Gospel: John 8:31-36 (Reformation Observed)
Many Reformation sermons on this text have focused on freedom. You have heard them before. Perhaps you preached them before. They highlight Jesus’ promise in verse 36 about freedom. They make some connections with Galatians 5. They include Luther’s well-known statement in Freedom of a Christian. Many Reformation sermons have gone that direction and to beneficial effect, I am sure. You could do that this week too.
Or you could consider a different direction. This approach would not focus on freedom—at least not freedom here and now. Instead, it would continue a theme that has been building for the last few months through the appointed Gospel readings. We have been reading through the Gospel of Mark’s “on the way” section and a prominent theme has been discipleship. Jesus has been addressing specific issues and how they should be understood by those who follow him (servanthood, marriage, wealth, etc.). This week the lectionary takes us from Mark to John. But discipleship remains a central theme. Indeed, it is the topic Jesus first raises that ended up causing a stir.
In John’s Gospel (like the others) the disciples are prominent characters. Jesus regularly interacts with them through teaching, correcting, rebuking, and guiding. But rarely in John does Jesus directly and openly discuss the nature of discipleship. Besides this text, Jesus talks explicitly about being a disciple only in 13:35 and 15:8 (We’ll come back to those passages below). Since he addresses discipleship here and since the Reformation was, in many ways, about the faith and life of Jesus’ disciples of all times and places, it is worth focusing on discipleship for this Reformation sermon.
The text begins with Jesus speaking to Jews who had believed in him. Here is where the trouble starts because belief in Jesus is often assumed to equal discipleship. What makes a disciple? Faith in Jesus, the thinking goes, but that is not how Jesus puts it. If you “abide in my word” (μείνητε ἐν τῷ λόγῳ τῷ ἐμῷ), Jesus says you are truly his disciples. It is the abiding that makes the disciple.
But what does that mean?
Abide (μένω) is an important word in John. The Spirit abided on Jesus at his baptism (1:32-33). Jesus speaks about his word abiding in those who believe (5:38). He says those who eat and drink his body and blood abide in him (6:56). Such people cannot abide in the darkness (12:48). Rather, the Spirit of truth abides in them (14:17) and bears much fruit through them (15:4-16). (Notice the explicit connection between abiding, bearing fruit, and being a disciple in 15:7-8.) We get the idea that abiding in Jesus involves more than mere belief. Abiding involves a new kind of existence; a whole new life. Jesus calls it discipleship.
And what about freedom? Well, that is still to come. Notice the tense of the verbs in verses 31-32. Those who abide in his word are (ἐστε) his disciples, here and now, but then the tense changes. These disciples will know (γνώσεσθε) the truth, and will be set free (ἐλευθερώσει); in the future. To be sure, the future is breaking into the present through the proclamation of Christ, but it is also not yet. We know the truth now, but only in part (1 Cor. 13:9-12). This helps explain why the believing Jews in verse 31 are still confused about their bondage even though there is some freedom now. That is an effect of forgiveness. But the Christian remains in captivity, even as a believer (see Rom. 7). The point is that the fullness of both knowing the truth and experiencing freedom remain eschatological hopes. Inaugurated, to be sure, but not yet fully realized.
And the abiding? Well, the abiding does happen here and now. It takes place as God’s people gather around his table. It takes place as they hear the promises of Christ proclaimed in the sermon. It happens in the mutual conversation of brothers and sisters, in the absolution, in the daily remembrance of God’s baptismal promises. To be a disciple is not merely to believe the Word of Christ in some ethereal and abstract way, but to abide in it. With abiding, then, comes fruit. I already mentioned John 15:7-8 and Jesus’ words about bearing fruit and abiding in Jesus as a disciple. John 13:34-35 heads in the same direction. There Jesus talks about disciples loving one another. As you love one another, he said, they will know you are my disciples. The fruit of abiding bears witness to Jesus. Jesus is talking about good works and he is also talking about mission.
*If you’re interested in recalling the relationship between faith and good works as it was confessed during the Reformation, a great place to start is Article XX of the Augsburg Confession. See especially paragraphs 27 and 35-39.
So, in keeping with Mark’s focus on discipleship this Fall, your Reformation Sunday sermon on John 8 might reflect on what it means to be a disciple. As you proclaim the commands and promises of Christ, you might invite your hearers not only to believe his Word, but also to abide in it. To hear and mediate on his promises in the various ways he delivers them. You might also discuss the importance of the fruit. The fruit that disciples bear here and now, the fruit of love for one another, and the fruit that testifies to the reality that we follow Jesus. In this context you might even call Luther a faithful and fruitful disciple, rather than a fearless and unfaltering reformer.
You could point toward the coming freedom, too. Or, on second thought, that might be more appropriate on the Sunday of the Fulfillment.
Concordia Theology-Multiple sermons and resources on John 8:31-36 and the Reformation.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN works through the alternative gospel reading for Reformation Sunday, Matthew 11:12-19.
Additional Resources for Proper 25:
Concordia Theology-Multiple sermons and resources on Mark 10:46-52.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN works through Mark 10:46-52.