A sermon preached for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday on John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28, and Jeremiah 31:31-34 on October 28, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas (I adapted a sermon from Reformation Sunday last year, so this may sound familiar in places!)
We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” In fact, if you google this phrase, you can find hundreds of posters about it on Pinterest.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jesus doesn’t mention that the truth hurts—he seems to skip the part about the pain involved in between knowing the truth and being free.
One of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many situations, is that we are unwilling to feel the pain of facing the truth. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements or doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in the world.
Psychologists write entire books about our defense mechanisms—all the ways we avoid the pain in the truth of who we are: we repress what disturbs us; we project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and hate them; we rationalize our errors, we regress into childhood behaviors and thought-patterns – we can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches when the whole family gets together, and we feel like we’re eight years old again!
And of course, denial, when we simply deny the reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with it. I just wrote about a recent realization of my own denial in the November newsletter (which I will post this week). When I or someone I love seems to be stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them with a smile and say, “you know ‘denial’ is not just a river Egypt!”
When I was in seminary I dated a fellow student—I’ll call him Chuck. We looked like a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I was going to make this relationship work. Chuck’s a great guy and he’s a wonderful pastor, but the truth was that our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves were not that compatible.
But I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone, or the pain of admitting that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way to really be myself in this relationship. The truth hurts, so I repressed, denied and rationalized my way into trying harder for almost two years.
When I was learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I will never forget the speaker that day who talked about Step 1, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.” He said the problem is that we think we can kick addiction or end a painful situation by just trying harder. But no matter how hard we try, we still fail, and then we repeat the cycle over and over again. Talk about pain.
“The truth is,” he said, “Step 1 happens not by trying harder, but when we admit that we cannot do it at all!” That’s a painful truth—we are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess—and that’s the moment when we become ready to receive help from God. That’s when the feeling of freedom comes over us! Freedom comes when we “let go, and let God.”
That’s what happened in my relationship with Chuck. When I admitted I couldn’t fix or change this relationship by trying harder, or by being someone I’m not, and that I needed God’s help, I was ready to face the truth—that truth came with the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, and the pain of my own limitations.
It was the end of December and bitterly cold in Chicago. Chuck and I talked and cried late into the night because the truth hurts. This was before cell phones, so it would have been unwise for him to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we traded off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn for the air mattress.
We didn’t know that the air mattress had a hole in it, so as I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold, hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, but it was the best night of sleep I’d had in months—because the truth had set me free. I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I finally trusted him with my whole life, even if I graduated from seminary and remained alone (which was my biggest fear). The pain that I couldn’t make my life work at all, was momentary, but the relationship with Jesus lasts for a lifetime.
We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints who seek to be faithful to the truth of who they are, and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, he had to deal with the pain of who he was—having persecuted and killed the early Christians—he endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, made him free from that pain, and from his former life as a Pharisee.
The pain was momentary, but Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime. Paul experienced that he was justified by grace as a gift, and we are still hearing about his freedom today, two millennia later in our passage from Romans.
Five Hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with pain of his own sin, and the truth that he could not—no matter how hard he tried—not by his own work or merit—make himself right before God.
Would the Reformation have happened if Luther repressed, denied, rationalized, and projected the pain of his sin on someone else, instead of experiencing it, and discovering in the process, forgiveness without price, and grace without merit?
The pain of his sin was momentary, but Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime—even during excommunication from the church and a threat on his life.
Ashlee, Virginia and Rachel, today you are Confirmed as adult members of the Christian faith through this congregation. Even though you are young, we can tell from the Bible verses you chose for today that you are already grappling with the painful truths of human life alongside the hope of our faith.
Ashlee, your passage from Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that “for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven—a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Virginia, your passage from 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells the painful truth that there will be temptations and testing, but that God is faithful and will give us what we need to endure and come through stronger. Rachel, your passage from Philippians 4 is a beautiful proclamation that when we finally accept that we can’t do life on our own, we can ask God for whatever we need, and that with the freedom of grace, we receive the peace that passes all understanding.
Amazingly, you three young women already know that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t give us an escape valve from the hardships or pain of this life, but rather, that our faith strengthens us through them, giving us a freedom and peace we cannot create or grasp on our own.
So I encourage you not to be afraid of the truth—the truth of who you are, the truth of how God made you, the truth of what you find to be life-giving and soul-nourishing, the truth of what you need to continue to grow into a whole and holy person who is so precious in God’s sight, and so loved by Jesus (and by me, and your family!), and so embraced by this congregation.
No matter what your future holds, your truth and freedom and peace will always be in the same place—in your abiding relationship with Jesus. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, for he is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the truth of God’s love made real, and his word is written on your heart. He dwells in you, and is always with you, no matter what!
With our Confirmands, God invites all of us to trust in the truth of who we are in our relationship with Jesus Christ—that we are freed from our own sin and limitations and enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with our whole heart. So wherever you are trying harder, wherever you are resisting the pain of change, wherever you are repressing feelings, or projecting negativity—that’s the very place Jesus calls you to greater freedom. It’s time to let go of trying harder! Tell God you can’t do it on your own and put your trust in Jesus.
The truth may hurt, but it doesn’t last because the freedom of God’s grace always catches us. Jesus sets us free for a relationship with him that lasts not only for a lifetime, but for eternity! And that’s freedom, indeed!