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.” They 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:31-36

Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 30, 2016) on John 8:31-36. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So I don’t really know what a ragamuffin is but yesterday, my family and I joined dozens of other kids and parents to march in a ragamuffin Halloween parade through residential Emerson. I...did not get my act together this year to throw together a costume but my two kids did. They went as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And they weren’t the only Ninja Turtles at the parade. In fact, there were several Leonardos and Raphaels of all ages. Each kid stood tall in their green turtle outfits, with thick foam padding for muscles and stuffed toys as swords and sais. Now, I get a little nostalgic being around little kids in turtle costumes because I was about their age when Ninja Turtles first came out. Teenage Mutant Turtles first appeared as a comic book before becoming an animated cartoon on tv. I remember waking up early on Saturday mornings, sneaking downstairs, and turning on the tv so I could see how Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, these turtle superheroes, would defeat the evil Shredder and his army of minions in the sewers and subways of New York City. I also spent hours and hours playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle video games. I pumped enough quarters into arcade games to possibly fund my entire seminary education and I lost track of the days I spent glued to my tv screen, trying to beat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1, 2, & 3 on my Nintendo. And since I usually lost the game more often than I won, I spent a lot of time staring at one kind of screen. When I lost, the screen would go black and I would have ten seconds to answer the one word question that appeared. The screen would ask me if I would like to “continue?” playing the game. If I said yes, it would cost me a quarter and I could restart at the last place the game saved. If I said no, I’d walk away. The game would be over. That one word question that just asked “continue?”’s an invitation to keep going. It’s an invitation to keep striving. It’s an invitation to stay in relationship as this video game story unfolds. And that question - that invitation - that being in relationship - that, I think, is at the core of what the gospel of John is getting at today. 
    In today’s story, Jesus is doing something strange. He’s talking to a group of people who used to follow him. When we imagine Jesus’ ministry, we usually see Jesus bringing his teaching and healings into new places. The towns and villages he visited might be places he or his disciples knew. But when Jesus is being Jesus, when we see him preach and teach and heal like he does in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - we imagine Jesus walking into a new place and doing a new thing. But today, Jesus is talking to people he already knows. He’s already been to their towns, visited their homes, and shared a meal with them around the table. Jesus has already been Jesus to them - and, for a time, they embraced him. They followed him. They were disciples and apostles and faithful to everything that Jesus said and did. But...then it changed. These followers of Jesus stopped following. The text doesn’t tell us exactly why their belief in Jesus is so short lived. We don’t know if something happened to them or if someone said something or if life got busy and following Jesus just no longer made the difference it once did. All we know is that these people believed. They chose Jesus. They knew Jesus was the Son of God who would fix their world - and then that changed. Their faith in Jesus went to black. That one word question flashed before their eyes - and they didn’t put another quarter into the machine. They didn’t hit the start button. These former followers of Jesus let the next screen in their faith journey come up. When it came to Jesus, they simply said: Game Over.

And that should be it, right? I mean, these former followers experienced something we might long for. They saw Jesus in person. They know how tall he is, what kind of sandal he prefers to wear, and what color his eyes really are. When Jesus healed others, they saw his hands, those probably well worked hands colored with a deep and complex brown and olive matching the people from his part of the world. And when Jesus spoke, they heard the richness of his voice in the Aramaic language his mother and father first taught him. These former followers experienced Jesus in tangible and physical ways - and yet, their faith did not remain. They had an opportunity to continue with Jesus but they didn’t take it. These former followers turned away from Jesus and we assume - we expect based on our experiences in this world - that those who chose the other side, those who choose their Game “Over Screen” - we expect them to just...fall away. We assume they’re no longer part of the story. We know these former followers no longer believe in Jesus - but Jesus talks to them anyways. Jesus keeps speaking. Jesus keeps teaching. He keeps reaching out - showing these former followers and us that faith is more than just having an answer to a question or thinking that something must be true. Faith is a relationship. Faith develops, grows, and matters over the long haul. And when our faith feels low, when our belief is no longer there, and even when we let the Game Over sign show up - Jesus does the unexpected thing and comes anyways. Jesus keeps sharing that we are worth God’s attention, God’s focus, and God’s love. God wants a relationship with us - and God will keep gifting us that relationship even if we walk away. 

And that, I think, is why we celebrate the Reformation today. Reformation Sunday isn’t only a day to eat treats, wear a costume in church, post things on doors, and make snowflake versions of Martin Luther’s seal. One of the gifts of the Reformation is the gift of seeing, of knowing, and of experiencing the unexpected God. We don’t expect God to keep coming to us when we turn from God but, in Jesus, that’s exactly what God does. That’s exactly who God is. God keeps coming to us even when we no longer know, or even care, if we are with God. God keeps building a relationship with us, transforming us through God’s promise of grace, hope, and peace. God isn’t just forming us into who we are called to be. God is also reforming us each and every day, opening us to what God’s love might look like. This process isn’t always pretty. It’s not always easy. And this doesn’t mean we’ll always get everything right. We are not perfect - and the church - the church isn’t perfect either. We will struggle. We will experience conflict. We’ll get some things totally right - and we’ll also get some things wrong. But the need to change and be changed is what being in a relationship with God is all about. We are being formed into who God is calling us to be - and Jesus, in his compassion and love, is walking with us each step of the way. And as Jesus is in relationship with us, we are here to be in relationship with each other - no matter what. Our divisions may make us who we are - but our grounding in Jesus Christ defines whose we are. And when, in our journey through this life, we get to those times when our relationship with Christ, with the church, and with our faith is like looking at a black screen with the one word question “continue?” flashing before us - know that Jesus has already inserted that coin, he’s already hit the start button - and our relationship with God continues - no matter what.