Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
500th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Reformation
29th October 2017
First Reading: Romans 3: 19 – 28
Gospel Reading: John 8: 31 – 36
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:39)
One of the types we meet in our lives from time to time is the self-made man, the self-made woman. Someone who has achieved great things in their lives through their own efforts and hard work. Success, wealth and prestige have come their way entirely by their own striving. Often, when we hear these people speak, they speak as though no one, but no-one else, has contributed to their success: no teacher, mentor nor advisor has helped. No employee nor colleague has really been part of the story.
Of course, the myth of the self-made woman or man is a caricature. Such people, it seems to me on the whole, do not exist. But where they do, where there are self-made men and women who think it’s been entirely their own making, they are of all people to be pitied.
It’s likely that the Gospel doesn’t mean very much to the self-made man or woman. Do you know what I mean? We define the word “Gospel” in a variety of ways: we talk of salvation, grace, forgiveness, life, and so on. Today Jesus adds another way to speak of the Gospel – he speaks of freedom. What all these words have in common is the idea of need. The one who values salvation knows that he or she needs saving. The one to whom grace is important is aware of the need for grace. Forgiveness implies sin. And so on.
No wonder Jesus’ hearess are offended. Jesus says, seemingly to folk who already believe 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.” Freedom: fantastic! Except it’s not, at least not to those to whom Jesus makes this promise. They are the opposite of excited by or grateful for Jesus’ words, as they answer, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Do you see what I mean? No word of thanks or praise. Just a rather offended, “What do you mean?” or, probably even more, “Who do you think you are, anyway?!?” And, truthfully, I understand. By offering them freedom, Jesus implies that they are not free.
Now, there is admittedly a certain absurdity to their reply: “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Really? Did you somehow forget the Egyptians? Or the Assyrians? Or the Persians? Or – excuse me – the Romans?
But here’s my question: are we really all that different? How good, that is, are we at naming and admitting our need, our hurt, our brokenness, even our mortality? Not in a “poor me” kind of way that invites pity or lends itself to manipulating the sympathies of others. But rather in the sense of honestly admitting that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect, that there’s room not just for growth and improvement but also for help, repentance, and forgiveness.
That’s not terribly easy to do. Especially not today, when there is so much cultural pressure to act as if we have it all pretty much together – a great life, great job, great relationships, great future, great…more or less everything. And the thing is, we’re often contributing to our own problem. For while social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter have proven for many to be a great way to keep in touch with people and share greetings and experiences and the rest, they also and increasingly have proven to be vehicles that demand greater and greater levels of effort and, ultimately, pretence that we are the ideal person living the ideal life. And because it is pretence – “We are descendants of Abraham – whether Abraham stands for social media gurus like Mark Zuckerberg, schools of economics, like late capitalism, or even religious traditions (“We are Church of England!”) – and have never been slaves to anyone!” – it takes a toll. In fact, a recent study indicated that four of the five most popular social media platforms increase negative feelings in users, particularly among teens and young adults. It turns out you can only look at so many pictures of someone else’s wonderfully happy and exciting life on Facebook or Instagram – even if most of the pictures and posts are relatively artificial – before you begin to feel like yours doesn’t compare very well and feel even more pressure to pretend you’re perfect.
So what do we do? Let Martin Luther advise us, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. When Luther attached his Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church, the first of them said this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We’re not all that big on repentance these days, but some of that might be our confusion about what it actually means. And that’s not new. Luther goes on to say that by repentance he’s actually not talking simply about confession and penance as administered by the clergy (that’s the 2nd thesis), or an inward, cathartic kind of feeling-really-bad moment (and that’s the 3rd – don’t worry I’m not doing all 95). Rather, true repentance for Luther is a kind of truth-telling that allows you to be honest about how you are deceiving yourself, or letting yourself be deceived by the world around you, or both, that gives you an opportunity to think and speak and act differently. Let me put it another way. We all are prone to tell lies about ourselves, just like the self-made man. We lie to ourselves that we can manage ourselves. We lie to ourselves that our ability to manage our lives is entirely down to us. We lie to ourselves that when we are autonomous, we are truly free. And we lie to ourselves, that we believe our salvation is about our own effort, spiritual and physical. Luther’s great insight is that we don’t need to. Freedom, true freedom, is available. It’s available in Jesus Christ
But you’ll immediately sense the discomfort of Jesus’ invitation, just like those first hearers did. Such freedom demands a change, a turning around of our lives, what in biblical language is called an act of repentance. Repentance is telling the truth ourselves before God. It works in us the gift of God’s salvation because it demands that we come clean about our need, which isn’t easy for self-made men and women to admit. Or, to put it another way, just as with Jesus’ earlier conversation partners, the truth of which Jesus speaks is actually two truths, first about us and then about God’s response to us. Which means that his promise of freedom will sound more like bad news before it’s good news. Another old saying that rings true, this from alcoholic recovery literature of the 70s, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you feel miserable.”
Because, brothers and sisters, the fundamental truth of the Reformation, the truth of the Son who sets us free, the truth at the heart of the nailed 95 theses which Luther had discovered in his own life of spiritual struggle before he prompted an unexpected spiritual revolutions, the truth of the Reformation that we remember and celebrate this Sunday, is that we are sinners – God’s fallen, at time flailing, regularly confused, and always imperfect children – from the moment of our birth to the great exhalation of death. Sinners that no amount of indulgences or good works or good intentions or status updates or creative social media posts can redeem. That’s the truth that will make you miserable.
But – and here is the (second) truth which will set you free – we are also those sinners who are simultaneously God’s beloved children, those sinners who God calls blessed and holy and perfect, those sinners for whom Christ died, those sinners whose futures are not determined by their regrets and mistakes but by the possibility created by resurrection, those sinners whom God loves above all else. We are not perfect…and we don’t have to be in order to be loved. But it’s hard to trust that we’re really loved – let alone the experience of freedom that comes from knowing you are loved and accepted – if we’re not honest first. The great insight of the Reformation can be summed up in one great Lutheran image, which so unsettled the works-driven abuses of medieval Catholicism and still has the power to upset us in our self-made fantasies. Luther saw righteousness, living in freedom in other words, as a great cloak covering humanity, a cloak of God’s which surrounds our living. It’s not our cloak that we sew ourselves, it’s not even ours to take for ourselves and do what we like with. No, this is God’s cloak and it remain God’s cloak. God covers us with God’s righteousness so that we are freed from our own self-made addictions, and our ongoing religious efforts. We can do nothing but receive this covering of God’s righteousness through faith, as a gift. Living a Christian life is simply recognising this cloak of God’s righteousness covering us and living lives trusting that this gift of righteousness is
There has been a lot of debate about whether it is right to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary at all. The Reformation provoked a century of conflict, hundreds of thousands of deaths and its divisions still haunt the church today, despite the amazing work of reconciliation that has been the work of the Holy Spirit in the past 100 years. What is there to celebrate?
It’s a fair point and perhaps we ought to mix our thankfulness with sorrow and ongoing prayer for reconciliation. However, when I think back to that initial stunning insight that so transformed Luther’s life and which has prompted so much love, mercy and compassion, there must be something worth celebrating. But perhaps it is this: the best way to celebrate the Reformation is not to celebrate it at all, but rather to repeat it. To remember both halves of Paul’s mighty words, first the difficult truth that “all have sinned and fallen short” in order to hear the blessed news that “all are now justified by God’s grace as a gift.” For here, indeed, is a truth that sets you and me free when we embrace it. And it is a truth that still has the capacity to change lives, the church, and indeed the whole world.