On a balmy June morning back in the 1960s, my older sister and I were participating in a traditional western South Dakota kid’s summer activity, namely, running through the sprinkler. The flat green hose hissed sprays of water in the grass alongside our eight-wide trailer house. As we ran back and forth through our private fountain, we squealed with delight at the cold of the water against our warm skin, and we sang with delight in life, unsuspecting, unharried by death, but all too soon to be placed into its unyielding grip.
My sister skipped over to a tree in the corner of the lot to set up a pretend schoolroom in the shade. I was barefoot and soaking wet. I moved around the front of the trailer and placed a hand on the mobile home’s hitch, intending to swing around it and go inside for a drink of water or lemonade. But a stream of shorted electricity, which was now routed through the hitch, had a powerful alternate idea. It grabbed me as an easier path to the ground and refused to relinquish me. I felt the zap and sizzle of electric shock coursing through my whole body. The hitch held me with the force of an electromagnet. I fought to free myself, but I could only remove one hand. At that age, I sure wasn’t acquainted with the word electrocution, but I knew the word death, and I felt it twitching my muscles and sucking the air out of my lungs.
When we hear freedom, we have to ask about its opposite, bondage.
One of the elemental themes in the preaching and teaching of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers was freedom. But the word freedom always, always begs the question. When we hear freedom, we have to ask about its opposite, bondage. To what are we bound? What are we so desperate to get away from? From what do we hope to be free? According to Luther, the centripetal force of the Reformation, the thing that we’re freed from in Christ is the power of death itself (along with its cronies, sin and the devil).
Instances of electrocution, of people being visibly sucked into death’s gaping maw, are, thank God, pretty rare. But other situations of death’s grabbing hold in the midst of life are all too common. Any pastor worth a lick knows you don’t have to scratch very hard to get down under the surface of smiles and light people present in their pews on Sunday morning, to get to the place where death’s electromagnetic field flows free and where people struggle desperately to pull themselves away. Death is everywhere the business of church life, for where God’s word enters — standing at the head of an about-to-be-filled grave, striding into the darkness of despair, climbing down into the chasms of eroded relationships — is where the grasp of death and life-giving freedom stand head-to-head. In that place, the children of sin and bondage become the children of freedom.
In John 8, Jesus encounters a woman caught up in the sin of adultery, and he pours out freedom on her. This woman stands alone under the condemnation of the law, and as the Pharisees grip rocks, ready to stone her, she no doubt hears death’s desperate whisper of doubt sinking into her ears. Christ speaks to the Pharisees first, bringing them under the law’s judgment as well: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). When the Pharisees scurry away from this all-too-bright light shining on their own sin, Jesus speaks to the woman, pointing out that her accusers have fled the truth. For the person who knows her own sin, who knows how close death really is, who knows she can really only beg for crumbs of mercy from God, Jesus offers unending mercy. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).
Then Jesus offers his own interpretation of the encounter with the adulterous woman. He says to his followers, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free...So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-36). The freedom he bestowed on the adulterous woman allowed her the freedom to walk away into a new life unbound by death or the judgment brought by her sin.
He brings the same freedom to those who follow him. Real and true freedom, Jesus says, comes only through an encounter with the one who is the way, the life, and the truth. Only Christ himself, the Son of God, has the power to bring the reality of sin and death into the light. He’s the only one who can bring the full measure of God’s mercy to bear on the godless, on the selfish and the sinful, on those who wake up each morning to the tune of another day full of endless impossibilities, on us. Only Christ, who himself came under the full and weighty judgment of the law, can pour out the full weight of forgiveness on you.
When Martin Luther died in Eisleben, Germany, in 1546, his colleagues found a scrap of paper in his pockets, and it included the last words he ever wrote down: “We are beggars. This is true.” What those words mean is that God’s mercy and forgiveness, which make us true children of freedom, come to those bent double or broken in two. God’s graciousness comes to those who not only can’t get it right with God but even more, can’t muster the illusion that everything’s fine, just fine. Recovering alcoholics and addicts call that place of brutal honesty “bottoming out.”
Only Christ, who himself came under the full and weighty judgment of the law, can pour out the full weight of forgiveness on you.
In his last written words, Luther was calling this place the start of a beggar’s life. When life is stripped away, when every illusion of power and pride is taken away, we can’t help but know that we deserve nothing but wrath from God, for we’ve continually relied on our power and pretense in life and thumbed our noses at the one who created and still sustains us. We usually demand or at least expect that life should be lived according to our own purposes. But those whose illusions this world has torn away can only come, holding our bowls up to God, saying, “Please, sir, may I have some?” To them, to us, Jesus pours on the divine promise of life and freedom.
