Christ Lutheran Church


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Category: Sunday Morning Sermon

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin



John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday

October 28, 2018


Christ Lutheran Church

Zionsville, Indiana

Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin

(Last Sermon at Christ Church)



            You catch your child with his hand in the cookie jar just after you have told him, “Hand’s off!”  But instead of a confession, all you hear are excuses: “But Dad, I was so hungry and couldn’t wait until supper.”


            Terror strikes in your heart as you suddenly look up in your rear view mirror and see those flashing red lights.  “But officer, I’m sure that I was not going over the speed limit.”


            You would think that telling the truth would not be so difficult. But as we all know, life can be confusing and complicated. Our own motives often remain hidden and unrecognized. And most of all, we are not as innocent as we would like to think we are. It is not easy to tell the truth. We would rather offer excuses and rationalizations.


            This is also the problem at the center of today’s Gospel. You would think that Jesus would be more congenial to those Jews who had shown some interest in him. But he gives it to them with both barrels. He accuses them not only of not telling the truth but also of refusing to recognize the truth when it is right before their eyes.


            Jesus says, “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 were not too happy with what Jesus said to them. They were descendants of Abraham! They were part of a proud ethnic tradition. Their genes guaranteed their status as God’s chosen people. They had maintained their race and their religion for centuries often in the face of brutal oppression and persecution. They were free and slaves to no one! How could Jesus ever think that were not free but slaves?


            Jesus will not back down. He tightens the screws. Because these Jews still sin, they are still slaves. They are not free at all. It is not just that they make a few little mistakes or errors in judgment. They are enslaved to the power of sin and cannot free themselves.  That is the truth!  It is the truth that they cannot accept.


            We cannot accept it either. We cannot help ourselves. Economic experts assure us that the economy is growing. The Great Recession of 2008 is a distant memory. However, the gyrations of the stock market, the massive trade imbalance and a growing national debt are all reasons to be afraid of a future that we cannot control. 


            We cannot escape the fear that without a bulging wallet we cannot risk anything.  We call this freedom?  Whom do we trust? What do we count on in life? Who or what is our god?


            I remember four years ago walking through the ruins of ancient Rome. It was stunning to see the ruins of all the magnificent temples that were built to honor all the gods in the empire. In the center of Rome stood the Pantheon, the largest domed structure ever built in history. Under this incredible dome, several hundred feet across, all poured at one time, an engineering feat that we still cannot figure out, all the gods of the empire were worshiped.


Today we might snicker at the thought that anyone could think that wood and stone could be a god. However, the Romans were not that stupid. They did not actually believe that those stone statues were gods. Those stones represented all the powers and forces of the universe that were beyond their control. They believed that they must try to control those powers through their offerings and sacrifices in order to succeed. If you failed to meet the demands of the gods, then your life could end in disaster. 


Is our world any different? We all have gods that we try to appease. We all have something that we fear, love and trust more than anything else. We all fear not being able to meet their demands. We all worry that they will not keep their promises. We all never can seem to silence their accusations.


            Jesus expressed the same painful and embarrassing truth when he spoke to the Jews in today’s Gospel, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.” Every one of them knew that they committed sin.


            The truth is not pretty. The truth is not going to be popular. This is not the kind of stuff that is going to win friends and influence people. Yet, Jesus surprisingly thinks that such truth-telling is going to set us free.


            We scratch our heads in amazement and wonder how such “doom and gloom” is ever going to be good news, . . . let alone set anyone free. Answering that question is what we celebrate on this Reformation Sunday.


            Today we remember that great reforming movement of the 16th century begun by Martin Luther. It divided the Christian Church in Europe.  At the time of the Reformation, Luther attacked the church and demanded change because the church was no longer telling people the truth!  Instead of telling the truth, the church was peddling a conglomeration of lies and half-truths that undermined its very essence.


