The holy gospel according to John, the 8th chapter. Glory to you, O Lord.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 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'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
How do we know what the truth is these days? In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us, “The truth will make you free.”
We know that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the living Word of God. We know this because we read it in the Holy Scriptures, the written Word of God.
Today we commemorate Reformation Sunday, the day the church remembers the actions of Martin Luther, and the movement he started to reform the church. For Luther, it was supremely important to read and learn the scriptures. All of his 95 theses were based on his understanding and study of the Bible. It’s even in our ELCA constitution that holy scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, are the source and norm for our faith and life.
If the scriptures provide the norms for our life, they are also the source of our moral teachings. This is certainly one of the most common uses of scriptures in our churches. We use the Bible to teach the difference between right and wrong.
At first, it may seem obvious that the Bible tells us right from wrong. The Bible is full of laws, after all. We have the 10 commandments and all the levitical laws and interpretations.
It can be a challenge to use the Bible as a moral document, though. The world was a very different place several thousand years ago in the ancient near east. We even call Bible times “ancient times.” So the question arises, “Does the Bible still apply to our lives, and if so, how?”
Since you are sitting here, I am confident that you believe the Bible still has application for our lives, so the question is how do we apply the truth of the Bible today. While all of the Bible is useful, I think we can also agree that some of the things in the Bible are more important than others, and that some things in the Bible apply to our lives more than other things in the Bible.
For example, most of us don’t subscribe to the strict dietary laws in the Old Testament. We like our shrimp and our bacon cheeseburgers. We wear clothes that are made of two different kinds of fabrics blended together. Many of us have pierced ears and tattoos, and even if we don’t, we don’t judge others for having them.
Some laws don’t apply like they used to. So, how do we know what is true for us today?
Years ago, when our family lived in Minnesota, we would drive to Nebraska to visit Dave’s family every holiday. Every time we were leaving to go back home, Dave’s parents, Ruth and Ivan, would walk out to the car to say goodbye. Without fail, Ruth would tell us to drive safely. But Ivan had a different way of saying goodbye and wishing us a safe trip. He would always say to Dave, “Keep it between the ditches.”
“Keep it between the ditches.” That’s the metaphor seminary professor, Mark Allen Powell, uses to help us understand how the scriptures apply to our lives today. Powell says there is a ditch on either side of the straight and narrow road that leads to life.
On one side is the ditch of legalism. This is the ditch of interpreting the law too strictly. So strictly that it interferes with your neighbors ability to enjoy the abundant life that God intends for them. An example might be the prohibition against shellfish.
On the opposite side of the road is the ditch of leniency. This is the ditch of cheap grace, of interpreting the law so loosely that it loses any meaning or power. Falling into this ditch gives everyone the message that since God loves you no matter what, you can do whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.
One way to understand these ditches is to think about the tasks of parenting. We don’t want to be so strict that our children don’t have any enjoyment in their lives. We also don’t want to have so many rules that they never have any fun.
As parents, we don’t want to be so lenient that our children think they can do whatever they want whenever they want to. We don’t want them to think that it doesn’t matter what they do or who they hurt. For example, we insist that they attend school.
We have heard people excuse some behaviors by saying, “Well, they are only hurting themselves.” For one thing, that is rarely true, and for another, you wouldn’t say that if they were your child. We don’t want our children to hurt themselves. And, I think, perhaps that’s how God feels about us.
Jesus has given us guidelines to help us stay between the ditches on the path of truth. He tells us that the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor.
These commandments are like the solid white lines on the edge of the road. These lines show us where the edge of the road is so we can stay in our lane, avoid getting hurt, and avoid the ditch.
We ask, “How do we know what the truth is these days?” The world seems much more complicated than it was in the time of Luther and certainly more complicated than it was in the time of the Bible.
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Avoid the ditch of making laws so burdensome that they deprive our neighbors of the ability to live the abundant life God wants for them. Put yourself in your neighbor’s place and try to walk in their shoes when you ask this question.
The laws are too burdensome if you are putting up a stop sign on every corner. When you do that you are making it impossible for your neighbor to go where they need to go and get the things they need, not just to survive, but to thrive.
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Avoid the ditch of making the laws so lenient that you harm yourself and your neighbor and the earth itself by your neglect. Are you putting up too few stop signs? So few that there are lots of crashes and people are getting hurt? So few that our earth is being polluted and destroyed.
Here’s how we know what the truth is these days. The truth hasn’t changed.
We are human and we are slaves to sin. We can never get it perfect. The road is narrow and it’s hard to stay in the center. Sometimes we will fall into the ditch of legalism. Sometimes we will fall into the ditch of leniency. Sometimes we fall one way or the other because we have been pushing each other around. We can’t climb out of the ditches by ourselves.
But, this is also true. We don’t have to stay in the ditch. Every time we fall in, Jesus is right there on the side of the road. He bends down and lifts us out. Jesus sets us free from the ditches when we fall in. He lifts us up with his love and puts us back on the road.
Then he takes us by the hand and walks with us down the road to life. He even buys us supper on the way. And when we get to the end of the road, Jesus walks us to our home where we live forever as child in the family of God. Amen.