In 1992, Walt Disney released the animated film, “Aladdin.” In this movie, there was a theme of imprisonment going on: each of the main characters was imprisoned by something, and each one wanted to be free of whatever it was that was imprisoning them. So, let’s take a look at a clip from the movie, where the genie expresses his desire to be free of the lamp in which he’s imprisoned.
So we see that the thing the genie wants most to be free from is the requirement of him to constantly fulfill other people’s wishes. He wants to be his own master and to be able to do things for himself. That sounds very much like the American idea of freedom, doesn’t it? To be completely independent, to have no one else telling us what to do with our lives, to have complete control and to be able to fulfill our own wishes. But today’s Gospel gives us a different idea of what freedom is all about. Jesus tells us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And then, in response to the question, “What do you mean by that?” Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” These two statements by Jesus raise several questions: What is the truth that Jesus speaks of? What does this truth set us free from? What is sin and what does it mean to be a slave to sin? Only when we try to answer these questions will we get a glimmer of what Jesus is talking about, and move toward an understanding of what freedom truly is.
Let’s begin with a definition of sin. There is a distinction between sins in the plural form and sin in the singular form. Sins in the plural form refers to the bad things we do, the things that we think of when we confess them each week: arguing with a family member, gossiping about a friend, stealing office supplies, failing to help a person in need of food or shelter, failing to be there for a friend who is grieving the loss of a spouse, etc. That’s pretty easy to understand. With those sins, the things we do and the things we fail to do, we either forgive them in one another or we punish them, as in a court of law. But when we talk about sin in the singular, we’re talking about something deeper. Sin is the condition that we are born with, and that we are enslaved to. And that condition that we call sin is the condition of insecurity. We are, at heart, insecure. Deep down, we do not believe that we are truly God’s children, and that God loves us and will provide for us. And that insecurity, the condition of sin, leads to all of the individual sins that we commit. Think of the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree. The serpent had led them to believe that God was holding back knowledge from them that they needed to survive. They became insecure; they doubted that God loved them and had their best interests at heart. And this insecurity, this condition, led to the first sin: that of disobeying God’s command and eating from the fruit of the tree. And since then, all human beings have been born into this condition of insecurity.
We are enslaved to sin: we are, in our deepest heart, insecure. All of us. Advertisements play on this weakness. If we just buy the latest iPhone, we will have access to all of the information we need at the speed that we need it, so that we will never miss out on anything. If we just buy the latest, biggest, flat-screen TV, we can host big parties at our home and we will never be lonely again. If we single women wear the latest fashion and the best makeup and if we have the exact right figure, then we will land a handsome man and live happily ever after. If men buy the right tools, then they will be able to fix stuff around their home and never have to rely on repairmen again. The trouble is, what happens when we buy all of this stuff, and the promises don’t materialize? Then there are more advertisements, more products that promise us things will be better and we will be secure again, if only we buy and we hoard. We fall victim to those false promises, and we are enslaved to sin.
This false security is what Martin Luther was fighting against when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Although the practice of indulgences may have started out with good intentions, by the time Martin Luther arrived on the scene, if you paid enough money for the right kind of indulgence, then this piece of paper said that you escaped all forms of punishment for your sins. It was kind of like a “Get out of Jail Free” card in the game of Monopoly, except the card wasn’t free. In Thesis 27 of his 95, Luther wrote, “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately the money clinks in the chest.” In other words, buying indulgences was the 16th century’s version of buying more and more in the hope that yet more indulgences would secure a person’s release from purgatory. Like us, the people of Luther’s time had trouble believing that God loved them, that they were worthy of that love, and that no amount of money and no amount of promises from the pope written on paper could give them the love and security they were looking for.
Now, enter Jesus with his words of promise: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We can now guess what we want to be free from. We want to be free from our enslavement to sin. We want to be free from our insecurity. And the only way that can happen is for love to enter the picture. When we feel completely loved and accepted, worthy of dignity and respect, and confident that we are enough, then the insecurity is gone, and we are no longer tempted to commit sins. And that is the point of the Reformation begun in 1517 and something that we need to continually remind ourselves of today: In God’s eyes, what we do, all of our accomplishments, and all of the things that we have acquired do not matter. These things and accomplishments do not give us status in God’s eyes. In God’s eyes, what matters is that he has created us and that he loves us, simply because he made us and for no other reason. God loves us in all of our insecurities and accepts us for who we are. That’s it. This is the truth that Jesus Christ came to tell us, and knowing that truth, and knowing that God the Father sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, to show us how much he loves us–this is what sets us free from our enslavement to sin. Jesus comes to set us free from our insecurities and to show us how much God loves us.
But this freedom has more to it than being set free from something. This love of God through Jesus Christ also sets us free from our insecurities in order that we can be free to show that love to others. Martin Luther put it this way in his treatise, “On the Freedom of a Christian”: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” And now you may start to understand why Lutherans are able to embrace paradox! Luther goes on to write this, “Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.” Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” and “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” In becoming a slave to those he loved, all humans on earth, and dying for us on a cross because he loved us, Jesus set us free from sin. But that freedom is now freedom to do the same thing that Jesus did: to submit ourselves to those whom we love, to help them in their needs, to grieve with them in their sorrows, and even more: all to show them how much Jesus loves them for who they are, not because of what they have done or what they have.
So, what does this freedom to love look like in our daily lives? Once when my maternal grandfather was alive but was suffering from dementia, the family was gathered at my uncle’s house in Tennessee for a visit. My uncle came outside to where I was sitting with some other members of my family, and, clearly frustrated, said, “Tonya, why don’t you go in and talk to your grandfather?” I went in to the living room where my grandfather was sitting and sat down nearby. My grandfather started talking to me, but, as his speech was slurred and indistinct, I had no idea what he was saying. So, for a little while, I entered his world and I pretended to understand him, nodding along and saying, “OK,” “Uh-huh,” and so on. This seemed to calm my grandfather immensely. For that moment in time, I would like to believe, he felt loved for who he was, and his insecurities were eased. When we sacrifice our time and our talents to give to others what they need to feel loved and secure, then we abide in Jesus’ word, we know the truth, and the truth sets us free. When we sacrifice our treasure–our money and our possessions–to give to others what they need to feel loved and secure, then we abide in Jesus’ word, we know the truth, and the truth sets us free. For it is in those moments, when we give of ourselves in love, that we are set free from our own enslavement to sin–to insecurities–and we feel that we are worthy, simply because we are God’s children.
Many pastors today will be preaching about the church continually needing to reform itself. And indeed, we are seeing today a great “re-formation” of the church. Many churches are closing, but also, there are many new ways of being church that are being experimented with. Church today does not look like church did in my grandfather’s day, or even like it did as I was growing up in the church. But whatever changes the church is going through right now, it is important to keep this principle at the center: Nothing that we accomplish, or have, or acquire, matters to God. Instead, God loves us for who we are: God’s children. God showed us how much he loved us by sending Jesus to the cross to die for us, so that we might be freed of our insecurities and so that we might love others as God loves us. That is the simple truth that sets us free. Let us now rest in that love and go forth to show that love to all whom we meet. Amen.