“Hey pretty lady – stop for one second – I have a product that will transform your life. Eye cream that will take away all your wrinkles and moisturizer that will tighten your face.” These words were hurled at me one afternoon as I walked through the mall located downtown in Salem, Oregon, my hometown. I’d made the mistake of walking across the skybridge that housed a bunch of portable kiosk’s where various different companies peddled products. Some of the sales people could be – quite aggressive.
On this particular day it was the man working a skin care line that claimed to possess water or salt or something from the dead sea. He was attempting to play to my vanity and convince me to purchase products that would make me appear more youthful. Unfortunately for him – I was 19-years-old at the time – so eye creams that reduced wrinkles and moisturizer that would tighten my face were ludicrously unnecessary!
Usually I would just grab whatever pamphlet the salesman was waiving in my face and keep walking. However, for whatever reason that day, it hit me wrong. Like really wrong. Like stop and argue with some poor salesman who was just attempting (badly) to do his job wrong. “Excuse me???” I said “What exactly are you implying. I’m 19… do I LOOK like I need wrinkle cream??? If my face got much tighter I would look like Joan Rivers.”
“Uhhhh – well – it’s never too early to take care of your skin. Preventative maintenance!” He replied.
“Is that really the best you can do?” I asked. He mumbled and muttered and stammered something pretty unintelligible and then just turned and walked away and began the whole – “Hey pretty lady” speech to another woman passing by.
It had become glaringly obvious that I wasn’t buying what he had to sell. I didn’t believe I needed what he had to offer. I didn’t need to look youthful, because I was youthful. I thought I already possessed what he was trying to convince me I needed.
The followers of Jesus have a similar moment in our Gospel text this morning. These people who knew Jesus, followed Jesus, believed that Jesus was the Messiah, had a moment where they weren’t convinced of what Jesus was offering. Jesus tells them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Implying that these were not free people.
To which his followers push back. This statement seems to grate on their nerves and they reply: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying ‘You will be made free?’”
It may seem strange to us today that a conquered and occupied nation would be insisting that they were free and had never been enslaved… I mean – what about, oh, I don’t know – Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Babylon, and now Rome! Clearly there is a pattern and history of enslavement… even for the decedents of Abraham.
It is important to remember that in ancient Palestine, the cultural caste systems were deeply engrained. Hierarchy was everything. People of a particular class or station rarely had the opportunity for upward mobility. The absolute rock bottom of this caste system were slaves and children. People who possessed no power and no privilege of any kind.
So, for Jesus to imply his disciples were slaves, would have been highly offensive. They may be an enslaved race, but they were free individuals. Life might be bad – but it wasn’t SLAVE bad. They weren’t THOSE people.
I would love to say that we have evolved as humans and don’t look at the world that way anymore, but unfortunately that just doesn’t seem to be the case. We get competitive, jealous even, of those who have more than we do. Entire add campaigns are designed around the premise of neighbors trying to one-up each other. And if or when we can’t keep pace or one up another, we look at those who we have more than and say – well at least we aren’t THOSE people.
These disciples did NOT want to be compared to slaves. They were not interested in buying Jesus’ eye cream – because that would require admitting that they needed it in first place.
In response Jesus explains that anyone who commits a sin, is a slave to sin. And that he alone can free us from sin.
The concept that we cannot in anyway prevent ourselves from sinning is often a hard pill to swallow. And for some belief systems, is contrary to what is taught.
Martin Luther grew up in one of these systems, believing that he had to atone for a do penance for his sin. He was ridiculously hard on himself because he could never, ever seem to be “good enough.” There was not enough eye cream in the world to smooth his wrinkles.
He was so hard on himself that his Abbot sent him to complete advanced education just to get his mind on anything other than his own sinfulness. What happened is that through advanced study and later through the education of others, Luther discovered that his former understanding of sin and redemption were woefully misguided.
Romans Chapter 3 tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God – and that we are justified to God, not through our own actions, but by the action of Jesus Christ. Or as Luther more succinctly stated – we are justified by grace through faith. Not through any action of our own.
He came to realize that there isn’t enough sin smoothing cream in the world to remove any of our wrinkles. We can’t do that on our own.
Regarding this week’s texts Rev. David Lose wrote this: “We have this penchant to resist anything that threatens our thoughts and perceptions and – if we can admit it – illusions about our independence and self- sufficiency. The law, Paul says in the 3rd chapter of Romans, makes sin manifest. But this isn’t simply the law of Israel, though that is certainly part of it, but the law woven into creation that inevitably points out not simply missteps and misdeeds, but the fundamental and precarious nature of our lives as fallen, mortal, vulnerable, and broken people.
‘Sin,’ here, isn’t so much accusation but description. We are flawed, far from God, simultaneously beautiful as well as broken, courageous and confused, capable of great good and so often perpetrators of great harm. Part of the way we tolerate thse contradictions and endure the tension they create is by maintaining a level of what I would call ‘willful denial,’ but which, when you get right down to it is little more than self-delusion. And all too often, religion aids and abets in that delusion, giving us things we can do, a heritage to boast of, a sense of what makes us distinctive over and against others. Faith – at least faith like that discovered by Luther – does not offer that retreat to religious practice or doctrine or identity but rather announces God’s arrival, the arrival that both spells an end to our delusions of ability and accomplishment but simultaneously promises absolute acceptance and unconditional love, the two things we desperately need but cannot attain outside relationship with someone else.”
So – we DO need Jesus’ eye cream. We need Jesus’ truth. We need Jesus’ sacrifice. We need Jesus’ faith. His forgiveness. And most especially we need his love. And THIS is what will set us free.
Lose goes on to state that often in our lives we simultaneously desperately want to be loved for who we are and are terrified that people will see or know the real us. And that the real us is somehow unlovable. So even to those closest to us – we present who we think they want us to be, not who we actually are. He claims that we cannot fully believe and trust the words “I love you” if they aren’t followed by the words “I know you.”
As was stated during the sermon series on Radical Hospitality – to be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known.
We are fully known and fully loved by God. This love is life giving and life transforming. This love is the truth and this truth sets us free.
This is the truth that Jesus proclaimed to his followers. This is the truth that Luther discovered over 500 years ago. This truth and the church doctrine and practices that prevented people from understanding it were what Luther wanted to share and discuss when he posted his 95 Thesis on the church door at Wittenberg Castle. God’s love was the truth that set Luther free. It is the truth that sets us free. It is sin smoothing wrinkle cream that we all desperately need.