When I was about 8 years old, I found myself at a public pool with friends. I’d taken swimming lessons for a couple of months and had mustered up the courage to jump off the diving board. It was nothing fancy, just a pencil dive straight down. The problem was, in my nervousness I forgot to take a deep breath before diving in. I remember it like it was yesterday, looking up to the surface of the water, realizing that I didn’t have enough air to make it there. I felt trapped by my own lungs as I struggled to break through to the surface. With a gasp I did make it back to the surface of the water that day, but I will never forget that feeling of being trapped, surrounded by water, out of air, and wondering when I was going to be able to breathe freely again.
In our gospel text this morning Jesus tells believers gathered together with him, “If you live according to my teaching, you really are my disciples; 32 then you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The crowd responds to him saying 33 “We’re descendants of Sarah and Abraham,” … “Never have we been the slaves of anyone…” Wait a minute…the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, have never been slaves to anyone? How is it possible for those gathered to think that? God liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt in Exodus and delivered them to the Promised Land. Though God and Moses had liberated God’s people from slavery in Egypt more than 500 years earlier the oral history of the Exodus was passed down through the generations and remains to this day a fundamental narrative in Jewish tradition. What boggled my mind even further is that this exchange between Jesus and the believers gathered with him occurred during the Jewish feast of Sukkot (sue-cote), a festival which commemorates God’s protection and accompaniment of the Israelites on their wilderness journey from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the liberating freedom found in the Promised Land. Furthermore these believers Jesus is speaking with are under the occupation of the Roman Empire at the very moment Jesus proclaims this liberating word to them. If there’s a group of people who understand slavery in Jesus’ day it’s those he finds himself with in this story. But Jesus reminds them “everyone who lives in sin is the slave of sin.”
Sin can feel a lot like drowning. Try though we might, and struggle though we might, we as a people fall into sin time and time again, no matter how hard we try to break through the surface to take that gasp of air of our own free will. But the essence of sin is not about breaking a code of law, but rather alienation from God and from one another. Sin is a purposeful fracturing of relationships. How many times have we harmed relationships with our thoughts, words and deeds, caused hurt to those we love by our actions, or things that we’ve neglected to do? How many times have not loved with our whole hearts, not loved our neighbors as ourselves? We’ve all done it and I guarantee we will all do it again.
Martin Luther knew a little something about what it feels like to drown in sin. He was consumed by the nature of sin for a large part of his younger adult life. In a moment of grace filled revelation he learned in Paul’s letter to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they [we] are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. It was in his study of Scripture that Martin Luther realized that we are both fully sinner and saint simultaneously, and that forgiveness for the sin-filled fracturing of relationships is given freely as a gift to us through no merit or effort of our own. This Lutheran doctrine is something that I hold dear because it means that when I feel like I’m drowning, powerless to overcome the ways in which I repeatedly separate myself from God’s abundant love and the love of community that supports me along life’s journey that there’s nothing I have to do to take that deep, gasping, cleansing, life-sustaining breath and earn God’s forgiveness.
It is a gift we are all given freely in the liberating waters of baptism, where all the sin we will ever have is drowned in the abundant waters of God’s redeeming love. At baptism promises are made. Some we make or are made on our behalf if we are too young to make them for ourselves, and others are made to us by the community of God’s beloved people, promises to love, pray for, and support us throughout our lives even when we’ve done nothing in our lives to earn that love and support. That love is freely and willingly given to us through the Grace of God, even and perhaps especially when we fall short of warranting such a gift.
This weekend we commemorate a feast day in the life of the church: Reformation Day. Martin Luther teaches us that the work of the church does not remain static and unchanging, but instead is in a constant state of change, of re-formation. Luther himself was far from perfect. All you have to do is read his writing entitled “On the Jews and their Lies” to find some horrifically anti-semetic writings that were later used by Adolph Hitler to justify the genocide of Jewish people in the Holocaust. As Lutherans we have had to take a good hard look at our legacy and attone for wrongs that have even been committed before we took our first breath. Without re-formation the church ceases to be relevant and becomes the instrument of oppression rather than the liberating truth that Jesus offers in today’s Gospel. Re-formation is an action and requires active participation to be effective, and if done in isolation from God and the Beloved Community is exhausting and dare I say impossible work. Much like desperately trying to fill our lungs with air underwater, it can feel like we’re drowning in a job that is too large to handle on our own. The good news is that the work of re-formation is meant to be done in relationships. Relationships with God our loving parent and with our siblings in Christ around us, those we know and those we do not. It is the work of re-formation that breathes new life into our congregations and our neighborhoods. It is re-formation that reaches out to our siblings on the margins and welcomes them into the beloved community. As I tell my 5th grade students “Teamwork makes the dream work.” On this Reformation Day remember, beloveds, that God loves us and desires to be in relationship with us even when we fall short of unattainable perfection, that we are both fully sinner and fully saint with every breath we take. As we continue to do the liberating work of re-formation that work takes place not only in our churches, but in our neighborhoods and in our own hearts as well, and when it feels like we’re drowning, God and our beloved siblings are there with us to help us break through the surface and to breathe freely once more.
Painting: Fire on the Water Sunset
Artist: Jessica Beringer