If You Continue In My Word
October 25th/26th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
I never really appreciated history until I started studying it at Seminary. Maybe that’s because I was finally studying areas of history that interested me. Maybe it’s because for the first time I understood that I was studying the history of how thought, culture, and worldview developed rather than simply memorizing a series of names and dates. Maybe it’s simply the natural result of approaching the subject in my mid-20s instead of in my teens. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until Seminary that I truly enjoyed studying the past. I mention that because we are celebrating Reformation Sunday, the commemoration of not only an isolated historical event, but the celebration of an entire era and movement in history. On October 31, 1517, the then monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. That event started a chain reaction of events that led to the church we are familiar with today. Certainly Luther wasn’t the only one involved, there were many other faithful men and women who contributed along the way, but if Doc Brown and Marty McFly were going to get into their DeLorean and go back in time to stop a single event from altering the course of Reformation history, that would be the one.
So here we sit, 498 years later. Here we sit in a church bearing the name of Luther not because we hold him in such high regard, but because of the way he relentlessly pointed people to the Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. Here we sit nearly half a millennium later about to sing “A Mighty Fortress” in front of a chancel decorated with Luther’s seal. Here we sit celebrating the well-known Reformation confession of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed through Scripture alone. Here we sit, a living object lesson illustrating the point Jesus is trying get his disciples to understand in today’s Gospel reading. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If you abide in my word,” says Jesus. Any good Lutheran would ask, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to abide in the Word of God? Some translations render this phrase as, “If you continue in my Word.” Abide. Continue. These are words that describe an ongoing reality – and that’s precisely the point Jesus is trying to make.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll almost certainly say it again, so I’ll say it today. I often feel like we live in a world that approaches life like it’s a movie. I feel like we keep waiting for the final credits to roll. It’s like we engage problems or difficulties in our lives as if there will come a point when everything will wrap up neatly at the end. We approach politics as if once we get the right person elected all our nation’s or our world’s problems will be fixed. I remember as a kid there was a sweeping victory for the Republican Party in Congress or the House of Representatives or something. I remember because I was in the car the next day listening to Rush Limbaugh singing along to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” He was celebrating that now that his people were in charge, the political fortunes of this country would begin to look up. Fast forward a few decades to the inauguration of Barrack Obama, and the same tune was being sung by the other side of the political aisle. The audacity of hope. We will finally see some real change. Now, almost 8 years later, political division runs more deeply than ever. Because life goes on. Getting the right person into political office in next year’s Presidential Election, or in any other election, is not the end. Time marches forward.
We often approach marriage in the same way, as if life is a romantic comedy in which bride and groom move happily along to the altar, overcoming whatever obstacles stand in their way until they finally say I do. And then the credits roll. At least they do in the movie, but real life keeps going. Real love and real marriage last well beyond the dancing at the reception. The words Happily Ever After may be spelled out in calligraphy on the wedding album, but once that evening is over the bride and groom must continue as husband and wife, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, as long as they both shall live. You speak words of promise on your wedding day, and then spend the rest of your life continuing in those words. Abiding in those words.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the Truth will set you free.” Luther may have driven the nail into the church door 500 years ago, and there may have been some needed and important changes that happened in the church as a result. But here we are today – half a millennium later. The credits have not yet rolled on the story of God’s Church. Time marches forward; life goes on. Being a child of God is a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey through the trials and temptations of a fallen world. It’s a journey through the sadness and heartache of watching loved ones suffer, maybe even die. It’s a journey through a world filled with injustice and hatred and bigotry and betrayal. It a journey through a world that, at every turn, seems to take the idea of a loving and merciful God and throw it back in your face. “How?” we ask ourselves? “How can I believe in a loving God when my child has cancer?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see those whose lives have been ripped apart by abuse?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see the way people in Syria are being driven from their homes?” “How can I believe in a loving God when there is so much evil and pain in the world?”
