I always hated playing musical chairs as a kid. The music would start up and my little heart would start pounding. I still feel a little panic when I think about that game today. I was never a very athletically gifted child, so I knew that my chances of lasting very long in this game of quick reflexes were slim to none. I hated the feeling of embarrassment at being one of the first ones out. You had to just stand by and watch the rest of your friends continue to play- the kids who were better than you.
This feeling of dread and the belief that there wasn’t enough space for you, that you had to fight your way for a spot to sit down- that same feeling and belief were what the Reformers spoke out against and what Jesus addresses in today’s reading.
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
People believed and many people still believe that the love of God is like a game of musical chairs. The music of life starts up and we have to prepare ourselves to make the mad dash for a seat in heaven. If we aren’t good enough, then we have to sit outside the love of God by ourselves.
In the first century, there was a type of hierarchy present in households. Fathers were usually at the top and slaves were at the bottom. The slaves were utterly vulnerable and could be kicked out of the home at any time. They could simply be dismissed or they could be sold to another household. They had no real place in the home. At best they could consider a home to be a temporary lodging. Jesus asserts that we are slaves to sin and therefore we are vulnerable to its whims. If the power of poverty, illness, selfishness, injustice, or death decide to kick us out of our home of peace and hope- there isn’t a thing we can do about it. Jesus, however, comes to us and promises to give us a place in God’s house forever. In the house of the Son, you are accepted and loved unconditionally and no power of sin can change that.
Rescue Mission of Trenton is engaged with that good work of providing a permanent home where one can be valued and loved.
One of 11 children in his family, Long Branch native Vernon Jeter got into drugs and drinking and his life unraveled. He was homeless when he came to the Rescue Mission just over a year ago. “I never believed in going to a program,” he says. “But someone told me about the Rescue Mission. And I came here because I didn’t know where else to go. I have found all the help you can get here.” As soon as he could, Jeter started working on the loading docks. “I’m not homeless and I’m able to eat,” he says. “I get counseling. They’ve got wonderful schooling here. You can go as far as you want to go. The job readiness program is great. People help you with everything, even as far as getting suits for your interviews.” One of Jeter’s brothers is with him at the Mission, and he is also doing well. “It’s been wonderful. I talk about it all the time,” he says. “[Mission CEO] Mary Gay is amazing. She truly in her heart cares about you. This place doesn’t kick you out the door.
Vernon was without a place to call home. He and thousands of others served by Rescue Mission had only temporary lodgings in jail, on the streets, and with acquaintances. But at Rescue Mission they were valued, loved, and given a place to call home as well as given the tools to find their own permanent home. Christ frees us from the power of sin and death to give us a permanent home- a place to truly belong and to be unconditionally loved.
Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Chapel because he wanted everyone to know that Christ has secured a permanent home for them. He wanted everyone to know that there wasn’t a thing that we were required to do to receive that grace-filled love except through the work of the Holy Spirit to believe that it was truly given for us. Folks in the church had largely bought into the idea that God’s salvation is a game of musical chairs and that you had to scramble to find a seat in God’s house. The church sold indulgences that put a price on salvation. If you paid the right amount of money, you or a loved one’s sentence in purgatory would be reduced- but if you didn’t have enough money, then you lost your seat. The church taught that there were certain acts that could get you back in God’s good graces after you sinned- receiving Communion, saying certain prayers, making a full-hearted confession, doing good deeds, etc. If you were like Martin Luther, you were constantly terrified by the thought that you had not done enough good works to balance the scale of your sins.
The Reformation pointed the church back to Jesus, who as the Son, gives us a permanent place in God’s house. This home is not given conditionally. It is not given under the conditions that we pay indulgences, that we have truly sorry hearts for our sins, that we do enough good works, that we pray enough. The Son gives us a permanent place in God’s house simply because Christ delights to abide with us and we have received faith to believe that we abide with him.
Christ ends the game of musical chairs by assuring us that there are enough chairs for everyone. He has made us a permanent place in God’s house and nothing will change that. He has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has freed us from the power of sin and death.
No matter how chaotic life may get and no matter what ways sin manifests to control your hopes, fears, and life, know that God frees us in Christ and in him we find a permanent home of love and belonging. In him we find a strong refuge. In the face of the sins of poverty, fear, violence, sickness, injustice, and death- God is our refuge and protector. Our home is securely with God.
Hear the words of the Psalmist:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble with its tumult
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.