By Frederick Niedner
Jeremiah 31:31-34: The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt— a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
John 8:31-36: 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.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Many of us have associated these words of Jesus with the name Martin Luther for as long as we can remember. This is always the gospel lesson for Reformation Sunday. I associate them with the name Martin Luther for another reason. It so happens that those words were the text for the very first sermon I ever preached, back in my student days at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The congregation I would address included my homiletics class, our instructor, and a video camera. We’d been assigned texts for our sermons at random. It was the spring of 1968. The class met at 7:30 a.m. Normally, the congregation was not exceptionally alert. But as it turned out, my sermon came on the morning after a bullet took the life of Martin Luther King. I had sat up late into the night writing a whole new sermon to replace the now-trivial sounding one I’d prepared earlier. On that morning, words like truth, freedom, and slavery seemed weightier than they had the day before. We had just seen how truth can make one fearless, all right, and in that sense free. But it can also get you killed.
Long before, the first Martin Luther had spent part of his life in hiding, with a price on his head, for insisting on speaking the truth he had come to believe, the truth he knew as the gospel. Many centuries before that, Jesus had also ended up a prisoner for speaking the truth. In one of the last scenes of John’s gospel, Jesus stood before the governor, Pontius Pilate, talking about life and death and power and truth, and how the whole point of his life had to do with being a witness to the truth. (In the Greek of John’s gospel, “witness” is martyr, so we know already what it will cost Jesus to bear that witness.) Finally, the bewildered governor asked the question we remember so well, “What is truth?”
That chaotic morning Jesus didn’t answer that question, at least not directly. But today we hear his word on that subject. The truth will make you free, says Jesus. That’s how you can know what is true. But there are other kinds of truth—aren’t there?—truths that bind, enslave, alienate, isolate, damn, and even kill.
There’s the secret truth that goes on in the private conversations of our minds all day long, including the truth of our private hatreds, sometimes of those closest and most dear to us, and how that truth imprisons us. Our strength and wit goes wasted in perpetual efforts to hide the truth of our addictions, or some private shame, or gnawing despair, from ourselves, the world, even God, from whom, ultimately, no secrets are hid. In countless human triangles, a furtive truth that two people know, but a third does not, makes captives of all three. Words like cancer, layoff, or divorce take us hostage when they appear in the same sentence as our names. Rumor and gossip, even when truthful, pin us helplessly to a wall of public scrutiny.
I recently received an ad for a new magazine that promises to tell the truth that themainstream media and news organizations are hiding from us. This truth will make us free, the ad promises—and the first issue is free, too.
Maybe I should order it. After all, we’re in an election season, so we have a very curious relationship to truth these days. Pretty much every candidate swears that he or she alone is telling voters the truth. But some of us a bit long in the tooth remember what the late Illinois senator and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once said (with his tongue tucked deeply into his cheek), “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in trouble.” Yes, it’s hard to get a grip on the elusive truth of politics.
We arm ourselves in various ways for volleys of dueling truths whose purpose is to maim and demean, whether in marriage, church squabbles, political campaigns, or scenarios in which we prepare for war. “Our truth is truer than your truth!” we declare in a multitude of contexts.
No wonder there’s an old proverb among Balkan peoples that says, “Tell the truth. Then run.” A bit more subtly, Emily Dickinson advised in a well-known poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Many think Dickinson had God’s truth in mind here as that which we must see from an angle, or gradually. As ancient Israel could not look on God amidst all the lightning on Sinai, so we need the children’s version lest we go blind from the stunning brilliance of God and God’s truth. Perhaps. “No one sees me and lives,” God told Moses.
What, finally, is the truth of which Jesus speaks, the one that frees us? What is the truth of the gospel we celebrate as the gift we cherish in our remembrance of the Reformation and our pledge to continue as church in the spirit of Reformation? And do we need a child’s version, a sugar-coated model, a gentle circumlocution?
The truth we celebrate today is simple. Let me give you the first part of that truth, Reformation style, from the lips of a child. Someone sent me this story on the internet (so you know this is true, right?):
A Sunday school teacher asked a class of youngsters: “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale, and gave all my money to the church, would I get into heaven?”
“NO!” all the children answered.
“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would I get into heaven?”
Again the answer was, “NO!”
“Well,” I continued, “then how can I get to heaven?”
A five-year-old boy shouted, “You gotta be dead!”
There is the first piece of the truth that ultimately frees us—and not merely the truth that we must die some day at the end of our life, but that we already now recognize ourselves as helpless before God’s law, in a prison of sin, dead and buried, god-forsaken, helpless and hopeless. And right there in that dread place, God “dazzles” not with lightning, as Dickinson fears to look at, but with the cross. We see the slant of the cross, and the broken Christ, for there we see ourselves.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus tells his disciples in John’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t just speak or share the truth, or program it into our disciple-brains. No, Jesus is Truth. And we see that truth most truly on the cross, where the Truth declares, “It is finished, complete!”
In the pit of god-forsakenness we find ourselves crucified and buried with Christ, joined to him for eternity. That’s the truth that sets us free. There’s no place we could possibly sink to, except even there, he is Lord for us. We are not abandoned. He enters our prison. He takes on our captivity, we get his freedom. Indeed we live in him, in his truth, in his freedom.
We live now in a whole different place than the prisons made by all our own kinds of truth. “Abide in my word,” Jesus says, “Live there, for there you know truth and have genuine freedom.” What is that word? “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). God’s incarnate word is God’s love, and also our dwelling place of freedom. We entered into this place through baptism and we abide thanks to the Spirit’s persistent calling, urging, and faithfulness.
Right here, in this community, in the embrace of Christ’s body, we see that truth written in flesh and blood, just as Jeremiah’s oracle suggests. Here, words of absolution trump the truth of accusations. Words of comfort lift us from the prison of disintegrating bodies. We are all dying all right, but we aren’t dying alone—we have each other, and all of us together die into Christ’s embrace, God’s trusty hands.
We give thanks for that truth today, and for the Reformers over the generations who made sure it got handed down to us. When I was a kid, in a town of only Lutherans and Catholics, I was pretty sure Reformation was a time we proudly thanked God that we had the truth, and the Catholics didn’t. (We Lutheran kids had to rejoice in something! After all, back in those days the Catholic kids got all the trick-or-treat candy on Hallowe’en because we Lutheran kids had to go to church for an evening Reformation service.) By now I know it’s all about thankfulness. We give thanks for a gift, the gift of love we could never earn. The truth does not belong to us, but to the Holy Spirit, and it makes itself known in any and every place. It never rests.
And maybe we can use that old Yugoslavian proverb, after all: Tell the truth. Then run. Yes, we’ll run to the table for the meal of freedom, Christ’s feast for us—we’ll run with decorum, of course. We are, after all, still Lutherans. And then we’ll run from here to live in freedom, and to make room within God’s freeing love for any and for all.