With the announcement of Libyan liberation this past Sunday and the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses, which began what many protestants celebrate as a liberation of the church to be celebration this coming Sunday, this week in the lectionary is ripe for reflections on freedom and reform. In the alternate lectionary text proposed for “Reformation Sunday,” the gospel reading for this Sunday is John 8:31-36:
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
The question is… what is freedom really about? For Luther, nearly 500 years ago, it was about the gospel—the ability to proclaim and hear proclaimed the Word of God and God’s grace-filled forgiveness without intrusions and abuses from what he was growing to consider a corrupt church hierarchy. The recent political situation in Libya has seen corruption and abuses from Gadafi and his regime that I suspect Luther could scarcely have imagined. And so, freedom from abuses, from corruption—yes, this I imagine is at the heart of what liberation in Libya is also about. Indeed, no matter what politics we find ourselves subject to, who doesn’t want the assurance that there is not abuse going on?
But the Gospel reading for this day points us further than that… Freedom is not just about freedom from oppression—if it were, Jesus’ followers would have been right, their freedom would have been accomplished once and for all in the exodus from Egypt. But freedom, true freedom, must always be not only liberation from but also liberation towards something. Already, the provisional government in Libya is making plans for an upcoming democratic election. In 1517, Luther may not have fully understood all this, as he issued his theses unaware of the full repercussions it would have for the church, but soon enough the Protestant Reformation was underway and faithful Christians who were a part of the movement were seeking guidance and structure to replace the one Luther had critiqued.
Liberation is never simply a celebration of the end of one regime. It must always and also be the celebration and institution of a new one. But with a new regime, the questions always remain: Will this one be better than the last? How will we be sure to avoid new corruption? New abuses?
The answer in the Gospel moves beyond freedom fighters (or theses nailers), beyond constitutions and organizations—away from the how and the what to the who at the heart of it all. Jesus answered, “36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
In a world full of corruption and constitutions, the question for us as Christians must therefore remain: Who makes us free? If it is Luther, or a liberation army, NATO, or Barack Obama, then we have missed the point. We are slaves in a democracy, as surely as Jesus implies that the Jews with whom he is speaking, despite the exodus, are not yet free.
If we are to imagine ourselves freed and liberated by God, we might first begin to imagine what God’s liberation celebration might look like on the streets of God’s Kingdom. People would be shouting, “God is great!” to be sure… but why? And to whom? At God’s liberation, who is invited? And, after the party is over, where will we go? Where do we go?
In a week ripe with reform and liberation, it is helpful for us people of the church to reflect on how God’s liberation has and continues to take shape in our lives, in our communities, in God’s world.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.
This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.