Reformation Day • John 8:31–36 • October 30, 2016
By Travis J. Scholl
Commemorating the sixteenth-century events that came to be called the Protestant Reformation is more complicated than it used to be. Triumphalism—a certain weirdly coiffed presidential candidate notwithstanding—is no longer in vogue. We left it behind in favor of our more cosmopolitan sensibilities. Moreover, the drop in religious literacy has further problematized our Reformation observances. Even some of our most dedicated Sunday worshippers have little or no awareness of what was happening when our namesake monk nailed a sheet of paper on the castle church door in Wittenberg. So, any celebration of the Reformation now often requires a sly pedagogy to provide enough context to make it meaningful.
The next year and a half may change all that. As people, institutions, and churches gear up for the looming 500th anniversary of that crucial moment in the life of Martin Luther and the history of Europe, there will be a deluge of information, complete with hashtags and the usual History Channel treatment. So, perhaps there is reason still to remember well the Reformation, if for no other reason than to correct the inevitable misunderstandings that go viral.
Of course, correcting a misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of this text from John 8, a standard Reformation Day gospel reading. We enter into the middle of a dialogue between Jesus and the Jews, an ongoing back-and-forth that animates much of John’s Gospel as a whole. In this case, the misunderstanding arises out of what it means to be born of Abraham. And, for Jesus, our very freedom as human beings is at stake.
The topic of freedom is a natural one for those who follow in the theological understandings of the namesake monk who penned the glorious treatise “The Freedom of the Christian” just three years after his 95 theses. But it can quickly become a delicate subject, lest we become the ones who proclaim, “We are descendants of [Luther] and have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33a, my own editorial insertion). The truths we hold to be self-evident can just as easily enslave as set us free.
Thus, we do well to begin our speaking about freedom the way Luther would. The freedom given in Christ is freedom from without, from outside ourselves, extra nos. There is a kind of coram mundo freedom that would seem to come from within, the kind of freedom that Americans see as a (self-)declaration of independence, the manifest destiny of the post-adolescents finally striking out on their own. But that freedom is usually bought and sold on the backs of those we consider less than human (or three-fifths human, as the Constitution originally had it), a zero-sum game.
This kind of freedom is, at best, a social contract and, at worst, an illusion. Every assertion of the self holds within it the possibility of a new kind of slavery. The freedom that truly gets to the bottom of things, that reaches into the heart of hearts, that breathes new life into every living creature, is the liberating kind, the kind that breaks through all our (self-)assertions with a freedom we never knew before. John reminds us that this liberating freedom comes in and with and under the word of Christ. And when Christ asserts it, we not only believe it to be true, we abide in it. We dwell in its immeasurable mystery of joy and gladness: “If you abide in my word, you are truly . . .” (8:31b).
To abide in the word of the Word made flesh is the life of faith, its dynamic and abundant life flowing from him to us, and through us to our neighbor. We find our freedom in faith. Or rather, it finds us. This is how we are made free. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36). Yes, made free. The same Son present at the creation of the world is re-creating us into a freedom that liberates us into the life he now so freely gives, the immeasurable triune life of God, overflowing and without end. This is, of course, the “happy exchange,” that Christ takes all that is ours to give us everything that is his. Our various slaveries for his unbounded freedom.
This life is freely received and freely given. Or, as Luther puts it: “Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life? It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing.”¹ It is an infinity-sum game.
Which means this kind of freedom makes us act with a liberating freedom toward each other. On a final note, it should not be lost on us that the Jews to whom Jesus is speaking at this very moment are not the hostile Pharisees but the Jews “who had believed him” (8:30). John’s little contextual clue thus becomes a convicting word to those who might use their freedom to berate and bully their fellow siblings on the basis of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Lack of love is the most damning evidence of a life still enslaved from within.
¹ “The Freedom of the Christian,” in Three Treatises (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1970), 305.