The Truth Makes Free: A Homily on John 8:31-38

Jesus says, according to John, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). And again, a bit later, “‘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’” (8:34b-36). According to the words of Christ as recorded here by John, truth and freedom are inextricably linked. In other words, truth and freedom are so connected–one to the other–that no matter how hard and how long you looked you wouldn’t be able to find a point of entry with which to separate and disentangle them. The truth makes free, full stop.

But I want to be clear about something: this “truth” is not merely “honesty is always the best policy.” For such a simplistic correlation would render Christ’s statement trite: “just tell the truth.” But that’s not what Christ is saying here, there’s no “moral of the story” that you walk away with employing as you go about your day. Also, “honesty is always the best policy” places you in the subject position. Rather, you’re the intended recipient of this truth with its resultant freedom. In this situation, you are the hearer and the one being freed, not the speaker and the liberator. Plus, none of us here would ever really employ “honesty is always the best policy” for certainly if we did we’d have few if any friends and no need for SnapChat and its filters.

No, the type of truth that is being referred to here by Christ is the word of truth that exposes. The word of truth exposes us as we are (sinners) and exposes our situation (enslaved). Living under the burden and weight of darkness and lies in the enslavement to sin is exhausting. And by “sin” I don’t mean just the mistakes I make or the lazy and often selfish choices I make. By sin I mean the desperate appeal to myself to fabricate myself. In other words, when I live into the burden of creating and maintaining an image of myself that I present to you for you to see and promote the illusion that I am in control and autonomously so, this is when I am a slave to sin.[1] When I try to define and create myself by myself, I am a slave to sin. When I try to strike out on my own and neglect what God has done for, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am a slave to sin.[2] And to live as a slave and burdened in such a way causes me to curve in on and become consumed with myself; I become disfigured as my human likeness wanes.

And I speak of this not because I’ve spent some time studying theology and concepts surrounding what it means to be a person in light of faith (though I have). But because I know personally how exhausting, and burdensome, and how death dealing it is to live a life that is for all intents and purposes a sham, a life that is a complete and total sham.[3] Living a false and sham life in trying to present to the world a version of me that I deemed was the right version, the acceptable version, the demanded and expected version of me nearly crushed me. I know what it’s like to run the race of self-performance and self-proving, I know the pressure to try to live up to unattainable self-imposed and others-imposed expectations and demands; I know the fear of being exposed a sham; I know the weight of a life that lacks the mark of real life: joy, laughter, and heart felt gratitude. I also know that you know, too.

The good news is that this false and sham life can only persist for so long, enslavement to sin lasts for only a period of time. Jesus say, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31b-32, 36). And you have been made free because truth has come and truth cannot be untruthed by our sham existence, by our lies and falsehood no matter how hard we fight against truth in our false and sham existence. The truth is the truth, and according to Jesus, it sets those it encounters free.[4]

The word of truth is the light in the darkness, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The light of truth illuminates the thick darkness and exposes the one darkness has enveloped, pushing darkness back away from the one who is the object of the desire of the light of truth, the one who has long been enslaved by darkness. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (John 3:16). And all of this is done in love and that is why the truth that exposes brings life and not death, brings absolution and not condemnation: because love loves the unloved into the beloved and the beloved is free, free indeed. “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3c-5). Where light is, darkness ceases; where truth is, lies are obliterated; in the activity of love (the harbinger of freedom) the sham life succumbs to true life.

Where there is light and not darkness, where there is truth and not lies, there is freedom. There is freedom in being exposed in love by the light and by the truth that is the word made flesh (John 1:14), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus the Christ, the Son who makes you free (8:36). Where Christ is there is truth and freedom and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And if truth and freedom and grace upon grace, then those exposed and encountered by Christ are made to be the sons and daughters with Christ by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if sons and daughters then not slaves enslaved to the sin of the false and sham existence but freed sons and daughters unto true life—true, free, and vibrant life; a life marked by joy and laughter and gratitude in all that we undertake; a life bearing the marks of love’s success.[5] A life freed from the domination of proving and fabricating ourselves and freed into authentic human existence working in the world, unleashing the same truth and the same freedom we ourselves have experienced in our service of love.[6]

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, 233, “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. “The human drive to possess becomes theologically problematic only when human persons wish to take possession not merely of something—even if it is a great deal—but rather of themselves. And this is precisely what modern human persons want.”

[2] Working backwards from this thought from Karl Barth (CD IV.1.743-4), “If a man believes, this means that he has found in Jesus Christ an object which does not merely concern him and concern him urgently, which does not merely call him to itself and therefore out of himself, which does not merely claim him, but which is the one true object, which concerns him necessarily and not incidentally, centrally and not casually. It means that he has found in Him the true centre of himself which is outside himself. It means that he must now cling to Him and depend on Him, that he finds that he belongs to Him.”

[3] Jüngel “Becoming” 232, “In the end, it is the gospel of the justification of sinners by faith alone without the works of the law which identifies the conviction that humans can constitute themselves through their own acts as persons and, by taking possession of themselves, become free people, as an untruthful existence.”

[4] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.476, “But as the truth cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the falsehood of [humanity], the reality of the grace God and the man freed by Him and for Him cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the image in which it must represent itself to lying man s the ground of so much pain…As the reconciliation of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man, is the reality, and indeed the living and present reality in Jesus Christ the true Witness of its truth, a limit is set both to the falsehood of man and also to his decay and destruction, to the disintegration of his existence under the dominion of the pseudo- reality of that image.”

