“We’re descendants of Abraham,” the Israelites said, “we’ve never been slaves to anyone.”
Is it me, or do they sound a bit offended here? It’s almost like they’re defending themselves from some sort of insult or dig by Jesus. But all Jesus said was that if they followed him and listened to his Word then they’d be free. That sounds more like good news than anything else, but I suppose it how Jesus was suggesting that they needed to be free to begin with. And I guess that made the minds of the Israelites go to the whole “slave” thing. Maybe because, you know, they actually were slaves before, no matter how much they denied it.
But being called a slave is a bit offensive. The internet tells me that the definition of “slave” is “a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.” Being forced to obey someone is bad enough, but that legal property part sounds kind of crazy. How can someone actually own someone else?
It would have to mean that the someone else isn’t really a someone else. Rather, they’re but an object for convenience or usage. They’re just a piece of property to be owned and displayed and probably abused. They are less than human as they wouldn’t ever be able to have their own thoughts, aspirations, and dreams. Man alive, that just sounds gross.
So I can see why Israelites sounded so stand-off-ish with Jesus’ comment about them needing to be freed. Being called a slave, even the insinuation, isn’t very nice, especially if you aren’t one. It’s condescending, degrading, and dehumanizing. It is saying that the person is worth only what they could produce through hard labour, otherwise they have no value. It’s saying that this person isn’t actually a person but just a thing or piece of equipment used to get things done, and this person doesn’t have a name, a personality, or any kind of identity other than someone’s thing.
And that sounds pretty awful.
But Jesus wasn’t finished. “Whoever commits sin,” he explains, “is a slave to sin.” We all know that we have sin, I mean we see that in the second reading for today, so I guess that means that according to Jesus, we’re all slave to it? But then the question is, what is sin? How are we considered slave to it? And what is it for us?
First off, what is sin? At its most literal sense, sin would be defined as “missing the mark” or as that second reading tells us, “falling short of God’s glory”. In that God has set up a standard of morality and conduct, and sin is not living up to that standard. I want to emphasize that I wouldn’t regard certain actions as sins, as in saying stuff like lying is a sin. Rather, I would say feeling the need to lie is a result of our collective sinful nature in that our relationship with God is strained because of our own inability to hit that mark.
So that is a very brief description of sin. It is just who we are as people: imperfect, blemished, and trying to alleviate the innate guilt that we feel because of this sin.
And that leads us to the second question about how are we slaves to sin? When we think about what a slave is, one who is powerless to do their own will but must heed to the beckoning of their master, then I think it’s pretty clear. We all have that in our lives, where we find ourselves doing something that we know we shouldn’t in order to satisfy something else. It’s like what Paul says in Romans 7 about doing what he doesn’t want to do but doesn’t do what he ought to do. I think we all can relate to that feeling, and that is us being slaves to that sin.
What is this sin for us? While I can’t speak for all of us in this room, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a good majority of us are slave to fear.
The fear of not having the highest grades in our class, of not having the funniest jokes, of not gaining the most respect from our peers. The fear of not having enough money or a big enough house or the nicest car. The fear of not having the most friends, or the most party invites or the most social media likes. The fear of not fitting in, the fear of not belonging, the fear of not finding a place for us in the world. The fear of death, or what happens to us and our loved ones when we die, the fear of eternal damnation.
And that fear grips us. Overwhelms us. Strangles us to the point that we are desperate to alleviate that fear by any means necessary.
So we have become slaves to that fear, that sin.
But Jesus there is freedom.
There is freedom in the truth of his Word, in the mercy of his promises, in the grace of his love. There is freedom.
Freedom from the fears that control us, freedom from the bondage of sin, freedom from the guilt that comes from missing the mark and falling short of the glory of God. Freedom from having to live up to the made up standards of the world for acceptance and belonging but believing that the standard put forward by God has been lived up to for us by the work of Christ on the cross.
Today is Reformation Day, when we remember the birth of our Lutheran Church and how the Reformation was started. And like many of these festival days of the church year, we are given the readings to follow in case we want to observe the festival. But if by chance we don’t, there are the regular readings for what would have been the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. And I just so happened to have read those readings and the gospel lesson is about that parable about the Pharisee who prays in front of the church, loudly so that everyone could hear, how thankful he is that he isn’t like the lowly tax collector over there but so much better in basically every way, and then goes on in the prayer actually listing out those ways.
And really, that Pharisee wasn’t lying. He was disciplined, he was respected, and he was good. Good according to the law, that is, but good nonetheless. But you know why he had to be so vocal about his accomplishments? I’ve always understood that to be fear. Fear that he wouldn’t be respected, feared, and loved. So he had to remind everyone within earshot and beyond why they should and rightfully love him.
Slave to fear.
But the tax collector in the story, there isn’t much to say about him. All that is mentioned about him is that he can’t even look to the front of the temple, but cowers in a corner in the shadows, and in humility and anguish of his sin, he beats his chest and cries out, “Lord, have mercy on me!”
And thanks be to God, the Lord gives it to him.
Friends, there is freedom in the truth of Jesus Christ. There is freedom for us to be who we are created to be as beloved children of God. There is freedom from the sin of fear and we can rest boldly in God’s Spirit, reminding us that our position in God’s kingdom is eternal and unchanging, allowing us the confidence to have faith and believe that we are people, cared for and cherished, redeemed and saved, loved and forgiven.
So on this Reformation Sunday, let us remember our unchanging position in God’s unchanging love by God’s unchanging promises, that we can be reformed again and again in the image of God’s own heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.