Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: Truth and Dare


Ah, Reformation Sunday! Time to celebrate everything Lutheran. Let's bring out the red vestments and paraments. Bring on the extra brass. Fire up the choir. Sing the fight song (A Mighty Fortress), and the Reformation scripture texts! All of our favorites...all speaking our language. Jeremiah 31? The law will be written directly on our hearts - no need for intermediaries - we're Lutherans, we bypass all that static and go directly to God. Romans 3? We're justified by faith...we don't get bogged down by works. (In fact. there was once a Gnesio Lutheran who had inscribed on his tomb stone, "Never did a good work in my life.") John 8? We're Lutherans...we know the truth and we are not so sure anyone else does. And for one, glorious Sunday each year we revel, we splash, we exalt in our Lutheran-ness.

I married an Episcopalian. Not just an Episcopalian, but an Episcopal priest. Just months after our wedding, as I was making preparations for Reformation Sunday, I asked my dear husband what he was planning for his congregation on that glorious day. His reply? "What's Reformation Sunday?" I think I stopped breathing for a moment. It was the first time that I was confronted with the reality that others - even those within the Reformation tradition - did not celebrate Reformation Sunday. My world view was shaken.

That was thirty-three years ago. The 467th year of the Reformation - not a particularly noteworthy anniversary of the Reformation. This is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For the past year it has been All Reformation All the Time! Everything Luther. The really observant have branched out to Melanchthon and Bugenhagen. True believers will dress their children up as Martin and Katy for Halloween. I think it is time to hit the reset button and hear, with new ears, the amazing announcement of Jesus to those who had believed in him, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free."

These words should startle us as much as they did the original hearers. That they have become a familiar rallying cry puts us squarely in the gospel story. Those who had believed in Jesus were offended. "We're the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" I don't think these people suffered from amnesia. Recounting the saving act of God bringing the people out of bondage in Egypt was one of the foundational confessions of faith for the Jews. There is something else going on here - they were caught in "Peoplehood" - and had come to trust in that more than the liberating promise of God. We are not so different. In our case our "peoplehood" is Lutheranism. "We are descendants of the Great Reformer and have never been slaves to anyone!" And, at least in the North American context, we have more narrowly defined our Lutheran peoplehood as European descent. When we do this, we trust more deeply in who we are than in whose we are. In our boasting, we miss the promise.

As often happens in the gospel according to John, Jesus' startling statement leads to further questioning. "What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" Whoa! What did Jesus just say? For a moment, the people are shocked out of their frame of reference and are open up to hear a new thing. That, I pray, is our experience this Reformation Sunday when we hear this gospel. Then the searing Word will burn through the fog of familiarity and become fresh Good News.

Jesus said, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." These are well-known and oft-cited words, though increasingly people do not know the source. They are literally inscribed in stone on many educational buildings, including the Bond Chapel attached to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, but also the headquarters of the CIA. These words have sometimes been turned into a kind of loyalty oath in Christian circles. But using Jesus' words as a motto for knowledge and power or as a demand for right belief completely misses the mark. Once again, we fall into the trap of believing our effort and our understanding will bring life. We hear a demand for our work and miss God's word of promise.

What does Jesus mean by "truth" and "freedom"? So, if we just know enough and behave well enough, we will attain freedom? And isn't freedom the problem after all? We have been given free will, the argument goes, and that is what has gotten us into trouble. Free will is blamed as the SOURCE of evil. Salvation is found in somehow escaping from freedom, as "surrendering to God's will" which usually becomes a set of moral obligations. It can force us into a new Gnosticism - right knowledge...right doctrine...right practice. Stick to that and we'll be OK.

But the Gospel has a different way of telling the human story: Humankind is not free despite what it might think about its proud lineage or powers. Humankind is deeply, hopelessly in captivity to sin and death. Jesus and his promise open a way to freedom, the freedom of a place in the household of God, not as a disposable slave, but as people who share God's inheritance. It is God who makes us free. It is not up to us. We do not have to live our lives constantly in fear of punishment, constantly trying to do the right thing. Paralyzed by our own fruitless, exhausting attempts at self-justification. Always looking over our shoulder.

This view of freedom - that freedom is the problem - is well illustrated by Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, "If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can't hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther's definition of sin, "the soul curved in on itself" traps us in our own echo chamber.

Pontius Pilate famously asked, "What is truth?" By our definitions, the truth Jesus announces that sets us free leads us to ask the same question. Is it right doctrine? Is it right knowledge? Is it something we must attain? The truth that comes through Jesus is not moral instruction or the right thing to do or even behavior, but the Father's heart of love. When Jesus promises that we will know the truth and the truth will make us free, he was speaking of a PERSON who IS true, who REMAINS true. The one whose remaining true in merciful, forgiving love brings life and freedom to the world. This truth is not information that can be taken and used to exploit and betray others, nor is it a secret code. It is Jesus' promise to be true - true to God's love and true to us despite all of our betrayals. When Jesus announces, "I am the way, the truth and the life," Jesus is telling us that he is the embodiment of God's compassionate mercy, true to the very end. Even truer than death.

Here is the good news. Here is the Gospel that Luther discovered and that set him free. This is the truth that forms us into God's liberated people. It is God's promise that the former things are past. That the new covenant means not just a fresh start or another try for humankind, not just a little tweaking or a new page on a report card, no keeping account of future sins, but a sovereign promise pure and simple. In Christ, the one who is true, we are free.

Breathe that in for a moment. Free from the domination of sin, free from self-justification and self-righteousness, free from our excluding peoplehood, free even from being Lutheran. And, since this freedom has been given by the one who is truer than death - we are free from death and freed for life. We are free to live in this truth and dare - dare anything - dare everything. This is a whole new way of looking at the world. And listen...we can hear the music of the one who loves us and is true.