Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Talk of freedom resonates with us Americans; our ears perk up. We love our liberty. Freedom is our national middle name, our country’s heart and soul, our very DNA. Everything from the year 1776 to the Fourth of July every year to freedom of speech and religious liberty proclaims our love for liberty. But when we talk of freedom, we must ask two crucial questions: 1) Free from what? and 2) Free for what?
In our national experience, our love of liberty is rooted in freedom from government tyranny—that is, from government presuming it knows better than you how to run your life for you. Think King George, Great Britain, and burdensome taxes and regulations in the late 1700s. Building on the notion that all people are created equal, our American founders built a governing system “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln would say a century later. Think freedom for living by the God-given rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which means keeping your property.
In our Gospel, we hear of a different, deeper freedom. Jesus teaches some Jews who had believed Him. They’ve heard His teaching and they believe that He is God’s promised Messiah. Exactly what they understood that to mean may be up for debate. So Jesus begins His sermon: “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” At that all ears perked up. “Will set you free?” These good Jewish believers thought they were already free. We good Americans think that we are already free. What does Jesus mean by “free”? Free from what?
The Jewish believers who listened to Jesus could not stomach being told they were slaves. They pushed back: “We…have never been enslaved to anyone.” On the surface we might say, “Oh yeah?” Had they conveniently forgotten their forefathers who lived in Egyptian slavery for 400 years? What of their ancestors who lived in Babylonian exile for 70 years? Must have slipped their minds. Did they have blinders on to the Roman Empire occupying their backwater little country even as they spoke?
Or they may have been thinking of something else. Even when they were enslaved in Egypt, they could claim they still belonged only to the God of Israel. Even when they were exiled in Babylon, they still belonged to and served Yahweh. Even as they lived under Roman rule, their self-proclaimed allegiance was to the true God.
Either way, Jesus had to redirect their focus. They were forgetting one undeniable truth—slavery to sin. We also conveniently forget that we are, in fact, slaves to sin. As Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We all commit our sins—insensitive words or deeds, uncaring, spiteful thoughts and feelings, neglecting to care for family or friends, gossip, greed, and so on. Jesus wants us to “abide in His word,” His word of truth. But we succumb to the slavery of our society and question if there is such a thing as absolute truth. We say with our fellow slaves in society, “What’s true for you is not true for me.”
Jesus wants us to abide in His Word. He wants us to remain in His truth. He wants us to dwell in His message of the liberated life. But all we need to do is examine our daily routines and priorities. Daily routines of work and school tend to crowd out time spent dwelling in Jesus’ Word. Our slavery to our schedules drives us to say, “I don’t have time for worship, for Bible study, for family prayer.” We are slaves to thinking we are in control of all things in life. We are slaves to our calendars, our commitments, and our self-imposed goals and priorities. We are slaves to the very computers, devices, and smart phones that are supposed to make life more free. We are slaves to ourselves—to imagining that we must control everything in life, even God Himself.
So Jesus says, “the slave does not remain in the house forever.” No slave—no sinner—gets to dwell in God’s house—that is, no sinner-slave who is not freed by Christ Himself. Our sins hang around our necks and weigh us down. Our guilt for putting ourselves in the place of God shackles us down. We cannot move. We need help. We need Someone to liberate us.
So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Jesus Christ, true Son of God in the flesh, comes to set you free. How so? By taking the chains of your sin and your guilt off of you and putting them on Himself. And He takes not only your chains, but also the chains of the people around you, the chains of all people of all times and all places. These chains of sin shackled Jesus to the cross. And bound there by His eternal love for you and for all people, He was crushed under the burden. But then He rose from the dead. And you are free. Free from what? Free from sin, free from a guilty conscience.
Now we can ask: Free for what? Luther and the Reformation give us a great blessing: the Church always refocusing on God’s unshackled grace in Christ Jesus. In Christ we have all of God’s boundless mercy and love. In Christ Jesus we have freedom from sin, death, and hell. Now what? Now that we no longer have to impress God, butter Him up, or buy Him off, how do we go about life? For what are we free?
It’s sad but true that in our liberty-loving land of America, freedom has come to mean “free to do whatever I want.” Many in our land love freedom so much that they trash and defame the very country that gives them freedom. It’s even sadder that we Christians do the same with God’s rich, sweet, life-giving mercy. How often do we use the freedom of our Lord’s forgiveness to slip back into our sinful ways? What of the times when we either think or act as though hearing our Lord’s Word and receiving His Body and Blood were somehow optional, rather than necessary for life?
St. Paul captured this dilemma. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2) Shall we use our freedom from sin to sin all the more? Of course not! St. Paul goes on: “Having been set free from sin, you become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:18). Yes, you are freed from sin for living a better life, a different kind of life. You are freed from service to self so that you may live as God designed you to live.
Luther expressed it this way during the Reformation: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Here’s the paradox of our freedom in Christ. We are free before God—free from sin, guilt, and eternal death. We are completely free to relax in God’s presence. At the same time, we are also free for living as God’s servants. We are completely free to practice the kind of humanity that God designed for us. That means trusting God above all things and serving our neighbors in love.
For what has Christ set you free? He has set you free for service to other people. You are free to serve one another. Parents, you are free to serve your children, especially by teaching them God’s life-giving Word. Children, you are free to serve your parents by honoring and obeying them. Workers and students, you are free to put your best efforts into your work. Supervisors and managers, you are free to take care of your workers. As Christians—God’s free forgiven people—you are free to be slaves—slaves to people around you, free for service.
By God’s grace, may it be so for you—free from sin before God, free for service to your neighbor. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Amen.