[5] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” Invitation to Joy, “The real meaning of a call to gratitude is ‘You should open your eyes and acknowledge what ahs happened to you in this man’s friendly approach, then you will be grateful and laugh’. It is s call to acknowledgment, so this call ‘Let us give thanks and be joyful!’ is a call to acknowledge the friendly approach which has been made to us, God’s friendly approach to us”

[6] Building from Karl Barth CD I.1.457, “Free as the servants of God…No less plainly the ‘law of liberty’ referred to in Jas. 1:25; 2:12 is the order which is directly contrasted, but positively so, with the law of the Jews, an order under which a man stands who is not just a hearer but also a doer—and in James this means, not a forgetful nor a merely reputed hearer, but a real hearer of the Word of God who is claimed in his life-act, in his existence…His freedom to by Himself, what is at issue here is a man’s freedom for God, for the ‘glorious liberty’ of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), the analgia fidei of the divine freedom which alone really deserves to be called freedom”

The Indefatigable Regret of the Sham Existence

“The sinner’s relationlessness and the judgment of God’s wrath upon the sinner which takes place in and with sin is not revealed, however, as sin is enacted but only as it were in retrospect, within the brackets of the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel. Only in the one who knew no sin and yet was made sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) is the sinner revealed in relationlessness and sin. That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

Apart from Christ we are the walking dead; this is probably the most concise way for me to sum up what Jüngel is articulating in the quote above. Most of you may be thinking about zombies at this point; I don’t blame you, I am too. While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess that I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. In the sham existence, we are “alienated from ourselves…a ‘corrupt nature’, that we, expressed in biblical language, are sinners.”[2] To push the definition a bit further,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualitied by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[3]

Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any damn about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal base neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem. We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good.  And in trying to self-realize and make ourselves good, we have every opportunity to suffer under the immense weight of regret. And this type of regret makes me wish for nothing more than to be a zombie.

Regret is a relentless and indefatigable beast and it goes hand in hand with the sham existence. And by “regret” i mean that self-destructive, inwardly directed anger over events and circumstances of the past (distant and immediate). The area between what should have been or what could have been and what was or is is where regret lives. We regret things both inside and outside of our control: our bad choices and the bad things that happened to us. Let’s be clear, regret is different from conviction that is brought on by the Holy Spirit. Regret would rather work itself out unto destruction; conviction will always bring life. The feelings that course through one’s veins under the duress of regret are shame and condemnation; the feelings that make you wish for everything to end. The feelings under conviction, on there other hand, are feelings of being exposed yet comforted and accepted; the feelings that drive you toward life. It’s worth noting that the internal monologue of the mind is vastly different when experiencing regret and conviction; the difference being between self-focused and self-loathing language (death) v. other-focused (God and neighbor) and (thus) self-affirming language (life).

And the rather cruel part about regret is that it’s not easily silenced, especially from within the sham existence. That’s because when we go to silence this cruel voice within the sham existence our knee-jerk reaction is to correct it with good deeds, thus trying to nullify the voice of regret with the voice of approval. Pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps, doing better, and (maybe) turning a blind-eye to the past and blocking the memory of the failure in order to press on into the future, is akin to putting a band-aid on a major flesh wound. Maybe the louder approval sounds, the more I won’t hear regret’s condemning tirade. But it’s a lie; there’s no silencing the voice of regret…by our own power.

“However, Jesus’ death on the cross by no means only speaks for itself. It speaks in the gospel as the word of the cross. And precisely as the word of the cross, the gospel is the proclamation of the lordship of the risen one. More precisely: the gospel proclaims that the risen one lives as the crucified. And in this the death of Jesus comes to have its real meaning, namely as the event of the love of God (Jn 3.16). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies. The Christian is accompanied by this nothing ness in the double form revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection: as the end of the old and the beginning of the new, as a reminder of the judgment enacted in the sinner, and as the promise which surpasses judgment in the same way that grace has surpassed sin (Rom. 5.20).” Jüngel[4]

This is where proclamation of the Gospel becomes absolutely crucial. Unless an external event occurs to us (via hearing the Good News) we’ll continue to circle the proverbial drain that is our sham existence drowning in the water of regret. Our eyes and ears need to be opened.

Thus, the proclamation of the event of the cross causes the sinner to be made aware that she is a sinner but also that, by faith, she is created anew (simultaneously). In seeing the event of the cross and being made aware of her sham existence (“Justification”) the sinner dies to the self (he cannot die to herself until she is made aware of her sham existence); also, in the event of the cross and in being made aware of this sham existence she is made to die to herself, and thus to rise anew with Christ, created out of nothing since the former existence, the former person was brought to death. As is the way of the sham existence, so goes regret. Regret can only be dealt with by the cross and the event of justification. We can’t silence regret’s voice, but Christ’s “this is my beloved!” can. The words, the names that regret whispers to us in the dark of night are only undone by the words declared to us about us in the bright light of day, Christ himself, through the proclamation of the Gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner, of those alienated from themselves, those who are corrupt…you and me.

While I wish I could say that the death of the sham existence and with it regret’s tyranny is a once and done thing, it’s not. Yes, there is the initial encounter the human person has who hears the proclamation of the Gospel (for the first time newly) and suffers that initial death of the sham existence and the birth of the new life out of nothing. However, death to life is daily, sometimes even hourly, in the life of the believer. “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Lk 9:23-4). The call to take up my cross demands a daily response, and to take up my cross is essentially to be brought to death of self and my sham existence. Taking up my cross necessitates a confession that I am not my own and that I am Christ’s. It demands that I admit that I’ve, once again, believed the lies of my sham existence and let regret regain its domination over me. In this taking up of my cross and in this confession is my death but in this death is life, life abundant, life true, where our ear is inclined to Christ’s voice and not that of regret.

Media vita in morte sumus, in the midst of life we are in death; but even more media morte in vita sumus, in the midst of death we are in life.” Jüngel[5]

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (230)

[3] Ibid, 231.

[4]Possibility, 108-9.

[5] Ibid, 109