Jesus’ answer to those questions is the same words he spoke to the Jews who had believed in him. “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth.” To continue in God’s Word means to live in it, to study it, to meditate on it, to allow it to be the lens through which we view reality. To abide in God’s Word is to listen when he says to you through that Word, “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Or when he compares the suffering of this life to the refiner’s fire so that the “genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Or when He assures you that the “sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” To continue in the Word of God is to know the truth that sets you free. And here is the truth: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” We may not see the final results of that yet, but that promise has been given to us in His Word. If you continue in that Word, you will know that truth, and that truth will set you free from the burden of doubt. Yes, the world can be a painful place to live right now, but we are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we know the truth of our salvation, and we are free to be people of hope in a world of sadness. For the truth has set us free.
But perhaps we misunderstand this freedom. Perhaps we confuse freedom with autonomy. Perhaps we try to use our freedom like a spoiled toddler always demanding his way. Or, better yet, perhaps we attempt to use our freedom like a new high school graduate who has left home for the first time. Without the watchful eye of parental supervision, these young men and women often give into the whims and temptations of the flesh. They are “free” to do whatever they want for the first time in their lives, or so they think. But their “freedom” often ends in crippling debt, failed college classes, STDs, broken relationships, or any number of emotional scars. Why is this the case? It’s because “doing whatever you want” is a terrible definition of freedom, and it’s certainly not the freedom that Jesus is talking about today.
At the District Convention this past June one of the presenters told a story about freedom. He told of a young eaglet who fell out of her nest and into a gopher hole. She was raised with the gophers, living in the tunnels. Of course, her developing talons and beak were not great for tunneling and digging, but she did the best she could. She didn’t really enjoy the vegetarian gopher diet, and her growing wings made navigating the tunnels harder and harder with each day that she grew. Then, one day, she found a tunnel that led to the surface. She crawled out of that tunnel, covered in matted dirt, and when the fresh air hit her nostrils, she somehow knew exactly what to do. She knew what those wings were for. She spread them out and soared into the heavens. She was finally free, free to live the life she was designed to live, soaring majestically through the clouds, the eyes of a huntress spotting her prey from high above, the sharp talons snatching fresh fish instead of whatever it is gophers eat. Her freedom was found not in some mythical autonomy to be whatever she wanted. No, it was found in being who she was created to be.
That is true freedom. That is the freedom Jesus is talking about today. That is the freedom that comes from abiding the Word of God, from continuing in His Word. You don’t set a fish free from the water. You don’t take a fish out of the tank and put it on the sidewalk and tell it, “Now your free to go wherever you want and to be whatever you want and to do whatever you want! Go be free little fish!” To do that is to kill the fish. No, the fish’s freedom is found in the water – in being who it was created to be. So also our freedom in Christ. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What truth will we know from the Word of God? We will know the truth of our sin and our salvation. We will know the truth that Luther recognized and posted as the first of those 95 Theses all those years ago: “The entire life of the believer is lived in repentance.” We will know that our righteousness comes to us as a gift from God, the righteousness of God himself credited to our account. We will know the truth that there is nothing we could ever hope to do to save ourselves. Trying to win our own salvation would be like a fish trying to live as an eagle or an eagle trying to live as a fish. The fish would suffocate in the eagle’s nest, the eagle would drown in the fish’s bed. Their freedom is found in living as God created them to be.
Our freedom is in the same place – living as the people God created us to be. Even more importantly, our freedom is found in living as the people our Lord has redeemed us to be, continuing in his Word of forgiveness, abiding in the words of new creation spoken over us in the water of baptism. Our freedom is found in confessing our sin, being free from the burden of guilt that would suffocate to us. Our freedom is found in forgiving those who have sinned against us, being free from wallowing in the bitterness and hatred that would drown us. Our freedom is found in spreading the wings of compassion and living in self-sacrifice toward the people around us, providing for those in need, providing for the future generations of Christians who will be fed in this church and school for years to come. Our freedom is not an excuse to selfish living; our freedom is finally being released from shallow and short-sighted living of the world to live as the people we were created to be, to soar above the pettiness and bitterness of the world and, trusting in our forgiveness, show what the Apostle Paul calls a more noble way – the way of love.
For the credits haven’t yet rolled. Life goes on, and will continue to go on until the day our Lord decides to return and bring us home. Until then, we continue in his Word. We continue in the message of the Reformation – Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone. As Jesus said, Because we continue in His Word, we know the truth. And the truth will make us free.
 1 Peter 1:7
 Romans 8:18
 1 John 3:8