“Abide in My Word” (John 8:31-36)
Today is a very special day. Reformation Day actually falls on a Sunday this year. It’s the day on which we remember the start of the Reformation of the Church. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg, expressing his disapproval of the forgiveness-for-sale scheme that was foisted upon the Germans. That day and the production of that document was a watershed moment in the history of the West. The pure teaching of God’s free gift of forgiveness apart from good works was restored as the central teaching of Holy Scripture. And God’s Word was put within reach of more people as Luther translated the Bible into the language of the people.
But today is also special for another reason. It’s Confirmation Day. It’s the day on which four young people in our congregation will publicly confess their faith and reaffirm the promises God gave to them in their Baptism. For two intensive summers, twice a week, two hours a day, they studied the Small Catechism and Bible history. Now, they will stand before you, and we will pray for them, asking God the Holy Spirit to confirm them – to strengthen them – in their faith. And tonight, they get to celebrate by going door to door receiving “Reformation Candy” from their neighbors.
So our Gospel text from John 8 is very appropriate for today. Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As heirs of the Reformation, Lutherans are people of the Word who want to abide in Christ’s Word. And as Katie, Mackenzie, Ben, and Karina, confess their faith today, we promise to pray for them and support them as they continue with us on our journey together of abiding in Christ’s Word.
“Abide in my word,” Jesus says. Dr. Luther said it this way when he explained the Third Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Whether it’s when the pastor is preaching or the Sunday School teacher is teaching … whether it’s when you read the Bible by yourself in your room or with your family at the table … Jesus calls us to abide in his word. Stay in it. Continue in it. Dwell in it. Jesus calls us to a lifelong commitment to hear his Word, to read his Word, to study his Word, to take every opportunity for his Word to do its work in us. His Word of Law will convict us of our sin and kill our old sinful nature. His Word of Gospel will forgive our sin and create new life within us.
If you abide in Jesus’ word, then he says that “you are truly my disciples.” When we hear the word “disciple,” we might first think of the Twelve Disciples whom Jesus called and who followed him around during his brief earthly ministry. Or perhaps we think of the larger group that followed Jesus other than the original Twelve. But the word “disciple” doesn’t just mean a “follower.” It’s following with a purpose. It’s following in order to be a “learner.” A disciple is “one who learns.”
Jesus told the Church to go out and make disciples by baptizing and teaching. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20) You were made to be a disciple of Christ in your Baptism and by being instructed in Christ’s Word. But being a “disciple” means following Jesus and learning from his Word for the rest of your life. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but I mean it: “Confirmation is not graduation.”
Some people who become disciples of Jesus are moved by temporary excitement. But when the going gets rough, they drop out. They set aside their Bibles. They neglect coming to receive Christ’s gifts in the Divine Service, his forgiveness and his Body and Blood. They reject the promises God gave them in Baptism.
Some people only come to church and youth group because of peer pressure, which is not always a bad thing … at least they’re coming, right? “My friends are going to be there, so I guess I’ll go.” At least they’ll hear that Jesus died and rose for them for the forgiveness of their sins. But then there are those that don’t even pay attention to the message, because they’re only there to check out the cute guys and girls. And there are other pressures outside of church that often beckon, influences that are not always godly. Besides that, let’s face it … church is boring. But here I’ll just quote Pastor Mark Sell from last summer’s Higher Things conference: “Repeat after me. The most important things in life are boring.” On the other hand, when you really think of it, how can this be boring? Jesus is present with us in Word and Sacrament. Our Savior himself gives us his Body to eat and his Blood to drink. He forgives our sins. He fills us with his Spirit. He sends us back into our daily lives refreshed and renewed to love and serve others. It’s may not be as exciting as going to a homecoming dance or scoring the winning goal or riding a roller coaster at Silverwood. But I wouldn’t exactly call this boring.
Some only go to church “because mom and dad make me.” But you are getting to the age when it’s time to take responsibility for your own spiritual life. That’s also part of what Confirmation is all about … learning to participate in the life of the Church in a more mature way, thinking about what you are doing in worship and actively participating in worship, meditating on God’s Word, serving others in love, making time to read the Bible and pray on your own.
