Commentary on John 8:31-36
You know the advice concerning festival preaching as well as I do: preach the texts, not the day.
More often than not, however, that advice is difficult, if not impossible to follow. First, the texts are chosen precisely because of the day and so we naturally think of how they support the liturgical celebration at hand. Second, all the other liturgical elements of the day are so pervasive they provide a nearly inescapable interpretive framework through which we read, hear, and preach the biblical passages.
So perhaps better and more realistic advice might be to preach the texts in light of the day. That is, our task remains to preach the texts — to do anything else would be to offend the heart of the Reformation we celebrate. At the same time, we will do well to acknowledge the festival that shapes the particular occasion on which we hear these passages and honor the potential hermeneutic it offers.
John in Context
John 8:31-36 draws us into a brief but intense scene that is part of a much larger drama of increasing tension and opposition that runs from the beginning of chapter 7 to the end of chapter 8. The backdrop to all of it is the Festival of the Booths (or Tabernacles), the Jewish harvest celebration that commemorates God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness sojourn from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land (see Leviticus 23:39-43). Participants in this Jerusalem Temple-based festival would often construct booths, draw water from the pool of Siloam, and light candles to commemorate the odyssey of their ancestors.
It is in this context that we must hear Jesus’ declaration that he offers anyone who is thirsty rivers of flowing water (7:37-39), that he is the light of the world (8:12-20), and that those who continue (Greek, meno, literally, abide, dwell, or tabernacle) in his word will be truly free. Jesus is saying that he is the embodiment of the festival and now mediates God’s sheltering presence to the people.
Such a bold claim prompts sharp division between those who believe and those who don’t, though at points — including in today’s reading — it is difficult to tell who is in which camp. The phrase “the Jews” in John almost always refer to the opposition, and the history of the misuse of this passage to justify anti-Semitism makes it simply imperative that preachers point out that this was not meant to refer to all Jewish persons in Jesus’ day or our own. Indeed, in today’s passage John refers to “the Jews who had believed in him” (31).
Today’s sliver from this larger scene focuses on the third element of the Tabernacle celebration: freedom. “If you abide/dwell/tabernacle in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” As is customary in John, Jesus’ interlocutors misunderstand this initial statement (see 3:4) and offer a reply — “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” — that simultaneously sounds foolish (are we forgetting Egypt, the liberation from which occasions this festival?) and gives Jesus opportunity to elaborate.
He is not talking about physical slavery but a spiritual, even existential state of being enslaved to sin. Further one is not delivered from such slavery by either history or birth rite, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship — relationship to the Son, the one who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known (1:18). Only those who abide with, dwell in, and are in intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.
Reformation Day as Context
It may at first seem striking that the gospel for Reformation Day says nothing about justification by grace through faith. On second thought, however, perhaps that is just right. The Reformers were not out to establish a doctrine as the source and confidence of our salvation nor would have ever imagined celebrating it as such. All too often, Reformation Day celebrations have been constructed to celebrate the grandness of our theological heritage or, worse, our superiority over other traditions from which we believe Martin Luther delivered us. You can almost paraphrase too much Reformation Day preaching along the lines of today’s reading: “We are the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”
In contrast, the sole aim and intent of the Reformers was to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God that was not regulated by ecclesial officials, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done, and the guarantee of access to God’s grace and promise of life eternal that was not mediated by church regulation or bureaucracy. The sole aim and intent of the Reformers, that is, was to invite Christians to freedom.
But what does freedom mean? The opposition to Jesus defined it in political terms. We may do the same, or we may add material terms — wealth to buy what we want — or temporal terms — time to do what we want — or relational terms — persons to enjoy as we want. Yet all of these definitions still fall short of the spiritual condition Jesus speaks of: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” and so is not free. Sin here might be understood not as “bad things” we have done but rather a corrosive insecurity that inhibits us from trusting God and each other and instead drives us to secure our destiny on our own terms.
What can the gospel promise of freedom in Christ, one might ask, possibly offer to the self-made man or woman of the twenty-first century? In a culture that constructs freedom as independence — from responsibility, regulation, taxation, relational obligation, even mortality — how can we speak of the mutual dependence that Christian freedom describes? Luther once declared that as Christians we are simultaneously free from all things — that is, no one can determine our future with God — and yet bound in service to all persons — committed to their wellbeing and advancement.
Christian freedom is freedom from precisely the need to justify and establish ourselves on our own. At the same time, Christian freedom is freedom for life in relationship with God and each other because we believe we have been created for just such relationships and cannot be either whole or free apart from them.
It may seem a long road from freedom as seductive self-reliance and independence to freedom as life-giving mutual dependence, but that is the road we are set upon, the road that began back at Jerusalem, led through Wittenberg, and now runs right along side the congregations we serve. We keep walking, knowing that Jesus himself trod this way and bids us still to follow, promising yet again, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”