[Romans 3:19-29; John 8:31-36]
Do you have to change for God to regard you kindly, or does God’s kind regard of you have the power to change you? Think about that for a minute. The Reformation comes down to this question. Natively, we all think the first way. You spend your life in this world doing what you hope is enough good to bring about that kind regard that means God won’t send you to hell - which is where you end up when you lack that kind regard. The problem with that whole way of thinking is that it leaves selfishness intact at the deepest level: for then your doing good to others is simply USING them so that you can stack up the requisite amount of brownie points to assure that God will be kind to you.
The other way of looking at the question - the place from which the Reformation took root and grew - was the joyous “a-ha!” that God’s kind regard has already been given to us and to all of us in His Son, and that believing this kind regard is a power - the only power that changes a person from the inside out. When you know and believe that you have this kind regard (and it is a struggle to believe it!), when you rejoice that for the sake of Christ Jesus, your heavenly Father looks on you with tender mercy and eternal love, you are set free from all pathetic attempts to win that love and mercy, and you actually become some use to our neighbor. You see why? Because you are not using them as objects to do your good works on; instead, you want only to serve them, for if you have been kindly regarded, so have they. Loved with an eternal love in Christ Jesus. Purchased by the self-same blood that won you. And so they are to be honored as fellow-redeemed - even when they don’t know a thing about it yet. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we proclaim this: God has loved the world in the gift of His Son. His love doesn’t have to be earned or deserved; it’s a free gift! This isn’t some big theological theory; it’s bedrock reality. And it’s the difference between living as a son or living as a slave.
In today’s Gospel our Lord highlights the dreadful uncertainty of the slave in the household. “The slave does not remain in the house forever.” That is, the slave lives always in fear, always worried about when they’re going to get the boot. Will they have a place in that household? And especially when they majorly blow it. Do they not have to fear that the Master will say: “Enough is enough! I’ve had it up to here with you and your disasters. GET OUT!”?
In utter contrast is the place in the household occupied by “the Son.” The Son’s place is absolutely secure and certain. It’s his HOME. What’s to fear? There is only One Son whose place in the Father’s house was so secure, and yet He came among us to free us slaves to sin and fear. He came to break the shackles of sin, for you know the truth of His words that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. You’ve tasted the slavery. You know how the evil one seduces you into it - “just once; just try it” and you know how you end up losing your freedom because of it, and being unable on your own to ever break loose again. You have tasted that bitterness in your life. And you’ve known in your heart of hearts the fear that because you are sin’s slave, there is no way that God can regard you kindly, no matter how many good works you pile up to load onto the divine scales, you KNOW the heart out of which they flow and in whose bondage it lies. And so there is fear. Not even “have I done enough” but in your most honest moments, the despair: “I cannot do enough.” As old Job cried out in anguish: Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.
He was mostly right, but not entirely. We can’t, but there is One who can. And He has. Along comes the One who IS free, the Son of His Father’s house, the Son over whom sin has ZERO power because it can’t get its claws into Him at all. And He comes to you, bound in your iniquity, to shatter the shackles and lift you up to the joy of being children of the household alongside Him. He takes away the fears by teaching you that the love that is in Him is the Father’s love for you from before time began. A love that is eternal, free, and unmerited. You could never earn it or deserve it. It’s just gift. “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” as Gomer Pyle might have said: You have been loved with a love eternal, vast, divine.
As you continue in Jesus' words, this is the truth that is brought home to you. And so the shackles of sin are cracked open wide. The lies of Satan exposed. How different the whole world becomes when the realization sinks down into the depths of your being: I do not have to change for God to kindly regard me; it is His kind regard that changes me, sets me free.
This is what St. Paul is glorying in in today’s Epistle. The Law demands our lives be wholly love, it shuts our mouths and strips us of every excuse - it forces us to see the plain truth of our bondage to sin. It can show us that bondage, but it can never free us. But then God in unfathomable grace manifests a righteousness, a justice, that is apart from the Law. It’s a justice, a righteousness for all who believe. There’s no difference - every last one of us has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And there’s no difference - every last one of us has been justified - kindly regarded - by His grace as a GIFT through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is the Wiping out of Sin by His blood. He is the gift into our flesh of eternal love, a kind regard that lifts us from slavery and exalts us to be sons in the house of His Father. All gift and a gift for all. No one excluded. That suffering and death of His were for you and you and you. No boasting allowed. No one can say: God owes me. What God owes you is that eternal death you fear. What God freely gives you is pardon, forgiveness and eternal life in His Son.
THIS is the heart of the Reformation and this is what He gives us to proclaim through the length and breadth of this world: People of the earth, hearken! You who are slaves to the bitterness of sin, listen up! In Jesus, in His bloody death, in His glorious resurrection, YOU have been freed. God looks on you in love and mercy and calls you to the grace of sonship. Rise, people! You have a home waiting where with the angels and saints you will give glory forever to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages! Amen.