A sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, Missouri, for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, October 29, 2017, on John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28. This is my farewell sermon before moving from St. Louis to Frisco, Texas.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Jesus's words, yes—but he doesn’t mention that the truth will hurt. He seems to skip the part about pain being involved in those moments between "knowing the truth" and "being free."
Our unwillingness to feel the pain of facing our truths is one of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many ways. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements and doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in this world.
Psychologists write entire books about what they call defense mechanisms—all the ways in which we can try to avoid the pain encountered when confronting the truth of who we are:
• We repress what disturbs us.
• We project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and then criticize them.
• We rationalize our errors.
• We regress into childish behaviors and thought patterns. (We can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches, when the whole family gets together and we feel like we’re eight years old again!)
And let's not forget denial, the way we just reject a reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with facing it. (When someone I love seems stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them, smile, and say, “You know ‘denial’ is not just a river in Egypt!”)
While in seminary, I dated a fellow student. We looked like such a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I would make this relationship work! To this day, he’s still a great guy and he's become a great pastor. But the truth was, our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves back then were not all that compatible. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone. I certainly didn't want to feel the pain of admitting that, no matter how many ways I had tried, I couldn’t be my true self in that relationship. The truth hurt, and so for nearly two years, I repressed, rationalized, and denied my way into trying harder, over and over again.
While learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The speaker that day was talking about Step 1, and I'll never forget his message. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable,” he said. He went on to explain that the problem is that we think that just by trying harder, we can kick addiction or end a painful situation. But no matter how much we try, we fail and repeat the cycle—over and over again. Talk about pain. Maybe the pain of facing truth isn’t so bad after all. “The truth is,” he continued, “Step 1 happens not when we try harder, but when we admit that we cannot do this on our own at all!” Now, that’s a painful truth: We really are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess. But the moment we accept this is also the very moment when we are ready to receive help from God. That’s when freedom happens!
And that’s what happened to me, in this relationship that I was trying so hard to make work. When I admitted that on my own I couldn’t fix or change it, that I needed God’s help, I was finally facing the truth—a truth that unleashed all of the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, the pain of knowing my own limitations.
It was the end of December and very cold in Chicago. We talked and cried late into the night because, well, the truth hurts. He would have been unwise to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we had gotten into the habit of trading off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn on the air mattress. As it turned out, the air mattress had a new leak. As I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, I know, but it turned out to be the best night of sleep I’d had in months—the truth had set me free! I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I was finally trusting him with my whole life, whether or not I remained alone. The pain of realizing that I couldn’t make my life work by myself was momentary, while the relationship with Jesus would last for my lifetime.
We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints, who sought to be faithful to the truth of who they were and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul had to experience the pain of confronting the revelation of who he was: a man who was persecuting and killing early Christians. He endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ freed Paul from that pain, and it freed him from his former life as a Pharisee. Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime; the pain of facing who he had been before accepting his truth was only momentary by comparison. Paul experienced being justified by grace as a gift, and we still hear about his freedom today, two millenia later, as it is written in his letter to the Romans.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with the pain of his own sin and of the truth that he could not by his own work or merit—no matter how hard he tried—make himself right before God. Would the Reformation have happened if Luther had repressed, denied, rationalized, even projected the pain of his sin on someone else, rather than experiencing it and discovering in the process forgiveness without price and grace without merit? The pain of his sin was only momentary. Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime, even through excommunication and a threat to his life.
This evening, we will come together, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, at the Basilica to commemorate the Reformation and the truth of the Gospel that both Luther and Paul preached: We are saved, not by trying harder, but by confessing that alone we can’t do it at all. Telling this truth about who we are can be painful. The law convicts us and makes us aware of our brokenness and sin, but because grace opens up a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, that pain doesn’t last.
So now here I am, at another moment of embracing both the pain and the truth of who I am. I have resisted moving and the pain of saying goodbye for as long as I could—two years, at least! Yet the moving truck comes on Thursday. It’s time to say farewell to a city, my home, my church, my ministry, and to so many people I love. I do not have a call. I do not have a clue what God has in mind for me in Texas. Maybe I’ll be a little tempted to grab Texas by the longhorns, to try hard to make something happen. But I've learned that God calls us all to ministries and endeavors, expecting us to step forward in faith, even though we cannot see the ending or even the way.
Our future is held in the same place it has always been—in our abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.
Trust in the truth of who you are in relationship with Jesus Christ—that you are freed from your own sin and limitations, enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with your whole heart. Wherever you are trying harder, but resisting the pain of change—that’s the very place where Jesus Christ is calling you to greater freedom and to put your trust in him.
So be willing to experience the pain of change—of trying ever-new ways to connect with Millennials—and to proclaim Christ in our ever-changing post-modern era.
Pastors and programs come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Jesus sets us free for a relationship with Him that lasts for not only a lifetime, but for eternity. That’s freedom, indeed!