On Ash Wednesday
Jesus speaks “to the Jews who had believed him,” and we see how quickly their faith ends. One little word felled them: “slaves.” Actually, he didn’t even need to use the word “slave.” He just talked about being set free.
Note how these “Jews who had believed him” respond. “Abraham’s our father.” “We’re not illegitimate children.” “We’ve never been slaves of anyone.” “Aren’t we right to say you’re demon possessed?” By the time Jesus finished, they picked up stones to stone him.
They simply didn’t see themselves as enslaved. We could quibble with their grasp of history. They conveniently forgot about years of Jewish slavery in Egypt, times of exile in Assyria and Babylon, and their current occupation by the Romans.
Of course, since Jesus wasn’t speaking historically, but spiritually, perhaps they were too. Jesus talks about, as he clarified, slavery to sin: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And these “Jews who had believed him” say, “We follow the faith of Abraham, so you can’t be talking about us. You must mean some other poor schmucks who are slaves.”
Again, that’s usually how we see it. We feel like we’ve made all the right choices. We’re right where we want to be, where we intend to be. We’re notoriously hard to convince about things like this, in our parlance, addictions, mostly because we can’t see it. “I’ve got it all under control,” we say.
So Jesus begins what we might call an intervention. He says, “Doing the sin equals being a slave to the sin.” Notice how particular he gets. He doesn’t just talk about sinning, or using the plural, “sins.” He says “the sin.” This is his big truth, his hard truth, the truth surrounded by flashing neon signs, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Literally, “Everyone who does the sin is a slave of the sin.”
No, no, no, no, no, that can’t be right. I get it if you mean a general predilection, or a compulsive habit, or a way of life, you know, addiction, but this? The sin? That one I just did?
It’s not as crazy as you think, this idea that sin, any sin, makes you a slave to that sin. Think of how bound to sin, any sin, we become. We waste money on it. We think of nothing else. We lie about it. We connive to do it. We hurt others to have it or maintain it. Luther says stunningly in a sermon on this text, “It is vain for you to sin and still expect to be free.”
All the while, we maintain our status as believers, “I’m a son of Christ.” We carve out our Montana-sized exemption for ourselves so that we can trumpet: “I’m not like that guy over there. I believe!” We live in denial and untruth. We say it isn’t that bad, it’s all under control, it could be worse.
But Jesus says it’s as bad as it gets. Slaves have no place in the family. Slaves are unpeople. Seen, but not heard. Property, easily gained, easily discarded. Worked until death. Look at some of the things Jesus said to this crowd, including these “Jews who believed him”:
“You do not know me or my Father.”
“You will look for me and you will die in your sin”
“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
“I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be.”
“Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil.”
All because they weren’t the sons and children they thought they were. They didn’t yet know the truth. They followed Jesus, sure. They even believed, right up until Jesus said something that bothered them, just as happened in John 6.
There, Jesus said they only followed their stomachs and wanted more miraculous food. He pointed them to himself and said, “I’m God’s bread, the bread of life. My flesh is food. My blood is drink. Eat and drink this and you will have everlasting life.” They accused him of promoting cannibalism.
We believe, until Jesus bothers us, until the rubber hits the road, until he tells me I’m not as good as I think I am, or I have to give up that pet behavior, or my methods of appeasing God aren’t quite up to snuff. Faith in Christ is holding to his words, his teachings. Only then, Jesus says, do three things happen: you are his disciple, you know the truth, and you are free. And it’s all and only Jesus. “Anything that is not God’s Son,” Luther said, “will not make me free.”
In Egypt, Abraham feared losing his beautiful wife Sarah to a lecherous pharaoh; more he feared losing his own life. Instead of trusting God’s promise, a promise that said, “Through you all nations will be blessed, from an offspring of your own womb,” in other words, a promise that Abraham would survive all things, come what may, instead Abraham told Sarah, “Say you’re my sister.” Coward! Pig! He let pharaoh flirt with and take his wife for sexual pleasure instead of trusting God. Thankfully God stepped in and prevented pharaoh from using Sarah sexually, but no thanks to Abraham. He remained a slave. He looked to something outside of God and his son. Abraham could sit on the toilet, but he couldn’t push anything out.
But again, in Luther’s words, “We must progress to the point where we say, ‘God has promised.’” Abraham failed in this. These Jews who believed failed. They couldn’t abide the word “slave.” They couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle the truth.
How hard this is, to say only, “God has promised.” We can barely get out of bed in the morning based on God’s promise. So God has to do it for us. Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Here come Jesus’ words, but so few. We can fill hours of talk therapy with our fears, hopes, dreams, rationalizations, explanations, misunderstandings, and even confessions. God just says, “My Son!” Here’s his word, the Transfiguration word: “My Son. I chose him. I love him. Listen to him.”
Luther likes to use this analogy: “If you knew of a doctor who could cure all diseases, who could stop death, wouldn’t you run to this doctor and wait as long as necessary for his cure?” Here comes Jesus, offering the cure, telling the truth, giving the truth, speaking his words, “If the Son would free you.”’
The only thing hypothetical in that conditional statement is the “you.” Where are you? I know where Jesus is. I know where the freedom is, just like an alcoholic knows where the rehab center is and the over-eating glutton knows where the garbage can is. The problem is my slavery. It’s an addiction more deeply set than any addiction known to man. It’s not just in me, it is me. Except the Son sets you free. He tells you about your condition, he exposes it, and then offers the cure.
This is the freedom that the practice of private confession and absolution gives and why our confessions extol it so. We hear confession and think “Catholic! Pope! No!” Our Lutheran fathers, who grew up using confession heard it and said, “This is the place where God tells us the truth! You are slaves; I free you.” In confession we hear God’s appeal: “Slaves, be reconciled!” and at the same time we hear Paul’s word, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation,” whether spoken by pastor or fellow Christian. Because confession is about the absolution, the forgiveness, confession is nothing other than hearing the words and teachings Jesus gives us: “Slaves sin; the Son frees!”
We react against confession as a papal chore. It is simply being free sons. Luther exhorts us about confession: “When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.” Christians confess. Christians have the “true hunger and thirst.” “They reach for the bread.” Because Christians see their slavery, their great need. Luther, one last time: “In other words, as a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, Absolution, the Sacrament, and so forth.”
Jesus offers freedom, his words, his actions, his truth. He offers the really real, the real Abrahamic faith. He makes us sons because he bound himself to our slavery. He became a slave to death. He confessed our sins to the Father. And in Jesus’ resurrection, the Father declares his absolution, the absolution I announce to you: “I forgive you all your sins for Christ’s sake.” This is the day of freedom, now, today, here, an end to slavery, for Christ puts an end to our sin over and over and over. That’s his word. That’s his truth: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” He did. And he does. He made you a person again, no longer a slave, but a son. An heir. An heir to resurrection and life. His words. His truth. We have them. We hold them. Amen.