But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)
If you listened to any pop radio in the early 1990’s, or if you ever watched the television show, “Party of Five,” then you might recognize the following song from the Wisconsin-based band, the BoDeans:
Everybody wants to live
How they wanna live
And everybody wants to love
Like they wanna love
And everybody wants to be
Closer to Free
Now, these lyrics might not be the greatest poetry that you’ve ever heard or anything, but they do sum up not only the yearnings of a whole young adult generation, but also, a particular condition of every human soul: part of being human is to long for freedom. This is why teenagers test their parents’ boundaries, and why some graduates choose colleges far far away from home. This longing for freedom drives us to seek better jobs so that we can be financially free, and better gym memberships and diets so that we can be free from health problems, and good retirement plans so that we will one day be free to travel and to fill our unoccupied time with hobbies and home improvement projects.
Everybody wants to be closer to free.
Jesus said to those who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone is a slave to the sin and brokenness of this world. But if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
The heart of today’s gospel can be summed up in two statements: The truth is that everyone is bound by something. And the truth is that Jesus offers us the chance not only to be closer to free, but to be perfectly free.
When Martin Luther took his monastic vows, he threw himself headlong into the requirements of the monastic life: prayer, fasting, spiritual reflection, and confession. But Luther was a man plagued by constant fear and doubt over his own salvation. He was so gravely insecure about the future of his own soul that he carried every monastic spiritual practice to the extreme. He felt utterly compelled to confess everything he had ever done, spending hours with his confessor, up to six hours at a time! He would desperately detail every sin that he saw in himself, and was tormented by fear that God would yet find his efforts inadequate and throw him into the depths of hell.
Luther later wrote, “I was myself more than once driven to the very depths of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!...I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”
Luther was a man who was bound by his own fear of God’s wrath and his own inadequacy, and he was a man who desperately needed to be rescued by the freedom offered by Christ.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that he was finally convinced that Christ could make him free. in 1515, Luther had received his doctorate and was preparing a series of university lectures on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He came across the passage from Romans 3 that we read this morning, a passage he had likely read many times before. But on this occasion, it was if a light bulb went on over his head when he read “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [is] for all who believe.”
These words were freedom for Luther. His soul, which had been held captive by fear and despair, was now comforted by the truth of the gospel: By Christ’s death and resurrection, he was made free from sin and death, not by his own efforts, but by God’s grace. Luther came face-to-face with the freeing truth that salvation wasn’t a matter of his own spiritual aptitude, nor was it a zero-sum game of sin and confession. It was simply his faith that saved him. By faith, he was made free.
In Luther’s story, we find both pieces of today’s gospel: the hard truth that in our humanness, we are living bound lives, and the saving truth that in Christ, we have been made free.
Luther’s story is also our story. We are all bound and we are all made free.
So I have a question for you: In your own life, what binds you? From what do you need to be made free?
Are you bound fear that you are unworthy of God’s forgiveness?
Are you bound by the feeling that your world keeps on spinning at an accelerating rate and the fear that if you stop to breathe for only a moment, your world will spin out of control?
Are you bound by anxiety over your adequacy as a parent or partner, or by a fear that you will fail the ones you love?
Are you bound by uncertainty about your future? By a constant and nagging sense of worry? By anger or envy? By a fear of death?
The world tries to promise you that it has solutions for all of these things. It tries to assure you that you can take destiny into your hands and work to make yourself closer to free.
Every car commercial that shows a driver soaring over hills and around curves on a fresh and empty road through a lush landscape tries to promise you that freedom can be bought - or at least financed - through your local Honda dealer.
Every wireless carrier and cell phone manufacturer that advertises faster 4G speeds, brighter screens, and endless apps tries to promise you that freedom is the pocket-sized feeling of a touch screen under your fingers.
Every low-budget television commercial made by a bankruptcy attorney who guarantees you a quick and easy path toward debt reduction tries to promise you that freedom is just a phone call away.
Every HGTV series that invokes a professional organizer to help families pare down their wardrobes and get their home offices under control tries to promise you that freedom can be constructed through the principals of good interior design.
Any one of these things might very well offer you the illusion of freedom.
But our true freedom, our lasting freedom, our perfect freedom is not to be found in anything that this world offers. Our true freedom comes from those same words in Romans that quieted Luther’s heart and rescued his soul from despair:
“The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Or put even more simply, in Jesus’ own words, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Brothers and sisters, there is perfect freedom to be found for all of our bound or despairing souls. There is perfect freedom that has already been won for you. Trust that Christ has already saved you. Remember that you have been baptized and set free. Let your worried and resisting heart become vulnerable to the truth that nothing in this world can determine or diminish your worth, because you are already righteous, you are already saved, you already have infinite and immense value, because God’s grace has freely chosen you.
My invitation to you today is that you take a moment - at communion, or during the peace, or following worship - to plunge your fingers into the font, into the same cleansing and life-giving waters that washed you in baptism. With your fingers in the water, I want you to feel God washing away all of the things that bind and paralyze you. As you lift your hand from the water, let your soul be revived by Christ’s assurance of freedom. And with your fingers still wet, make the sign of the cross over your body, or trace a cross on your forehead, remembering the freedom that comes with being a baptized child of God.
Children of God, called and beloved, hold fast today to your watery faith and step out of your bondage. Feel God’s new life in your bones. Breathe the free air of your salvation. Hear Christ’s words of promise: “The Son has made you free, and you are free indeed!”