Meditation on John 8:31-36
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
Oct. 27, 2019
He 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.
We had a great time at our church picnic last Sunday! It was my first experience with a corn maze. For that matter, it was my whole family’s first experience with a corn maze. I was surprised they wanted to come with me when Courtney Snyder told us that we better bring cookies if we do the maze. It takes at least 2 hours, she said, and we would get lost. “I always do,” she said. So, we grabbed some cookies, and started the maze after watching the instructional video. Did any of you watch that? In the video, we were asked to repeat after the guide in reciting all the rules. The ones I recall went something like this: I will not run in the maze. I will not smoke. I will not damage the maze. I will stay on the path and not break through the ribbons. Jim, Jacob and I dutifully echoed all the rules. Mom, however, remained silent.
We split into pairs once we started the maze. Jacob and I had the map, with the questions and clues that I tried to fill in. Jim and my mom, who weren’t interested in completing the worksheet, went the shortest way they could possibly find. Pretty soon, we realized Courtney was right. It was going to take a while, and we were going to get lost. Several times. Good thing we ate cookies, first!
My mom pointed to where a ribbon was broken and an illegal path had been made. She was going to take a short cut. She was tired and had had enough of the maze.
And I said, “No. We can’t do that. We promised we wouldn’t break the rules.”
She said, “I didn’t promise.”
I said, “If we don’t follow the maze, they will throw us out.”
“Why didn’t you say so sooner?” she said. “I would have done it a long time ago.”
Have you ever noticed that rules only seem to work sometimes when there are unpleasant consequences, even when rules are made for the good of the people? There’s always someone who questions the rules and wants to do things a different way. But have you also noticed how hard it is to change the rules, even when people agree that they are unjust and need to be changed?
Sometimes, there’s a shortage of courage.
Today, we remember and honor those with the courage to study God’s Word and listen for God’s voice still speaking to Christ’s followers in every age. We give thanks for those who fearlessly walked by faith and were led by the Spirit to work to transform the Church and make it more faithful to Christ’s call.
On Reformation Sunday, Presbyterians are used to hearing about Calvin, Luther and maybe Knox or Zwingli. As my history professors at Princeton Seminary would say—dead white men. But in so doing, we leave out many important reformers—women who were faithful to work for reform in the Church long before John Calvin fled to Switzerland and wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.
And more than 100 years before Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses to the door of The Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.
I would like to share with you about a theologian and author from the 14th century who was first an inspiration to me when I was in seminary in 2008. She is called “Julian of Norwich,” though we don’t know her real name. You see, she was an anchoress, a devout woman whose long life was lived in a small room attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, England.
Because she was a woman, she would not have been permitted to speak her views in church, but she was able to share them with folks who came to her window for godly counsel and prayer each day.
And she did the unthinkable. She wrote down what God had showed her through a series of visions on May 13, 1373 of Christ on the cross, when she was “30 and a half years old” and was so ill that a priest was brought to administer last rites. About 15 years later, she wrote a longer version of the book—86 chapters! Unlike Luther, it isn’t an academic treatise written in Latin for scholars and theologians to debate. Julian writes in English; her Showings or Revelation of Divine Love, is written “for all men,” she says, meaning all people. What a radical thing for a woman of the Middle Ages to say!
Her work is thought to have been the first book written in the English language. The teachings God has shown her are meant to be a comfort to all her fellow Christians or “even Christians,” as she says. She lives in a dark time and had witnessed great suffering as a child of 6 when the Black Death swept through England in 1349 and all of Europe, taking the lives of 20 million people–more than 1/3 of Europe’s population.
When you think about the time in which she writes—when the Church was wealthy, powerful and corrupt–you can appreciate her courage. She wrote in English before reformer John Wycliff and his followers translated the Bible from Latin into Middle English in 1382, two years before he died of a stroke. Wycliff, an Oxford professor and priest who attacked the wealth of the Church, the selling of indulgences, prayers to saints, and the teachings on purgatory, believed that the Bible was the only reliable guide to the truth about God. He would be declared a heretic and his bones dug up, burned and scattered in the River Swift in 1428.
