Free Indeed

Scripture can be found here

I’d like to invite us all to take a deep breath. To sit, maybe close our eyes for a moment, and to notice the breath that God has given us, just in this moment. To awaken to our breath, and notice it, and give thanks for it.

For years, I believed that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the author of the most famous line in this passage from John’s gospel: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). King did say that—he quoted scripture all the time in his writings and speeches. He said it at a terrible time in our history as a nation, in the heat of the crucible that was the Civil Rights movement, just three weeks before a white supremacist murdered him. The full quote is this:

“I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly. I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”[i]

That famous quote of Dr. King originates here, deep in the Gospel of John, at a moment when the words of Jesus were, like the words of Dr. King, provocative, even shocking.

Just before our passage, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The religious leaders are shocked by this—something that happens all the time in the gospels. How can a human claim to be the light of the world? The light has shone on people walking in darkness, but that light is the light of God. They accuse Jesus of testifying on his own behalf, which is a no-no. And Jesus goes on to say that all this will lead to the cross.

And that leads us here, to today’s brief passage. I’m just telling the truth, Jesus says. If you stick with me, you too will know the truth…. and that is the only way to freedom. Thus says the man who will be killed for telling the truth.

It is a wonderful passage for the celebration of Reformation Sunday. We always mark this festival of our origins on the last Sunday in October. It’s the Sunday closest to the anniversary of when Martin Luther, a sixteenth century Augustinian monk who loved the church, posted a long list of things on a cathedral door that he was hoping to debate with other people who loved the church—things that had him worried for the church, worried that we weren’t living up to our duty to honor the truth. 

Truth is at the heart of the Reformation. As we can tell from the context of Jesus’ statement, truth isn’t always easy. Sometimes telling the truth leads to the cross, an outcome Jesus was willing to accept. But strangely, crazily, that truth was still the source of freedom for Jesus, and it is a source of freedom for us.

When we know the truth, or even, when we are willing to entertain the truth, we are able to step out of a kind of prison we may not have even known we were in. This prison isn’t the kind with steel bars and strict visiting hours. It is one of ongoing separation: the separation we humans feel from one another, and the separation we feel between ourselves and God.

Philosopher Ken Wilber describes the problem this way:

Religion itself has always performed two very important, but very different functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self… it consoles… fortifies… [and] defends the self, [it] promotes the self. As long as the separate self believes the myths, performs the rituals, mouths the prayers, or embraces the dogma, then the self, it is fervently believed, will be “saved”—either now in the glory of being God-saved … or in an afterlife that ensures eternal wonderment.

But… religion has also served… the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it—not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution—in short, … a radical … transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself.[ii]

I’m going to acknowledge that the first function of religion sounds shallow, and the second sounds terrifying.

But Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, and Jesus all lived into the second kind of religion, the religion of transformation. Jesus invited his followers to a life where they went on the road without any money or even a change of clothes, but threw themselves, empty, at the mercy of strangers. He invited them to a spirituality that insisted that the right prayers, the right rituals, the right practices would not, in and of themselves, save anybody. Instead, Jesus both lived and recommended what the Greeks called “kenosis”: emptying himself, pouring himself out… for those people whom he called the ‘least of these:’ the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked, the imprisoned, and the stranger. Recognizing our common humanity with all God’s children is one way out of the prison.

When we do this, we can’t help being transformed. When we accept this, we can’t avoid what we are promised in baptism, that the old life is gone, and we are living a new life, in Christ, in which we are no longer separate selves, but parts of one body.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  ~1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 26-27

That’s the truth. The terrifying, transforming truth of what Jesus offers us. It is a truth that will remake us, take us apart before it puts us back together. It can be painful. It’s the reason we weep when people we don’t know—eleven members of a synagogue in Pennsylvania; two black grandparents shopping in a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky—are murdered by white supremacists. We have opened ourselves to the truth that we are not separate from any of God’s children, but are one with them. We are part of them, and they are part of us.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Now, again, I’d like to invite us all to breathe, and breathe deeply. To notice for a moment that we are here. And we are free. And we are one with those who are not free. Reformed, and always reforming, according to the Word of God. And so, we begin.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” Speech at Grosse Pointe, MI High School, March March 14, 1968,

[ii] Ken Wilber, One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality (Shambhala Publications, Inc.: 2000), 25-26.