. Whichever side was heavier when you died determined where you would go. A little financial contribution might very well tip the scales favorably for you or a loved one.
Medieval people were therefore deeply anxious, and Luther was no exception. Even as a monk, devoted to a life of prayer, Luther considered himself horribly depraved. He feared he could never perform enough good works to counter all the sins he had committed.
In the darkness of his despair, Luther turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and discovered something the church had once known but long ago forgot. Before Luther’s eyes sat Paul’s words: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We are not saved by our works, Paul says, because we are bound in sin and cannot free ourselves; rather, by the gift of God’s grace through faith we are freed and saved. No amount of good works will save you, no amount of evil deeds will condemn you—faith in Jesus is the only thing that matters for salvation. We are not enslaved to our good works, Luther learned; instead we are free in Christ.
John 8:31-36, the gospel reading for Reformation Sunday, is all about that freedom in Christ. We find Jesus in a debate with some religious leaders. Jesus offers them freedom and they say, “We have never been slaves to anyone.” But that’s not true, is it? The whole history of Israel is bound up in slavery. Israel’s national history starts with Moses leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt; a thousand years later, Israel is taken into slavery by the Babylonian Empire; then they are liberated again, only to be passed from one empire to another, eventually ending up under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Israel has been enslaved many times.
So why would these religious authorities, who should know their history, claim they’ve never been slaves to anyone?
We here in this country are a lot like those religious leaders. We are proud of our freedom: we proclaim it through flags and bumper stickers and t-shirts and parades. We, particularly we white Americans whose ancestors have never been enslaved, can proclaim with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day that we’ve never been slaves to anyone.
But that’s actually not true. In this reading from John, Jesus tells the religious leaders and he tells us that we are all slaves—slaves to sin.
The Gospel of John defines sin as rejecting Jesus. Luther defined sin as the soul curved in on itself—essentially selfishness, the inability to see beyond our own needs and desires. Sin, therefore, is essentially searching for salvation anywhere but in Christ; typically, in ourselves. For Medieval people salvation was all about getting into heaven; but in this secular age most of us don’t think about it like that. For us salvation tends to be more about this life. We tend to think that we can save ourselves by “getting it all together.” If I can just make enough money, or get a better job, or find the right life partner, or reconcile with my children, or have the latest technology, or a cabin by the lake, then I’ll be happy, I’ll be safe. While many of those things are good things, they are still wrapped up in the bondage of sin because they are still the means by which we attempt to save ourselves.
But as Luther learned, no works of our own, however good they might be, however happy they might make us, will save us from our slavery to sin. At the beginning of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” To continue in Jesus’ word is to find your identity in Christ, rather than the circumstances of your life. In Christ there is freedom because Christ saves us from our selfish navel gazing. We no longer need to worry about saving ourselves; Jesus has saved us.
So what do we do with our newfound freedom?
Even when they were free from slavery, Israel still struggled with slavery. After liberating them from Egypt, God commanded the Israelites to remember their enslavement and to refrain from enslaving or oppressing anyone. But, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, Israel forgot it had ever been enslaved, and quickly abused the poor and lowly. In their newfound freedom, God called Israel to become slaves to their neighbors. And the Israelites replied, “we have never been slaves to anyone.” In that moment, they could have delivered themselves over to the needs of their neighbors, but instead they delivered themselves into the slavery of their sin.
The church falls into a similar pattern. We have often believed, and some have even preached, that since we are not saved by our good works, we are therefore not required to do them. However, this is a gross misuse of Christian freedom. In his book Freedom of a Christian, Luther says that we are completely free lords of all, subject to none. And simultaneously we are completely dutiful slaves of all, subject to all. What does this mean? He is following Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. We are free because Christ has saved us from the slavery of sin. Christ has died on the cross for us. We are saved by grace through faith as a gift from God. We are therefore no longer bound to selfishly seek our own salvation.
But we are freed for one thing and one thing only: to become slaves to our neighbors. You see, freedom changes us—by faith it makes us more like Christ. Throughout the gospels, particularly in John’s gospel, Jesus takes on the role of a servant. His servitude culminates in his death on the cross, literally laying down his life for the ones he loves (which is all of us). Our faith in Christ leads us to become more like Christ by laying down our lives for our neighbors. Our Christian freedom is not a selfish freedom. After all, what good is our freedom from the sin of selfishness if we just turn right around and use that freedom for our own selfishness? A Christian’s freedom is to be used solely for the service of our neighbors.
We protestants like to say sempre reformanda, always reforming. The interesting thing about the Reformation is that it wasn’t anything new. Luther simply led the church back to a truth as old as Christianity itself: that by grace through faith Christ frees us to become servants of our neighbors. If we are to continually reform as a church, then that is the truth to which we must always return.
It is easy to abuse our Christian freedom, to sit inside the walls of our church, to enjoy the forgiveness of our sins and fret about keeping the lights on. But it is for freedom, not selfishness, that we have been made free. Christ has saved us, and so we are free from worrying about our own salvation, and whatever fate may befall us; we have nothing to fear. And it is precisely because of that fearless freedom that we can become slaves to our neighbors who wait for us just outside these walls.
Christ has set you free from the bondage of sin, and if Christ has made you free, you are free indeed! So, go in your freedom and become a slave to your neighbor in need!