I recently visited the famous civil war battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. My wife and I drove around looking at all the monuments and plaques from one of the most famous battles of the war. It’s almost unbelievable to think about how many people were involved in the horrific struggle that divided a nation. You don’t need to be a history major to know that one of the major dividing (maybe the largest) point in the war was over slavery. This issue literally divided a nation. Not just a family or two here and there, but families all across the country were divided. Slavery was on the hearts and minds of people during this time period.
But now in the twenty-first century, the issue of slavery may seem too far removed. It certainly exits in our world. But I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty shielded from any physical slavery. Can we really imagine the horrifying events of slavery and war even with the technology of movies? Pastor Karl and I have been teaching a class on the Bible this past month. One of the things we talked about was context being quite important when looking at different texts in the Bible. In order to better understand the Bible in the 21st century we first have to understand what it meant to those early Christians. However, in this instance I would imagine many of us 21st century Americans would read the passage the same way that the first people reading the text would have. Jesus said “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The people responded just as many of us would, we have never been slaves to anyone. We live comfortable lives, and on the surface of things, are not slaves to anything. We are free and therefore should be able to do anything because of that freedom, right? So then, what are we slaves to? If slavery is the way we think of it, what is the “slavery” that Jesus refers to?
A couple of summers ago, Laura and I planned this elaborate baseball trip (well I suppose I planned it and persuaded my wife to join me for 3 weeks). As I planned the trip, I thought it would be fun to stay at campsites along the way. In other words we didn’t have much money. So, I planned the trip around these campsites but I would only stay at campsites that had wireless internet. The trip was completely planned around my computers wireless internet connection. Sorry I don’t think we can go to Baltimore there are no campsites with wireless internet, oh yes we are going to Boston there are quite a few campsites with internet. So there I was in the wilderness in my sleeping bag in a tent with my laptop computer checking my fantasy baseball teams. Instead of spending time with my wife at the pool, I was seeing how many strikeouts Tim Lincecum had yesterday. It wasn’t bad that I was on my computer or that I was checking my fantasy baseball team, but when I wrap my entire vacation around my computer I become a slave to that computer. When I allowed that computer to control me, my relationships with family and overall vacation experience suffered. However, when I was away from the computer, we drew closer together as we marveled at the Brooklyn Bridge or strolled the streets of Boston together.
We have short memories, like the Jewish people in our text. They seem to have forgotten that they were in slavery in Egypt. We too have selective memory, when it comes to being bound by anything. We don’t like to think that anything can control us. We want to be able to experience freedom and therefore can do whatever we want to.
Even though we do not want to admit it, there are many things we can be slaves to—not just computers or work, but actual laws and doctrine—that get in the way of our relationships with God and one another. Martin Luther, perhaps like some of the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ time, was so caught up in the rules and regulations of the Bible that he was enslaved by God’s love rather than freed by it. He seemed cut-off from a right relationship with God. Day after day, he anguished over whether or not he was saved through enough of his works. But eventually he discovered the grace of God in the text. You see, Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The truth is that Jesus is the New Covenant that turns the old laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy upside down. No longer are the rules there to win God’s favor. God has already found favor in God’s Son Jesus Christ, who was sent down to redeem the world and make all people free…from sin, from slavery, from all the “shoulds” in our lives. Jesus frees us to be in relationship with one another because it’s not about what we do but what God does for us. Therefore, we like Martin Luther, are free to love our neighbor and act justly because we’ve already been set free from sin by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, but we also celebrate our roots in the whole universal church. We are encouraged and set free by our mutual love of Jesus to come together to worship him. No longer should we be slaves to our sometimes rocky history of separation. Christ freed us from the laws and doctrine that separate us from receiving the endless grace and love of God. Our traditions and doctrines are certainly important, but the ultimate truth is that Jesus came, died, and rose again for the sake of the world. That includes you and me, woman and man, Catholic and Protestant…. Jesus has the power to cross the binds and divides that separate us and he can bring all Christians together in relationship as one body of Christ.
You would have to live under a rock to not know that election day is coming up on Tuesday. As we quickly approach election day this week, we are continually bombarded with polarizing ads and news. As Americans, we forget just how much we really have in common as we continue to dwell on the details of political rhetoric and smear campaigns of politicians. This weekend talk show host and comedian John Stewart held a Rally to restore sanity on the national mall in Washington. At the rally he said, he wanted people to be able to come together over what connects us rather than let the extremes of this country divide us. There were signs that said, “I might not agree with your politics, but I don’t think you are Hitler either.” When we let our decisions for the country be controlled by worry and fear rather than by compassion and love for all our neighbors, then we are living in the bondage of fear.
In a nutshell, Jesus wants us to be free from the rat races of our lives, free from our broken relationships, and ultimately free from the sin that surrounds us—that keeps us in bondage. The truth is that God intended us to be in loving relationship with one another. Instead of focusing on the small things that separate us and keep us bound, Christ frees us to come together in what unites us. Our one baptism that unites all of us in one body of Christ. Even though we will experience sin and brokenness it is through our baptisms that we come back together into relationship with God and each other. My prayer is that we continue to experience this freedom and continue to come together to worship the one who daily sets us free. When we come together in what unites us we will continue to be a church that Amen.