In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mankind was created to be free. Freedom is the state we were meant to live in. Yet the lies of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature have twisted and distorted freedom, and everywhere we are beset by slavery of various kinds. The work of Christ Jesus, in dying and rising to declare us righteous through faith, His work ultimately is what sets us free.
Now, slavery is an evil thing, a result of the sinful human nature treating people as less than human. It wasn’t unique to the American south. In the ancient world it was practiced in almost every culture, in some places much more harshly than others. At times it was more like an intense form of labor contracts, other times it was harsh, reducing people made in the image of God to brutish laborers. No human being was created to live that way. Despite what they said in the gospel reading, the sons of Abraham had indeed been slaves before. Perhaps the oppressive rule of the Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans in their own day counted. But certainly they had been slaves in Egypt, under the cruel rod of the Pharaohs. The Lord led them out in the Exodus with mighty signs and wonders, led them into land promised for their own inheritance. When God wrote the civil laws of that kingdom of Israel, laws about labor deliberately respected the humanity of those who were to work, such as treating laborers as members of one’s own household, setting regular times for their release, and a generous portion of their master’s goods. In Deuteronomy 15[:15], the Lord tells His people “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
But Jesus talks about a different kind of slavery. Political and economic liberty is a beautiful thing, but that which enslaves our human nature runs more deeply than our outward conditions. He says: “34b Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
Now, Freedom does not mean that you get to do do whatever you want, or as if you had no limits. We need some boundaries to live in. It’s good that gravity keeps us stuck to the earth. We’re glad that our skin keeps all our internal organs … internal. It’s a good thing that there are rules to keep us from acting stupidly at times. Otherwise our rebellion or anger or lust or greed would get the better of us and we make choices that harm ourselves and others. Freedom means that nothing prevents you from doing what is good, nothing stops you from living according to your God-given callings, not even yourself.
Think about how anxiety or fear or depression afflict many people you know, preventing them from doing or living according their vocations. Would they say they’re free?
Or consider how more often than not our slaveries start out as self-inflicted. Addiction is slavery, because it captivates, chains a person’s desires to whatever it is they’re addicted to. Ask an alcoholic if they are free. Ask the fentanyl addicts in our county if they are really at liberty to do what is good. What about those who stretch the truth so often that they’ve come to believe their own lies. Ask yourself why someone would ignore their family or their job to check social media just one more time, or why so many men and women use pornography - at the expense of their health, their marriage, and their immortal soul?
St. Paul writes about this in Romans chapter 7: “18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.... 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
If you are not capable of doing good according to the calling God has given you, you are in a very real sense a slave. Even if you were supreme grand emperor of the world and had more money and power and talent than anyone else, you would still be a slave to the desires and ignorance of your own flesh, captivated by the anxieties and self-centered pride of your own heart. In this, we cannot blame other people, or pretend that we’re victims of our own desires, but must confess our own slavery to sin, slavery to doing what seems good in our own eyes instead of what God has shown us is good. Repent. The invitation to eat a forbidden fruit and be free as a god was a lie, a temptation to sin and slavery. “The slave does not remain in the house forever,” but is cast out. Jesus says it: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
Thanks be to God that His Son Christ Jesus has come to us. He says: “31b If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Notice that He does not say that we are to free ourselves from our poor miserable condition. Many great thinkers in human history have suggested that our human freedom has to be worked out by our own repeated, intentional actions.1 While this is fine for the kingdoms of the earth, we cannot by our own reason or strength free ourselves from our sinful condition. God’s holy Law reveals to us His righteousness, and by contrast the unrighteous condition of sinful mankind. The Epistle reading today says: “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
It is Christ Jesus Who restores us to Christian freedom. He laid aside His glory for a time, and took on the form of a servant, a slave (Php 2:7). He took on a human nature and was born among us, born “under the Law” it says in Galatians 4[:4b-5] “5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” By His holy precious blood shed on the cross, He propitiated, made atonement for our sinful human race. By His rising, He opens the way for resurrection to life eternal for all who have died in the faith. This is part of His office as the messiah, as He says in Luke chapter 4[:18-19 & Isaiah 61:1ff]: “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because he has anointed me / to proclaim good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives / and recovering of sight to the blind, / to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Jesus’ perfect righteousness is put onto us through faith in God’s promised mercy, His favor. By putting His righteousness on us, He redeems us from slavery, buys us back, and transfers us to live under Him in His kingdom. He counts you as pure. Your sins are forgiven. So we are not slaves working for a new master, in Christ Jesus we are given to live in His Kingdom as Sons, heirs with status, being renewed in freedom to live as we were created to live.2 “35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”3
The road from slavery to freedom is not easy. You are forgiven and made God’s child, perfectly justified through the work of Christ Jesus alone, and yet our sinful flesh does hang around our neck until the day of resurrection.4 You want to quit that shameful, sinful habit, you want to be a better steward of God’s gifts, you want to be better at loving others according to your vocation, but this proves difficult. Our sinful habits do not go away automatically because we are Christian. Living in a way that matches our standing as justified children of God is difficult for us, we get confused from time to time about what our freedom is for.
Yet you are not alone. Your inheritance is not earned by more and more slavery. It’s been given to you already. His righteousness is stamped onto you already. It is repeated to us in the Absolution. You can be certain of God’s mercy to us in our time in His sacrament of Holy Baptism. There, God the Holy Spirit begins to renew us in true Christian freedom: changing our activity to match our status. Galatians 4:6-7 says “6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” With this precious gift comes the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in the virtues that go with freedom. Our willpower to do what is good, that self-discipline that goes with Christian freedom is only possible by inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
So it is that we continue to depend on Christ through faith in in what He has promised. “If you abide in my Word,” He says, “you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We rejoice that God is working to re-form our hearts and minds to live in Christian freedom, since we have His favor... In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
1 Aristotle argues as much in the Nichomachean Ethics, perhaps not using the the term ‘freedom’ so much as ‘happiness.’
2...in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
3 Now, today we are celebrating Reformation Day, a yearly feast when we are blessed to hear a few of the bible passages so central to the events and ideas of the Reformation. And it is good and useful to remember the Church’s biblical confession that is rightly our heritage, the truth that “[For we hold that] one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) Yet Martin Luther is often highlighted only as a rebel, and the spirit of the reformation nothing more than holy revolution against the establishment. Even though he specifically told people not to do this, Luther has been made into a mascot for any number of contemporary sociological or political causes. But we are not freed from sin or death by mascots, but by the One and only Son of God made flesh, Christ Jesus the Lord. The reformation is still about Jesus and what He has done.
4Technically, the day of our death, but I’m wanting to point towards The Resurrection here, consistent with creedal language.