The truth that the church must speak is two-fold, doubled edged. The first truth is this:  We are slaves to sin. We are trapped, broken, messed up and at odds with God thinking that we can go our own way in this world and get away with it.  The second truth is this: God in Jesus Christ loves us anyway, in spite of our faithlessness and bad behavior. God is determined to win our trust and rescue our lives. Therefore, God sends his Son to love us, to carry our sins and all the lies that we peddle all the way to the cross. There Jesus suffers and dies. He endures the fate we deserve . . .  FOR US!  Therefore, God raises Him on the third day declaring that the first truth has been trumped by the second.  God declares, “Your sins are forgiven. You are no longer slaves but free. You are my beloved sons and daughters and nothing in this world is ever going change that.  And that is the Truth . . . the truth that sets you free!”


            At the time of Luther, the church had stopped telling this truth. Instead, the church found it much more convenient to peddle the lie that Jesus was not enough to get you right with God. You had to do something more.  The church’s message declared “Jesus PLUS . . .  something else.”  Jesus PLUS . . . indulgences, so many times to confession, so many times at mass, so many pilgrimages, so much obedience to the Pope and church authority . . .  is what you need to do to get you right with God.


            Another lie compounded the first: Actually, you were not enslaved to sin. You could do something to improve your spiritual plight if you just worked at it a little harder or followed a little more closely the church’s system for making it easier. Luther called it “works righteousness.” 


            The church saw God’s grace and mercy as a kind of matching grant. We know all about matching grants around here.  Over the years, this congregation has benefited from two large matching grants from the Indiana Center for Congregations. First, there was the Sacred Space Grant Initiative which helped us to launch our building expansion and renovation. Then there was the Life Together Strategic Planning Grant Initiative, which helped us to redesign our governance structure.   In both cases the Center was willing to give us a substantial amount of money to carry out a program IF were willing to contribute a matching amount of money. 


            Those kinds of matching grants are good. Unfortunately, the church throughout its history has made a matching grant the heart of its mission: IF we contribute something, God will match our efforts with His grace and mercy. In the 16th century, it was buying a few indulgences for your relatives stuck in purgatory.


            I fear that much of what gets passed off as the Gospel in the church today, even among us Lutherans, is another version of this “matching grant gospel.” IF you really and truly and sincerely (watch out for the adverbs!) commit your life to Christ, then God will “match” your commitment with His grace . . .  and sometimes a host of other “blessings” and “rewards.”


            But that is not the truth! That is a lie disguised as the truth. The harder we try, the more we become entangled in ourselves. Our love of neighbor is nothing more than a scheme to make us feel better about ourselves. We never know when we have done enough. What God has done for us in Jesus Christ is wasted. The comfort and consolation that God wants to give us gets lost.  Our faith wavers and crumbles. Instead, we run to the Pantheon and waste our time and effort clinging to a variety of other gods all enslaving us with their empty promises.


            The only truth that can set us free is Jesus Christ.  Telling that truth is the reason why the church exists. Telling that truth is the only reason Christ Lutheran Church is here. Telling that truth in our words and deeds to a world lost and confused by lies is our mission.  It is very simple. It is very radical. It is privilege and honor to do it.


            This last month I sat with two couples who wanted to join this congregation and become a part of our mission. Every time I meet with such people, I want them to know what it means to be a Lutheran. Every time I trot out the same, amazingly simple but shockingly radical truth.  It is the truth that sets you free. It is the truth that is at the heart of the Christian faith regardless of what denominational label hangs over the front door. 


Today is my last worship service with you as your pastor. Ironically, on this same Reformation Sunday 40 years ago on October 29, 1978 I was ordained into the ministry at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Indianapolis. Our guest accompanist today, Kurt Schakel, was the accompanist at that service. After 2 ½ years there, I served for 17 years at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. The last 20 years I have had the privilege of serving this congregation.  Wherever I have served, I have done my best to make this truth the center of my ministry and the mission of the congregation.


            This truth is a radical answer to a simple question:  “What do I HAVE TO do to be saved? Nothing!  Because God has already done that for me in Jesus Christ. And I GET TO believe that. And when I believe that, it changes my life. It frees me to truly serve the needs of others.”


            That is the truth.  That is the truth that Christ Church, the Lutheran Church, the Christian Church . . . shouts out to a world that is drowning in a sea of lies.  That is the truth that we not only celebrate on this Reformation Sunday . . . but every time we gather around Word and Sacrament. That is the  truth, the only truth, that sets us free!




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