So as I was preparing this talk, I had to really think about what I should say to get people fired up about Christianity. Because that’s all a revival is: getting ourselves excited and inspired to commit or recommit our lives to Jesus, so we leave energized and empowered. That’s my prayer for tonight, that something would hit each and every one of us, so we all walk through those doors uplifted, but more importantly transformed. Amen?
One of the aspects about Christianity that really gets me fired up, that just hits me, is the tremendous, radical freedom found in the gospel. And that may surprise some of you, because its easy to find examples of Christians being portrayed, or even portraying themselves, as hyper-judgmental, cookie-cutter images of each other, too afraid to think for themselves. Christianity can seem to be a religion that’s al about believe this, think that, don’t do these, and we’ll see you next week.
But that’s not what God wants for us. The purpose of the gospel is for us to now be able to live life to the full. And this freedom to live flows directly from God’s love for each of us that Maureen just talked about.
John 8:31-32 “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’”
These are a couple of pretty mystical verses, even the people who Jesus was speaking to didn’t really get what he was saying. They were like, “Who us? Free? But we’ve never been slaves?” And in order for us to really get at the meaning behind this statement, we can’t make the same mistake they did in taking Jesus’ words only at face value. If we do that, we miss out on the depth and power of what Jesus is saying. “The truth will make you free.”
The first thing we need to ask to understand what Jesus is saying is quite simply: what is this truth that Jesus is talking about? Without knowing that there isn’t anywhere for us to go, and we can’t possibly figure out what Christ meant, let alone get that freedom He is talking about. It isn’t enough to know that there is a key that opens a lock. If we want that lock opened we need to know what key to use. So what is this Truth?
It’s Himself. Jesus is the Truth that makes us free.
A large theme throughout the entire New Testament and especially the books and letters of John is that Jesus wasn’t just someone who proclaims a truth, but He is the very Truth He proclaims, and that by following him, we come to know this Truth Jesus. Later on, in John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” At the core of Jesus’ identity, the depth of who He is, is this freedom bringing Truth for anyone who seeks it. Because Jesus is the epitome, the embodiment of Grace. He is the truth that God is reaching out to you, is going to extreme lengths to bring you back near to Him into an intimate relationship, only because of His radical, absurd, overflowing Love for you. And He reaches out for us in spite of our failures, our problems, and our sins. And it is this Love which saves and sets us free from all of that. This is who Jesus is. Jesus’ name in Hebrew means God saves.
That’s the truth He was talking about. It is His identity. It is why He came, why He lived, why He taught, why He died, and why He rose again. It is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
It is the Gospel, the good news, the greatest news, and it is why we are here tonight. This is the message that fires us up to face the world. God is for us. He is not scowling down at us waiting for you or me to step out of line so he can crush us with Condemnation. No. He is seeking after us, like a shepherd for his lost sheep, a father for his lost children. He wants to pour out His love on each of us, transforming us into our true selves. In communion with Him, in communion with each other, and in communion with all creation. His hand is outstretched to each of us, because of what Christ has done to set us free. All we need to do is take it.
God is for us.
So radically for us that he brought Himself and His entire Kingdom to us. He is not distant or disinterested. He has made it abundantly clear that this life, this time, this space we have been given is not something we just need to get through to go to heaven. No, heaven is invading right here right now. And it is calling us and giving us the strength to live life to the full. The hand God is extending to us is, in Jesus’ words “at hand,” so close we don’t even need to reach to grab it. God’s Kingdom has drawn near. It is among us and in us. And we are invited to live in the kingdom and with the kingdom in us.
This is the Truth that Jesus proclaimed, because He is this Truth.
And it is in this Truth that we find the tremendous, life-changing freedom to truly be ourselves, and to live life fully and authentically.
The world we live in spends a lot of time trying to tell each of us who we are. And it is harsh. The world looks only at the outside, what we say, how we look, what we’ve accomplished. But the world gives the most staggering weight to our mistakes, failures, and the wrongs we’ve committed. It is happy to define us by those, allowing them to eclipse any other aspect of who we are. So we get labeled by the things that we are most ashamed of. The world says we are failures, liars, screw-ups, addicts, cowards, criminals, lusters, weaklings, whores, cheaters, hypocrites. That we’re wicked, evil, fearful, worthless. And on and on and on. It is incredibly difficult to shake those words and labels off, instead we become chained to them.
