You should hear the conversations around my dinner table. You have a life-long Baptist, arguing the merits of justification by grace with a Lutheran who became Lutheran on the basis of this foundational doctrine. According to Luther this is the article on which the church stands or falls. Someone should have told my husband that it is a little useless arguing with someone who wants to jump up and shout everytime she hears “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This was so contrary to what I heard all my life about being good and working out my own salvation. I have said many times that this little idea changed my life.
Of course my Baptist husband believes in God’s grace, I wouldn’t have him otherwise....but every now and then this idea that grace has to be conditioned on something—creeps in. He thinks that simply to say we have been justified is too easy, too simple. For him there has to be more; for him justification is proceeded by right living, right behavior and right action. But who can get it right?
For Reformation Sunday our gospel lesson comes from the eighth chapter of John. As we begin reading at the 31st verse Jesus stands speaking to "the Jews who had believed in him.” We hear Jesus once again engaging in rhetorical gymnastics with those around him. This conversation is slightly different than the conversation we heard in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Different in that Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees and Scribes who seek to trip him up and find some fault in him, he is speaking to those who are eager to listen and learn, those who have perhaps heard of him and want to see what he is all about. They hear his statement, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” and they are offended--and so are we. How often have we heard this statement taken out of context? Did you know it is even plastered on the side of the CIA Building in Washington, DC?
But what truth? When asked this question we stick out our chest and talk about the truth that Jesus rose from the dead so that we might be free. And though modern day theologians would whole heartedly agree with the statement “the truth will make you free.” Many of them believe we skip too rapidly to this freedom, this grace, we jump right to the end of the story and forget everything that comes before.
Those listening to Jesus certainly had forgotten. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Certainly they seem to have forgotten that at one time or another in their history they were slaves to the Egyptians, and lived under Assyrian, Persian rule and now as Jesus is speaking with them, they still live in oppression and in conflict with the Romans. So their conversation with Jesus is surprising. Jesus reminds them, “. . . everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” And we think that this must be one of those rhetorical devices because we have no idea why he says it that way.
Conversations about sin can be tricky. I remember a few years ago having two telling conversations about sin. The first was with a young mother who wanted her baby baptized. She had grown up in another tradition and decided that she wasn’t going to have her baby baptized in that tradition because the priest kept talking about original sin and she just knew her baby wasn’t sinful. So she asked me what we Lutherans-- what we at St. John’s ---believe because she thought we were a nice bunch of people. It was though she were interviewing me for the most important task. I told her that here at St. John’s we believe all are born into sin, and that through the waters of baptism we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus. Yet we remain, throughout our lives -- saint and sinner at the same time. She wasn’t satisfied; she didn’t want to hear about sin and we don’t want to hear about sin either.
The second story is of Confirmation class a few years ago when we began to study the Catechism.
We were talking about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins” and we read the explanation “. . . for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment." Some members of the class were offended at the idea that they deserved punishment for something they had not done. They didn’t appreciate being named sinner.
"I’m not a sinner," a student told me. "I’m good, I treat people well, I help those who need help, I don’t lie, cheat or steal." And of course she didn’t. What we don’t seem to understand is that sin is more than those big things that we don’t do. Sin is also those smaller things like not forgiving our family member that hurt us, not loving our neighbors as ourselves, believing that the way we look at things and want things is the one right way and making everyone’s life miserable when we don’t get our way. Sin is gossiping and ignoring the new kid in school. Sin is “the fabric of our lives,” or as Paul tells us “We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s a fact.
Sin is also so much bigger. It evades our lives in so many ways. No, we may not kill or murder or commit adultery, yet almost everything we do makes us complicit in the sins of this fallen and broken world. Think about it....where we live, how we live, what we eat, the availability of goods and resources means that someone goes without. What we wear, the cars we drive in some way or some how harms the planet and harms someone whose health is destroyed by hard labor or lack of those things we take for granted.
This grace sets us free to love, to give, to serve as unconditionally and wholeheartedly as we are able---free to care for the poor, the lonely, the lost---free to share our abundance with those who know lack--free to not only continue in the word of God but to witness, to proclaim that good news.
Conversations with my husband about theology, and doctrine can get heated, but what we do agree on is the fact that we all sin and it is by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we are saved.