Those whom Jesus meets in the gospel of John (the adulterous woman, the lame man at Bethsaida, and even the three-days-dead Lazarus) all receive their new life and freedom on account of Jesus’ word. Jesus tells his followers in John 8 that being steeped in his word and promise is what brings them his freedom-bestowing truth: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” It isn’t enough to acknowledge Jesus as a great teacher or to hang out on the corner with him because he tells such wonderful stories. Instead, to continue in Christ’s word is to be gripped by it, to be pulled into it, to be fed into the bosom of forgiveness. In “Freedom of a Christian” (1520), Luther said that the person who is placed in the midst of Jesus’ mercy becomes Christ’s bride and gets everything he has to offer: You’re free from all sins, secure against death and hell, given eternal righteousness, life and salvation. In short, you become a child of freedom.
It’s a great temptation for sinners to mistrust the promise of a word that brings life and freedom. If it means becoming a beggar for mercy, we’d rather not have it, thank you very much, and we’d rather try cooking up something on our own first. Thus, the believers who had just heard Jesus’ promise and seen it in action with the adulterous woman, succumb to the temptation to rely on their own efforts. They come to doubt their own need for freedom. “We’re descendants of Abraham,” they say, “We’ve never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” It’s the old temptation that both the first commandment and the first article of the Apostles’ Creed speak against: seeking life and freedom apart from the one who creates and preserves our bodies and souls with all their powers.
It happened to me that morning of the sprinkler and the electricity. Just before I first touched the live trailer hitch, my sister and I had been singing at the top of our lungs. But these weren’t the usual children’s songs we sang. My sister, she of the skinny pre-adolescent legs and ripe-wheat shock of hair, had attended kindergarten at our church. Rather than ditties about the muffin man and that bridge in London, she’d learned the great hymns of the church there and passed them my way before I could even read. Drenched in water that morning, we sang, “My faith looks up to Thee,” “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,” “Beauteeful Savior, and “Hallelujah! Jesus Lives!”
When I found myself wholly bound and absolutely unfreeable, the songs ended, and I screamed for help. But the electricity, that power of death, had sapped all the power from my voice. My sister was outside my field of vision, but now I heard her approaching, singing. She grabbed hold of me like God’s promise itself. And as she laid her hand on my arm, interposing her own life between me and the hitching post of death, her voice sang what will always be for me the dearest of hymns: “I know that my redeemer lives!” What could I have done for myself in the face of death? Nothing. I had been reduced to a mere bed-wetting beggar, hoping against hope for life. And at that moment I was free. Not knowing in what great jeopardy she’d placed her own life, my sister rescued me. I crumpled in a weak heap, the neurons in my legs having gone haywire from the electrical surge. My sister pulled me up and said, “Let’s go inside and play.” As Jesus said to the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.”
We do not gain our freedom from making promises to God, to our pastors, or to one another, that we’ll do better from now on.
It’s an amazing and nearly unbelievable thing that Jesus does to you. You’re freed by the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Such freedom doesn’t come by the adulterous woman when she finally relents and promises to sleep alone. It doesn’t come from all the busy programs churches develop. It doesn’t come from our protesting that we’re innocent (or at least nice) when God casts his judging gaze our way on the Last Day. For as Paul says, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom 3:28). We do not gain our freedom from making promises to God, to our pastors, or to one another, that we’ll do better from now on. We’re freed by stripping down to our bare-bones honest selves, by becoming the beggars we really are, and by trusting the promise of Jesus delivered by St. Paul, by the gospel writer John, by Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon in the 16th century, and, if they’re actually doing what they’re called to do, by every pastor set apart to be a public proclaimer in the church. You’re freed by the promise that your future rests entirely in God’s hands.
It’s like this: Your long-term prospects as far as life itself is concerned are pretty bad. The prognosis for each and every one of you is terminal. The death rate for human beings is 100%. The grave awaits us all, and whatever power you think you have to wield yourself will come to its full and final end there. But your freedom, your salvation, and your new life have already come to our little band of beggars. You’re already dead in sin and raised on account of Christ; you have nothing to lose. So, you come forward to the mercy seat of God, begging. Begging, with hands reaching out for some of that sweet, freedom-granting grace. “Please, God, may I have some more?” And when that freedom comes pouring down to drench your whole being, then you can see a real show of electrical force. Freedom is bestowed on you to make you beggar-conduits, channeling grace upon grace into the world. It’s a powerful thing when little nothings like us are gripped by the power of God’s word and receive the new life that streams from him. “Hey beggar, you’re free!”