Lay-Sunday Meditation on John 8:31-59

by Tommy Carlson

It is ironic that a denomination whose very beginning and formation was the result of lay people gathering in homes for the study of God’s word, the singing of hymns, praying with and for each other, and generally nurturing and caring for each other in their faith journey now has one official day designated “Laity Sunday” in which the laity is in some small way recognized. Perhaps that is the fault of the laity, if fault is to be found. Perhaps we should be thankful and do the most we can on this day. Therefore, I am using the text for Reformation Sunday and adding a few more verses. The pericope text is John 8:31-36, but I will read to the end of the chapter - to verse 59. I think it is more important to hear God’s words than mine.

It was, as I recall, in the late ’60s and early ’70s that Afro-American students on American college campuses began to demand that courses relating to their own ethnic history be offered as part of the regular curriculum. They felt, and rightly so, that they had not been allowed, nor had anybody else, to study and to know about their history and their roots. Furthermore, what they had been told was often misrepresented and distorted, as if their ancestors’ stories and their contributions to the American story did not matter.

More important than their story in America were the questions: What was their story in Africa? Who were their ancestors and what was their tradition? What were their roots? These are very legitimate questions of aliens in an alien land cut off from their ancestral home.

What the Afro-American students started seemed to have opened the flood gates, for now people of other nationalities wanted to know about their roots. Information was there, but it had been put away by previous generations, perhaps because it was no longer important, because there were too many bad memories, and because, most of all, “You are in America now, you should become an American.”

I must admit that I, too, have a strong interest in this area of study. On the family trees of both my parents, roots have been recorded as far back as 1620. Interesting stuff, but so what! Perhaps we are looking for an identity in an alien environment Verse 33: “We are descended from Abraham and we have never been slave to anyone . . .”

People will give me the respect that I want if I come from a family in which there have been “important” people. The famous war heroes or political statesmen or preachers or whatever will reflect on me and elevate me. I am inheriting by bloodline their deeds and that makes me important like they were. I have this inherent fault as a member of the human family that I want and need power and prestige. And, if I can’t get it by my own behavior and activity, I can always fall back on the bloodline.

As members of the family of faith, we tend to do the same thing. In two weeks, we will be celebrating Reformation Sunday and Martin Luther’s name will be lifted up and honored all over the world. Some of us read and study the writings of Waldenström or Rosenius or Wesley or Calvin or Spener or Martin Luther King, Jr. and that is good. We should read and honor these saints who heard God’s voice and followed him so that we can, perhaps, learn something from their journeys of faith in our own journey.

Verse 39: They repeated, “Our father is Abraham.” What is this strong urge to know and why does it seem so important to us? It is an interesting study to be sure, but is it more than that? I would like to suggest that it is a “life-line,” an umbilical cord that makes our life LEGITIMATE and by it our place in the “house” will be assured. We are aliens in an alien environment. The further we are removed in time and space from that which legitimizes our lives, our family ancestry, or faith ancestry, the stronger our needs and desires are to attach ourselves to that which makes us feel legitimate. They repeated: “Our father is Abraham.” I belong to Luther or Waldenström or Wesley or Richard Allen or Martin Luther King, Jr. The answer from Jesus is: SO WHAT?!

“If you were Abraham’s children you would do as Abraham did.” They were good and faithful servants but, Jesus is saying, do not rest on their laurels. Go beyond them and go beyond even me to God who is the Father of us all and make your own connection directly with Him and claim your own birthright. Expand the story of faith in your own life. When you go beyond a disrupted family history, whether by separation or abuse or slavery, what you have left of any significance at all is GOD. So it was for the slaves who met in secret to sing and praise God. So it was for farmhands and maids and bondservants who met in cottages to study and pray at a time when the state church had the “monopoly” on religion. I imagine in some way it was similar for Jews and Christians in Eastern Europe in our own time.

“If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all, my glory is conferred by the Father.”

“. . . you will learn the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Free from everything that by its domination of our lives keeps us from claiming our birthright and serving the God of Abraham, Luther, Waldenström, Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Anderson, Frank Lindquist, Herman and Gertrude Crawsen, and so forth, and so forth. You can add your own names to the list. As it was for them, so let it be for us. Amen.