But even worse than what the world yells at us, is what we whisper to ourselves. The world is quick to judge, but we can be downright cruel in how we identify ourselves. We each know intimately the things we regret, the wrong we’ve done, and all the sins we’ve committed. Most of all, we know the sin we continue to struggle with. Those things we confront but can’t beat. I bet that at one time or another we have all identified with the saint’s words in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” With that sin and knowledge, we can be so ruthless to ourselves. “What’s wrong with me! I should be better than that! I’m a failure! An idiot.” It’s so easy for us to dwell on it. Letting that guilt and shame fester and grow. So it just wears on us, dragging us down. We can begin believing that those things we hate most about ourselves are the very things that make us who we are. That they control us. Which is allowing those things to enslave us. To take our lives captive. And that is exactly what Jesus means in verse 34 when he says “Very truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
Then this bitterness begins sapping our strength and energy, making us more prone to stumble, to fall, and to give in to sin again. Reinforcing those self-defeating things we tell ourselves. And we can spiral and spiral, being tougher and tougher on ourselves, coming to believe that we are our shame.
But that is not the Truth.
The Truth comes to us in Love. And it says, “You are not your failures. Your mistakes do not make you who you are. Your sins do not define you. I know because I created you. You were fearfully and wonderfully made. I breathed life into you, so that you could find peace and joy in My Love for you. I delight in you.”
Jesus, the Truth tells us, “ I know you’ve made mistakes. I’ve seen your sin and how it has separated us. But my Love is bigger than your sin. My embrace is stronger than your attempts to turn from Me. And I want to bring you back to Me, so much so that I came and gave my life so that we could be reconciled. Because of that you are not a failure. You are not a sinner. You are God’s beloved child, righteous and without blemish.”
This is our true Identity, and it is the identity that gives us the freedom to authentically be who we are, because it shatters sin’s lies about us.
We no longer have to accept the world’s valuation of us. We don’t have to listen to that voice in the back of our heads that criticizes and condemns. Because the God of the Universe has loved and forgiven us, so we are given the freedom to love and forgive ourselves as well. So don’t hold onto the sin that Jesus freed you from any longer. God has let it go in His view of us, so we should let it go as well. Die to the sin so you can live to God. We are to be filled with that overflowing love and forgiveness of God. As that wells up within us, we can pour it onto our neighbors. Restoring the relationships with our brothers and sisters, growing into real community with them as we also grow nearer to God, creating this deepening communion between ourselves, others and God.
With the empowerment that comes only from communion like that, and the strength of God within us, we are encouraged and empowered to fight back, overcoming ourselves and our sin. This is repentance, and we are called to live it. It’s a not a word we like hearing. But each of us needs to understand that repentance is not a barrier, but an invitation. Those sins that are enslaving us, lying about who we are, and keeping us from living life to the full, we have to face them to be free of them. But we don’t have to face them alone. The God of the universe is facing them with us. Paul says in Romans 8:9, “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or as he says in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and work for His good pleasure.” Paul is just carrying on the proclamation of Jesus, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” And brothers and sisters, the weight of that entire kingdom is behind us in our repentance.
Now of course, repenting is still a struggle and a process that we must continue throughout our life. But that’s okay. Because of God’s Love for us we can know we aren’t perfect, and instead find peace in the fact that we are works in progress. Because we can trust that no matter our stumbles and the times we stray, God is faithful to be with us every step of the way. Or as Paul says about life in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
And because of the Grace of God expressed in the Gospel, we can press on to live better. Not in timidity or selfishness, trying to earn our way into heaven or to avoid punishment, in other words, only doing good for self-serving reasons; but in boldness knowing that it is the way to live authentically and out loud. Because Christ came and freed us from our sins so that we can, in his words “have life and have it abundantly.”
But we don’t just have a newfound freedom of identity and freedom to live. We also have the audacious freedom to rejoice. Jesus has given us an unthinkable gift, at the cost of his own life. It is not just freedom from our sin and the chance to find strength and peace in fighting it, but now we get to be reconciled to God through Him. We are connected to the God of all Love, Goodness, and Peace, the God of Life, and if it is God who draws us to Himself nothing can separate us from that. As Paul says in Romans 8:37-39, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The incomprehensible God loves you incomprehensibly. The only response to this is unthinkable gratitude, which leads to immeasurable Joy. So now that the gospel has set us free, we can live with that joy firmly planted in our hearts as we take on the world, with all its challenges and pains, assured in the confidence that because of God’s Grace and Christ’s sacrifice we have already won.