Freedom, Freedom, Freedom
I think "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom" is one of those song riffs that is a cantus firmus, a fixed song', of America. I couldn't think why this 1968 Aretha Franklin run should be playing and replaying in my head all this month. It was only after I had fixed on this theme for our text that I noticed this building, pulsating "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom" is the cantus firmus underlying a current T-Mobile ad.
So what kind of freedom does Jesus promise in our text when He says, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free?" Is it the American freedom Lee Greenwood sings of? How about the freedom Gloria Steinem writes of or Jessie Jackson marches for? Could it be the financial freedom Dave Ramsey preaches or the sexual freedom LGBTQ groups demand? Whether it's social, political, economic, or even sexual, you can bet someone in the group traces their quest back to these words of Jesus and even to the writings of Martin Luther.
Most do what I did; go with the bare words. That's what UT did in 1935 when they engraved on the entrance to their Main Building "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." An unspecified truth, any truth will do - say feminist, economic, LGBTQ, political, social to make you free. Is that true? Well, Jesus doesn't say that truth in the abstract sets you free. He ties it firmly not to His teaching' as the insert translates but to His Word'. And He's emphatic about that. "If you remain in My Word," says Jesus. It's Jesus Word and no one else's. And it's not "hold" to His word but "remain, abide." "Hold" brings up images of another song "Hold on just a little bit tighter" and throws knowing the freeing truth back on us.
Well, it is on us to some extent. Jesus throws it back "to the Jews who had believed Him". This group is to be distinguished from the group in the prior verse. Those who "came to believe in Him." When the preposition "in" or "into" is there believing denotes moral faith or trust (Mayor, James, 410). Our text lacks it, so this group are those "who had claimed to believe Him." This group rejected Jesus' truth that they needed to be set free. They said as the seed of Abraham they had never been enslaved. True the Egyptian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and now Roman occupation were all imposed upon them. But Jesus isn't talking about being enslaved socially, physically, or politically but by sin, and from that everyone needs freeing.
Not so fast. LGBTQ people don't think they are enslaved by a sexual perversion. Those Living Together don't think they are under the tyranny of fornication. No, no "That's the way [they] like it." See? No harm, no foul. Consenting adults means no sin. And it's not just sexual sins people don't think they're enslaved by. The racist laughs at the thought of being enslaved to hatred. The gossip thinks he's free from blame. The overeater can stop eating anytime he wants and so can the over drinker, so he's not a slave of food or drink. And you don't think you're enslaved to your sins do you? Whose enslaved to something they consider a pet? You're wondering eyes are nothing more than appreciation. Your worrying about this and that doesn't expose you have an idol named self but shows you're a responsible parent, student, citizen. Go ahead; mock those chains, deny your slavery, and know that you're only forging harder, longer, thicker ones.
Jesus is here to break those changes. And so He begins: Not with, "I tell you, the truth," but, "Amen, Amen, I say to you." This Hebrew word amen' passed into Greek and English as transliteration not translation. Luther translated it as "This is most certainly true" or "Yes, yes, it shall be so." Only Jesus uses Amen' in the sense of single or double certainty. And Jesus begins the chain breaking with the double certain truth that "all who do the sin are slaves of the sin." Got Sin? I do. Plenty of them; so many that with David in Psalm 40 "My iniquities have overtaken me that I'm not able to see; They are more numerous than hairs of my head." So many that with David "my heart has failed me." With Charles Wesley we sing, "I am all unrighteousness; false and full of sin I am;" And if we admit this, then the second part of Jesus' chain breaking lands home. "And the slave does not remain in the house forever."
But you already knew that. The Law, though clouded by generations of inherited sinfulness, is written in your heart. And it convicts you that Augustine was right: Slavery to sin is worse than all other forms of slavery be it political, economic, racial, social. He says that "'at times a man's slave, worn out by the commands of an unfeeling master, finds rest in flight. [But] Wither can the salve of sin flee? Himself he carries with him wherever he flees. And evil conscience flees not from itself. Yes, he cannot withdraw from himself for the sin he commits is within'" (Morris, John, 458). Go on; try to tell me you don't know this; you don't feel this; you don't see this. Even the pagan world does as it seeks to drink itself, drug itself, exercise itself, discipline itself, philosophy itself, mediate itself to escape self. But Paul Revere and the Raiders knew this was impossible over 50 years ago. They sang, "There's nothin' that you ain't tried to fill the emptiness inside. Don't you see no matter what you do you'll never run away from you?"
