Reformation Day

These verses promise good news to those who desire to be Jesus’ disciples: He and only he brings true freedom.

October 25, 2009

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Commentary on John 8:31-36

These verses promise good news to those who desire to be Jesus’ disciples: He and only he brings true freedom.

At the same time, these verses take us into the teeth of the Gospel according to John’s pointed polemic against the people represented by the characters called “the Jews.” It is imperative that congregations come away from their encounter with this text understanding that “the Jews” mentioned in 8:31 do not stand for all Jews (neither all Jews of Jesus’ time nor all Jews of any time) or for an abstract notion of Judaism. To make this passage imply that Judaism is an enslaving religion or that Jesus somehow stood outside of Judaism is to misunderstand the passage, the historical setting in which it was written, and its enduring theological implications. Consulting a reputable commentary on John will re-acquaint preachers with this Gospel’s polemical bent and help them guard against perpetuating old forms of anti-Judaism and creating new ones.

These six verses are cut from a tightly-constructed dialog (8:21-59) that resembles a courtroom deliberation over Jesus’ identity. In the larger episode, Jesus takes the divine name as his own and tells his interlocutors that they are estranged from God and their Abrahamic ancestry. While the lectionary’s sharp knife keeps the core dispute of 8:21-59 hidden, in doing so it also carves out space for preachers to consider the six verses on their own terms. That is, congregations will hear 8:31-36 as a mini-dialog more or less dislocated from the most problematic and controversial aspects of the wider narrative context. This allows a sermon to direct focus toward the rich language Jesus uses.

Dwelling with Jesus
Jesus’ first comment, in 8:31-32, oozes with promise. Three things follow from the initial “if,” which he speaks to people who had already expressed belief in him:

If you continue in my word, [then]:

  • you are truly my disciples
  • you will know the truth
  • the truth will make you free

Getting a sense of how John uses several of these words shows that Jesus’ point here is rather simple and focused, even if it is all-encompassing. He says that remaining connected to (or “dwelling in”) him and his message is the true measure of discipleship. It is what separates people who are really free from those who appear to be Jesus’ followers for a time. It is the path to truth and freedom. (Talk of “dwelling” fills John. See especially 15:1-17.)

What Is This “Truth”?
Perhaps you have heard John 8:32 ripped from its Christological context and turned into an abstract platitude. But, in this Gospel, “truth” does not refer to a philosophical ideal or the opposite of falsehood; it is knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus’ own self. Knowing this “truth” is knowing God, God made present in Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). Jesus makes this clear in 8:36, when he substitutes “the Son” for “the truth,” saying that the Son makes people free. “As “Son” and “truth,” Jesus himself is the very revelation of God (1:18; 5:19-27; 14:8-10).

We live in an era in which we have come to understand that claims about truth are rooted in our contextuality and invariably contested. It is interesting that Jesus does not present himself as a self-evident truth. That is, he does not expect his hearers to grasp the fullness of his claim all at once or to assess its validity through logic or research. They will come to know him as “the truth” if they live with him and remain connected to him and his word. Experience, not deduction, is the key.

What Is This “Freedom”?
Only in this passage does “freedom” language appear in John. Jesus’ mention of freedom offends his hearers, who insist they have always enjoyed freedom (even though, ironically, Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries live under Roman rule). But Jesus contends that without him they live as slaves. First, they are enslaved to sin, living as oppressed people. Second, this slavery relegates them to inferior status; because of it they cannot claim a permanent place or identity in God’s family. Jesus then shifts his household metaphor to suggest that, as “Son,” only he can ensure true freedom and secure membership in God’s family.

The banal repetition of “freedom” in American political rhetoric makes it difficult to distinguish among various kinds of freedoms. Nothing in this passage envisions modern concepts of personal liberties; the principal focus is on freedom from sin’s clutches. Still, this passage finds new ways of offending modern audiences. To say Jesus brings freedom implies that people live in slavery, and we do not like to hear that we are enslaved in any way. So much of our modern lives tries to reassure us that we are, or should be, free from any constraints. We aspire to self-realization, self-actualization, self-sufficiency. We perpetuate myths that we are at the mercy of no forces that we cannot control. These are not necessarily the same thing as “sin,” but they point up ways in which we resist God and really need a liberator.

Remember the Reformation!
If you are preaching on this text because liturgical planning materials directed you to do so for Reformation Day, then it is important to think about this text in the context of that festival. While Reformation Day, by definition, includes an element of looking into history, back to Luther’s deed of 1517 and all the streams that converged to bring about the Protestant Reformations, remember that the day’s primary purpose is to focus on the present and future by considering our own need for renewal and reformation. Resist the temptation to preach history, ecclesiology, or interreligious polemic. Let me suggest three theological directions this text might point us on such a day.

The Radical Centrality and Sufficiency of Christ
The audacity of Jesus’ claims in this passage too easily wash over many church folk who have grown accustomed to hearing such talk. Jesus’ words in these verses may launch an extended debate further into John 8 about Abraham and Jewish identity, but they also apply to every other form of hope, identity, system, or whatever. Jesus declares all those other things insufficient. The point is not just that Christ alone–to the exclusion of all others–brings true freedom from sin and true belonging in God’s household. It is also that Christ himself does it. Jesus does not announce new dogma or new confessions to which one must subscribe. He demands an encounter with himself. One must dwell with him and with his word.

Our Resistance to Freedom and Tendencies toward Vilification
Interpreters puzzle over the “they” in 8:33, and why it seems that the people “who had believed” in Jesus (8:31) resist him and eventually are told by him in 8:47 that they are not really “from God.” First, this underscores Jesus’ insistence that true liberation comes from dwelling with him, not from just believing or assenting. Second, this forces John’s readers (and our congregations) to consider what Jesus says from their own perspectives as people who profess to believe in Jesus. Jesus speaks to people who are apparent insiders, people drawn to Jesus, people who believed, not to an easily ostracized “other.” Even “believers” today resist discipleship and Jesus’ gift of unqualified freedom.

Therefore, those who take this passage simply as a contrast between Christianity and other faith systems (or between Protestantism and other Christian traditions) commit an awful mistake. Beware of those who use the text and the Reformation Day context to vilify the “other.” Certainly the strong Christological statements Jesus makes in these verses draw attention to his conversation partners and their function in John. I have already written above (and elsewhere) that preachers bear the responsibility to educate congregations about how and why the Gospels depict Jesus criticizing his Jewish contemporaries. This text calls for reflection on Christians’ tendencies to use scripture as a weapon while simultaneously domesticating the challenges it poses to us.

The Realities of Our Slaveries
To take seriously Jesus’ claims about setting us free is to take seriously the proposition that we are all enslaved to powers beyond our ability to master. The addicts in your congregation will nod inwardly when they hear this, but others may need more coaxing to see their particular bonds. Reformation Day offers a suitable occasion for considering the ways in which we often find ourselves enslaved to particular religious identities, heritages, and practices, all the while pretending that dwelling in those things is the same as dwelling in Jesus and his word.