I remember the day I became claustrophobic. There was a cardboard box in our den and my brother and I were doing what children do with empty cardboard boxes and using our creative minds to turn it into all sorts of different objects. Of course, before too long, one of us came up with the brilliant idea of trying to fit in the box. It was a perfect fit for my brother, two years my younger and not yet taller than I. And then it was my turn. I stepped in, curled up into a ball, my knees to my chest while my brother closed the flaps…and then kept holding them…for a little too long. I started to panic. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t stretch my legs or arms, I couldn’t scratch an itch. In my mind, which has a tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario, I would be stuck there forever–left to rot in a cardboard box. For my own sanity, I desperately needed to be freed.
It’s a good thing I’m Lutheran because freedom is a theme for us. Martin Luther wrote a whole essay on it–The Freedom of a Christian he titled it. And the ELCA has been promoting the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with the tagline “freed and renewed in Christ.” If you didn’t grow up Lutheran or are relatively new to the Lutheran faith, you need to know that today–this 500th anniversary of the Reformation–is a big deal. Lutheran churches have been anticipating this day and preparing for it for years.That’s what all the pomp and circumstance of the day signifies–the liturgical color of red that we wear on special festival days (the color associated with the Holy Spirit), the hymn sing that began our worship, the Gospel procession with extra light (the torch bearers). All of this is supposed to emphasize the importance of what happened 500 years ago.
But we come to this significant anniversary of the Reformation (seriously, when do actually celebrate the 500th anniversary of anything?) with one of Luther’s favorite questions: What does this mean?
What does this mean that we stand in the limelight of such a significant event in world history, but also what does this mean to be freed in Christ today?
If you need a brief refresher as to what did happen, it was on October 31, 1517 (see? 500 years ago), that Martin Luther posted what was known as the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Posting something on the church door was a way to start a discussion about it and Luther wanted people to start talking about God’s grace and specifically about how that grace, as he discovered in his own study of the Bible, freed them. It freed them from a life spent trying to buy God’s grace, literally with money. It freed them for a life spent serving others without having to worry about their stance before God.
This was huge at the time, for it uncovered a deep truth in the Bible that had been overlooked or ignored for generations. But I’m worried that–or wondering if–500 years of this message has caused it to lose its shock value. Has reciting the phrase “justified by grace through faith” become similar to repeating a word over and over again until you wonder what you’re saying? Or, to chanting a nursery rhyme by rote? “Ring around the rosies, a pocketful of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” What does this mean?
If we read today’s story of Jesus and the Judeans carefully, we would conclude that 500 years can, in fact, cause the history to fade. That’s what happens when Jesus tells them that they will know the truth and that the truth will make them free. They claim they’ve never been slaves to anyone and wonder how they can be made free. But they forget, of course, that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and then in Babylon, and that they themselves live under Roman occupation. To be made free necessarily implies that you have been, or are, held captive.
Of course, some people today don’t need to be reminded of this because their slavery is very real and literal, and much more serious than being trapped for a few seconds in a cardboard box. Human trafficking. Addiction. Oppression and injustice. Sadly these experiences are very real today and cannot be ignored.
For for those of us who have more difficulty aligning ourselves with enslavement, however, consider this statistic: Teenagers today increasing–and by increasingly, I mean the percentage goes up every year–say that they feel left out and lonely. Percentages had been going down until 2007. What happened then? The iphone was introduced.
All of a sudden, teenagers (and let’s face it, all of us) were introduced to a whole new world of social media in which we can choose what we make public about ourselves (only the good stuff, right?), but also one in which we often only see the things that make people look their best. Of course, the problem with that is that what we see is not the truth. The result is that we feel a little worse, even though what we see is deceptive. My family is not always smiling and I’m not always happy. And I’m guessing that neither are you. And that sometimes bad things happen to all of us.
When I think about how the church is reforming today, which is what this day also calls us to think about, I think of the impact of social media. It is bringing about reform in the church in huge ways. But it is also holding us captive because we don’t feel like we measure up.
And what does this mean? It means that, in an age of technology and social media, the church–in flesh and blood–still has a place. For the Holy Spirit gathers us, not as a country club of perfect saints, but as a hospital of flawed sinners. And, as anyone who has experienced a good support group knows, the experience of being together with all our imperfections can be incredibly freeing. What this means is that we are all trapped, in way or another, in the confines of something like a cardboard box that limits our movement and brings about fear. What is also means, however, is that we really are free, and that Jesus calls us to take a bold step out of that which confines us and to think outside the box. Jesus calls us to imagine that freedom and to live that freedom.
Because captivity is still very real, and yet because freedom is also very real, we have not become irrelevant, 500 years post-Reformation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ still matters, maybe even matters more now than ever. Though talking about God’s grace sounds less and less shocking to our ears as we repeat it over and over again (for 500 years now) to proclaim freedom in the face of enslavement is still an incredibly bold move.
This world needs bold, my friends, and this world needs freedom. So let’s muster up all the courage we can, to step outside the box, and proclaim God’s love boldly–a love–a truth–that really does set us free.