On this day, 504 years ago a young monk named Martin Luther stood before the doors of the Castle Church in the town of Wittenberg and nailed on it an invitation to debate. It was titled: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but we know it as the 95 Theses. This moment in time seemed to light the kindling pilling up within the Church. On All Hallows Eve, in the year 1517, the great Reformation of the Church burst into flames. Luther went viral with these theses as the printers began to make copies and spread them throughout the land. There was already distrust with the powers of the Church, and the issues of selling indulgences got to the heart of the corruption. There is a famous old woodcut of Luther writing these theses. On one end he is leaning on the door of the church to write, and the feather of his quill stretches across the page to the others side where you find it knocking the hat off the pope. When you read Luther, one of the things you find showing up over and again is his concern for what he called the conscience of the people. What he meant by that was the Church had put so many obstacles in the way of the believer they could not be sure of their salvation. They could not be sure of their entry into eternal life on the day of their death. There was always more to do, more to give, more to sacrifice to sure up what was lacking.
Several years after the publishing of the 95 Theses, Luther wrote a firebrand of a treatise called “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” What he made crystal clear, even with the title, was that the conduct of the Church had become a new form of slavery for the individual believer. The Church had enslaved the people of God to their own works righteousness and made them bow to the experts with the big hats and spiritual superiority. Now, the Reformation was never about starting a new church and it was never about breaking apart the Church of God. It was about clearing out all the things that become slavery to the people of God. It was about setting people free. And freedom would never be found in our own work, never found in our own accomplishments, but only in the free gifts of Christ Himself.
So, on this Reformation Day we read about a great exchange between our Lord and the Pharisees, a text which has to do with both slavery and the source of true eternal freedom. In John chapter 8 we are told Jesus says, “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Such a statement makes some pretty bold assumptions. It assumes that people by their very nature do not know the truth and, therefore, are not free. It assumes that outside of the Word of God all people are in fact slaves. Well, it turns out this news does not sit too well with the Pharisees. Afterall, they are the children of Abraham, they are the chosen ones, they have the prophets and the Temple and the commands of God. How can anyone every say they are slaves?
And, as they say that, we might very well think of our own situation. If someone were to suddenly say to you, “You are a slave,” what would your gut reaction be? At first thought we would deny it, passionately so. After all, we are Americans. We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Yes, slavery was a part of our history, but it was a horrible part we have worked hard to overcome. We fight for freedoms of speech, the press, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government. Freedom is part and parcel of the fabric of the red, white, and blue. So, to be called a slave is at first quite shocking. We can pretty much go where we want, do what we want, and eat what we want. If this is not freedom, then what is?
But if the one who declared you were not free, if the person saying you were, in fact, slaves was one you respected, one with authority, then it is a little more difficult to dismiss the accusation. When we hear Jesus say these words, perhaps we pause a little more and take some time to reflect on just what this can mean. I bet somewhere in the silence of your reflection you can begin to find the chains which bind you. They may not all be clearly in focus but deep down you know they are there. Sometimes slavery is most readily visible in the addictions binding people, the longing for intoxication or the high that enables them to manage the days ahead. People can become slaves to the expectations of our society, the drive to always fit in, to look the part. They become bound in the persona they put forward on social media and sacrifice their real self-expression to keep up with the lie. Slavery can also be foisted upon us. The grief that comes with terrible loss, the days where you wake up wishing you had not for it was another day alone, another day without the one you love. That too is a bondage which grips and tears at us. For still others the slavery is one of a discontented life, where nothing seems complete, everything falls short, and simple satisfaction seems to be a distant dream.
So, we may not see our chains, we may not clearly identify one another’s form of slavery, but deep down we all know it is there. In fact, it seems to have always be there. This is precisely what our Lord tells those shocked Pharisees. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). The underlying slavery, the underlying bondage binding every one of us, the thing that lies at the root of all other perceptible forms of slavery, is our sin. If you sin, then you are a slave to sin, plain and simple. Think about what that means. To be a slave to sin means you cannot overcome it, you cannot change that reality. You cannot just tell a sinner to stop sinning. Well, you can, but it is not going to do any good. They are doing what they want to do, what they are bound to do, what slaves always do. They are going to sin. Perhaps they change it up. Perhaps they move from one sin to another, change a more destructive habit for something viewed more favorably by the masses but the sin remains and so the slavery remains.
But there is hope. There is an answer. There is freedom, not from within and not from your own doings. You must be set free. That is precisely what your Lord has come to do. Now that is good news! It is, perhaps, the best of all news for a bunch of sinners like us. It means there is hope. It means the chains of our slavery will not last forever. But one of the things we learn from the Reformation is this gift of freedom is not readily embraced. It certainly is not just proclaimed to all who would hear. It is controlled. It is limited. It is dealt out in small portions for your own good. After all, if you were to simply be set free, who knows what destructive thing you might do with that freedom. Besides, people who do not know they are free are easier to control, easier to manipulate, all for the greater good, of course.
The Reformation was not doing a new thing. It was proclaiming a very old thing. It was a return to the Word of God. It is a Word which triumphs over all our attempts to limit and contain the promises of God, a Word that cannot long be bound-up in the chains of our own making. “If the Son sets you free,” He says, “you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Free indeed, completely, and totally free. This is what He has done for you. He has set you free from the bondage of your sin. This means there is hope beyond addiction, joy beyond your grief, and comfort beyond your confusion. There is love that has nothing to do with the image you present to the world. My friends, there is and remains an embrace which will not be repulsed by your failures.
You may not see it. The world may try to obscure it. At times even the Church tries to twist it. But the love of Christ remains for you. He has done it all, lived, suffered, died for you. The promise remains. You are forgiven. You are loved. You, this day, are free indeed.