While Julian insists repeatedly that she agrees with all the teachings of “Holy Church,” the reality is that her beliefs are in sharp contrast to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices of her day. The Church taught that a close relationship with the Lord wasn’t possible for an ordinary believer. The Church threatened the wrath of God and eternal punishment for those who disobeyed the Church’s teachings.
Julian disagrees. The Lord shows her that God is all love and wants to be intimate with us, for we are his “bliss.” The woman who lives during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France says that the wrath is all on the side of human beings. It is through the Trinity and the perfect humanity of Christ and not the Church that she reaches God. “Julian sees man as a sinner,” writes one Medieval scholar. “Sin is an historical reality, a personal and a collective as well as a universal phenomenon, embracing everyone. Yet this sinner is forgiven and saved because God shared in his human condition – in his pain and in his joy.”
Julian isn’t shy about questioning the Lord. She wonders, in chapter 27, in the great wisdom of God that “the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me,” she says, “that all would be well.” Jesus answers, saying, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well…. These words were revealed most tenderly,” she goes on, “showing no kind of blame to me or to anyone who will be saved. So it would be most unkind of me to blame God or marvel at him on account of my sins, since he does not blame me for sin. And in these same words, I saw hidden in God an exalted and wonderful mystery, which he will make plain and we shall know in heaven. In this knowledge, we shall truly see the cause why he allowed sin to come, and in this sight, we shall rejoice forever.”
Julian longs for greater intimacy with the Lord and calls God, at times, “Mother,” in the tradition of Christianity in the Middle Ages. “For God gave her life, his life, in his Incarnation and in his death,” explains a Medieval historian. “(She believes that) he nourishes us through the preaching of the Church; he makes us grow through his grace, adapting himself to each of us in his infinite love.”
In her 86 years of life, Julian never sees her book published. I am sure that she never imagines it would be! It isn’t until 1670 that her book would be published, but not widely read by Julian’s fellow “even Christians” until modern English versions are published beginning in the mid to late 20th century. I think she would be most pleased that the ordinary people for whom she originally wrote in the 14th century would finally have the opportunity to read her writings and find comfort in the assurance of God’s love.
Today, many Presbyterians may meet Julian of Norwich through a hymn attributed to her. “Mothering God, Who Gave Me Birth,” has been published in 13 hymnals, including our 1990 blue Presbyterian hymnal and the most recent Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God. (Listen to a beautiful version of this song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFac46KYThc)
Sisters and brothers, because the reformers courageously fought against the abuses of the Church of the Middle Ages, we have the freedom to organize, worship and live out our faith according to our convictions. We can read the Bible in our own language and hear the truth that makes us free! But we in the Reformed tradition believe that the Reformation isn’t over! The Spirit continues to change us, as we draw nearer to God and God draws nearer to us. Let us embrace the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and our Church!
We know that it’s not through any righteousness of our own or any human works that we are saved, but by accepting God’s love and grace shown by His Son, our Lord and Savior, and pursuing an intimate relationship with him.
I urge you now to live courageously, as a forgiven people, walking by faith, desiring God and seeking God’s face, offering love and comfort to our fellow Christians, as Julian of Norwich did, and to those who don’t yet know the hope we have in Him.
Let your life shine for all to see… the truth that makes us free!
Let us pray.
Holy God, we thank you for your Spirit that illumines your Word for us and allows us to understand what you have done for us through the sacrifice of your Son on a cross. Thank you for the reformers, the men and women of every generation, who have worked to transform the Church, so that we would become, more and more, the people you desire us to be. Thank you that your Spirit continues to do its work of transformation in us. Forgive us, Lord, when we are reluctant to change because it is uncomfortable or we are afraid that others may be unhappy or it feels like too much work to try new things. Open our eyes, Lord, to what we cannot see—how the Church may be turning a blind eye to our neediest members and our neighbors in need and not doing enough to change the unjust structures in our society. Stir a longing in us for you, Lord, to be closer to you and dig more deeply into your Word. Empower us to share with others today and every day the truth that makes us free—salvation is a gift from God, received by faith. In Christ we pray. Amen.