Think about the promises you are making today (and for the rest of us, remember that we once made these promises, too). These are not to be taken lightly.
- Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?
- Do you intend to live according the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?
- Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
Those are some heavy-duty questions. And your answer is, “I do, by the grace of God.” It is only by God’s grace – his undeserved love toward us in Christ – that we can say “I do” to those questions. On our own, our weak sinful nature cannot keep these promises. We need to return time and again to God’s grace to receive forgiveness for breaking these promises. The shed blood of Jesus at the cross will always cover your sin and shame. You can confess your sins, return again to God’s promises in your Baptism – where he made you his own child and washed your sins away – and say “I do” once again to your Confirmation vows that you are making today.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,” Jesus said. Then he adds, “and you will know the truth.” What is “the truth”? The “truth” is Jesus, that he is the only way to truly know God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The truth is that Jesus is True Man and True God, who came to be your substitute, keeping God’s Law perfectly in your place, and suffering the wrath of God for sin in your place at the cross, and rising to life again, conquering sin, death, and the devil for you.
When Jesus was on trial, he said to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (you know, the guy we mention all the time in the creed), “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) Pilate expressed the thoughts of many people today. We live in a world with many competing truth claims. Many people believe that there are many ways to heaven or to God. Many believe that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. Many now claim that there is no absolute truth, that two people can believe something completely contradictory and both be correct. But the nature of truth is that there is only one truth. Jesus does not leave us with any other options other than the truth he came to reveal. You heard his own words earlier that no one comes to the Father except through him. Acts 4:12 says of Jesus, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) And 2 John 1:9 says, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:9) When you abide in Christ’s words, you have Christ himself abiding in you.
Finally, Jesus says that not only will you know the truth, but “the truth will set you free.” As a teenager, you are enjoying the experience of some new freedom. You are allowed to stay out a bit longer than you used to. You can text to your heart’s delight because your dad finally ponied up and bought the unlimited texting plan. Soon, you will be getting your drivers license and you don’t have to worry about having your mom and dad haul your bottom all over the place.
But with freedom comes responsibility. And often we make sinful choices with our freedom. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That’s proof that we aren’t as free as we thought we are. We are slaves to our sin and our sinful nature with its evil, selfish, greedy desires. We are slaves to false ideas that we may have about God (that’s why the Reformation was so important … and still is today … so that we are freed from those ideas that want us to think we still have to earn our way to heaven).
But then Jesus makes a contrast for us between slaves and sons: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In Jesus’ day, people owned slaves who lived in their homes and served the family. They were a part of the household. They could gain their freedom if their owner granted it. But that was never a sure and certain thing. Only the sons of the fathers had permanent status in the family and were assured of their ongoing freedom.
You are made to be God’s sons in Baptism. You were set free from your slavery to sin and your sinful nature and given freedom in Christ from the condemnation of the Law. Romans 8:1-2 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” In Holy Baptism and by faith in Jesus, you were joined to Christ and his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. You were given the Holy Spirit through the Word of Truth so that you can believe and receive God’s promises. In Christ, you have a place in God’s kingdom forever. You have been “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 3:24) purchased not with gold or silver, but with Christ’s holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that you may be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true!
Abiding in the word of Jesus, you have been set free to believe, love, obey, and serve. Martin Luther once wrote that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” (The Freedom of a Christian) We are completely free in Christ. We are justified by grace apart from works. But with freedom comes responsibility to serve our neighbor in love … not coerced, but willing, with a joyful, thankful heart, empowered by the Holy Spirit who dwells in you. St. Paul wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13; See also 1 Pet. 2:16)
I’ll close with some words from the song that the choir will sing in a few moments:
We are the Lord’s. Then let us gladly tender
Our souls to Him in deeds, not empty words.
Let heart and tongue and life combine to render
No doubtful witness that we are the Lord’s.
And then, hear your Savior’s words to you one more time, on this, your Confirmation Day: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” God bless you now and always, my dear friends, my brother and sisters in Christ.