Tell me this 1966 song didn't get it right? Augustine would've thought so. I didn't finish quoting him. After saying that a person "'cannot withdraw from himself for the sin he commits is within'", he goes on to say, "'He has committed sin to obtain some bodily pleasure. The pleasure passes away, the sin remains. What delighted is gone; the sting has remained behind. Evil bondage!'" (Ibid.). This is Carrie Underwood, "I don't even know his last name." This is David after forcing Bathsheba and murdering Uriah; this is Peter's denial; this is Paul stoning Stephen. Each did the sin that was pleasing to them at the time. Each got the passing pleasure and then came the chains. Till the chain breaker came for them. That's right: the Lord sent the Prophet Nathan to the adulterous and murderous David; Jesus came personally, more than once, to break the chains choking Peter the Denier. And Jesus came to Paul personally, and then sent Ananias to him with the Baptism of forgiveness to wash his chains away.
And the Chain Breaker comes to you today in His Word. The only Word that can free you from your enslavement to self, to sin, to get you away from you. Jesus doesn't say as the insert has it, "But a son belongs to it forever." Jesus says that while the slave of sin does not remain in the house forever, "the Son [not a son] does remain in the house forever." But what does Philippians 2 tells us about the Son? "He took the form of a slave [same Greek word as here]." First, He lived the life of a perfect Son. He was the heavenly Father's beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased. "That's My Boy!" the Father cried out from heaven when He obeyed His mother. "That's My Son!" the Father cried out with pride whenever Jesus feared, loved, and trusted Him above all things which was all the time. "That's My Beloved Child!" the Father cried out with joy as Jesus called upon His name in every trouble pray, praised, and gave thanks, but then the Father said, "Damn you."
It wasn't enough to break the chains that bind you to sin and self for Jesus to be the Perfect Child in your place. All your sinning incurred a debt, a heavy one, an eternal one. So, Jesus, the Son, obeyed the Father when He handed Him the cup filled with His eternal wrath against the sins of the world and commanded, "Drink this." Drink it Jesus did, every last drop, and so as Philippians says, "He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Roman citizens were not crucified. Slaves were. Jesus dies the death of a disobedient slave nailed to the cross that has your name on it and all of your sins too.
Can you hear the "Freedom" riff building, "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom"? You may be a slave to economic realities, medical realities, social realities. You may be an actual slave in a foreign country, but as Galatians 5 trumpets: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." There is freedom in Him; freedom in His perfect life; freedom in His guilty death. Paul continues in Galatians 5: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." How so? Paul told the Galatians how earlier in chapter 2: "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
"Faith has to have a place to hang it's hat," was an observation by Luther. Faith has to have an object outside itself; otherwise, faith becomes holding on to self, an internal exercise in positive thinking, Little Engine that Could living. And now we're back to where this all started. The only truth that makes you free is the truth that is the words of Jesus. The truth that He breaks your chains by His word "I forgive you for good and forever" in absolution. Your Baptism joining you to Jesus' death and resurrected life is like acid to the chains of sin and death. In the Holy Communion while eating the body and drinking the blood that Jesus gave and shed on the cross, you are to believe you are chomping right through the chains that bind you.
As with the last time I preached, so here I think a title change can help. The actual title of the Aretha song isn't "Freedom" but "Think". Reveling, celebrating, proclaiming freedom in the abstract is its own kind of slavery. I don't what I'm freed from or for but "at least I know I'm free." "Think" not as Aretha sang, "about what you're trying to do to me." Think what the Son tells you in His Word He has done, still does, and will do for you. Think on this truth and you will be set free. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20191027); John 8: 31-36