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'Before Abraham was, I am.'

Sermon Lent 5

02 April 2006 11:00 | Fr. Simon Farrer

These are the remarkable words on Jesus' lips in his discourse in today's Gospel. 'Before Abraham was, I am.' He doesn't say 'Before Abraham was, I was', making a claim that as Son of God he pre-existed Abraham. No, it is 'I am'. We, like Abraham, exist in time. We have a past, a present and a future. God is not like this. He is outside time, he has no beginning and no end. He is the One who is. Jesus is the revealer of God, so he also is.

Of course, Jesus was a human being. He was a Jew who lived 2,000 years ago. As he says in the Gospel, 'Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.' Jesus lived within the stream of history of his people. And so Abraham rejoiced that he, Jesus the Messiah, would come. But Jesus was more. He transcends this history as the revealer of God, the One who is.

This has important consequences for our faith. It means that our Lord can speak to us in history and in culture, in ideas and events outside the Bible. This may involve re-interpreting, even sometimes differing from what parts of the Bible say. We need to look at the Bible, as it were through the eyes of Christ the revealer. I will give you two examples of current interest:

In the Old Testament we are told that God promised the land of Israel to his chosen people, the Israelites. They entered it and conquered it and drove out the Canaanites, the original inhabitants. Some people in the present use this to justify the Israelis taking the land of the Palestinians in the West Bank. 'This is our Land', they say, 'promised to us by God'. But things have changed since biblical times. History has taken a new course, and new rights have been established. Rights that are assuredly sanctioned by God…..Israelis have rights in the Holy Land. But so also do Palestinians. Moreover, if the Bible justified Israel taking the land of the West Bank, that would imply logically that all the Jews of the diaspora scattered around the world should return to Israel. This is in fact one of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Of course they do not want to, and why should they? It is good that the recent election in Israel suggests that the majority of the people want a lasting peace based on justice for all.

A second example. In the opening chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul offers an assessment of the Gentile world. His judgement is completely negative. He says the Gentiles, that is the Greeks and Romans, knew God because he had revealed himself to them in nature. But instead of worshipping God, they made idols and worshipped these. As a consequence, God, according to Paul, handed them over to homosexuality, which he condemns severely. Recently some people have entered into civil partnerships with members of their own sex. Some of them are Christians. All of them presumably acted in good conscience. They are acting with integrity and dignity. I fail to see how Paul's arguments apply to them. More generally, Paul's description of Gentile society is strange. He claims it is rife with envy, slander, murder, strife, gossip and so on. It is, he claims, evil…. Now, if we reflect on our own culture, we see that we have two points of origin, the Jewish-Biblical tradition, and the Greek/Roman Classical tradition. To the Classical tradition, we owe so much; the ideal of beauty in art as seen, for example, in the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum on our doorstep; the classical style of architecture, as in your own church of St. George's. To it we owe the Roman virtues, such as patriotism, courage, fortitude. To it we owe our language itself. Classical culture has contributed so much that is good and basic to our culture. Paul was a great man, a great thinker, but in his critique of Gentile Society he was surely mistaken. Benjamin Jowett, the famous Master of Balliol, wrote: 'Ancient authors are like the inhabitants of a valley who know nothing of the countries beyond…'

'Before Abraham was, I am'. Our Lord was Jewish and heir to a great tradition and history through which God has spoken. He is 'cult' and he also transcends it. As the revealer of God, the One who is, he speaks through his word in the Bible. He also speaks in events in history. He speaks through the conscience of men and women. He speaks through human reason. That is why we not only look to the past to know his will; we also look to the present and the future. At the end of our Gospel we are told: 'Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple'. This is vague and imprecise. This is deliberate. Our Lord as the Revealer cannot be pinned down in history. He goes beyond the reach of the world.
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