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"Before Abraham was, I AM!"


13 March 2005 11:00 | Rev Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: Hebrews 9.11-15; Gospel: John 8.46-59

It's always difficult trying to join in a conversation that's been going for some time. There are even more problems arriving on the scene half way through an argument! But that's the situation we are faced with in this morning's Gospel.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, for the annual week-long Feast of Tabernacles. For some days he has been teaching in the various courtyards of the Temple, attracting sizeable groups of pilgrims. But there's tension in the air. The Gospel writer tells us the crowds were arguing among themselves; some admiring Jesus' simple, if at times controversial teaching; others accusing him of deceiving the crowd. Of course the ever vigilant chief priests had their spies on the job, and fearful that this troublesome Jesus might start a popular uprising, they decide to send the temple police to arrest him. They were none too pleased when the police came back - without the offender - and reported: "Arrest him? He was fantastic! We've never heard anyone teach like him! The crowd would have lynched us!"

On the last day of the festival the Pharisees and priests decide to go themselves, and expose this fraudster, to discredit him publicly. Unable to stay on the fringe of the crowd for long, they soon find themselves face to face with their culprit.

Inevitably an argument develops. The impatient among the accusers launch into attempts to entrap their quarry on point of law. The older and wiser of them hold back, but eventually they too are drawn in. They discover they have met a match; this Galilean is no pushover. They could see he had more and more of his hearers with him. The sharpest of the priest scholars are brought forward.

Then suddenly faces redden; voices are raised. This cheapjack is going too far! What's this he is saying about the truth (as he understands it) setting you free? "We are descendants of Abraham," they shout. "We have never been slaves to anyone! How can we be freed?"

"If you were Abraham's children," Jesus replies, " you would recognise truth when you heard it. You are children of the devil, the father of lies…" This questions their parentage, their very identity - the gravest of insults for Jews, the chosen of God. The priests almost erupt with indignation! "Who is this charlatan teacher to lecture us on truth?!" So sure are these upholders of institutional religion of their position, so secure are they about their spiritual ancestry, so single-minded are they in their interpretation of what is truth, they are literally incapable of seeing and hearing truth when it stands before them. They cannot conceive that their very religion is blinding them to truth. (There may be some uncomfortable parallels for today's dogmatic fundamentalists?)

This is the point at which this morning's Gospel brings us in to try and pick up the threads of the debate, as we hear Jesus' challenge: "Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell you the truth why do you not believe me? Surely whoever is from God is able to hear the words of God? The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God!"

Priests, scholars, strict observers of the Law, told they are not from God?! Stunned, they lash out with a racist jibe calling Jesus a despised Samaritan, and accuse him of having a demon. As it becomes obvious that they are losing ground, so they find themselves reduced to personal attack; they are now fighting to save face, dignity and reputation.

But why does the Gospel writer give so much space and time to the recording of this rather unedifying religious scrap? What does it all amount to? Today is the 5th Sunday in Lent, known as Passion Sunday. Next Sunday, Palm Sunday we begin Holy Week. What this morning's Gospel gives us, is a cameo of some of the key issues which brought to a head the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities who eventually put him to death.

And while the details of the argument at a superficial hearing may seem pretty remote, they actually touch on some crucial elements of faith for all of us:

First: do you know how to recognise truth when you hear it or see it? Do you just rely on your particular inherited tradition? How much does your real life experience inform your understanding? Do you make truth your own? Does truth really set you free? Does it open your eyes? expand your horizons? enable you to explore, and discover new insights? Or is it something you hide behind - a bulwark to protect you from the new and unfamiliar?

Second: Another of the issues which threw Jesus' interrogators on to the back foot was his puzzling assertion: "Whoever keeps my word will never see death." Now the Jewish leaders clearly thought Jesus was suggesting that those who followed his teachings would not experience physical death. Not so! The particular word for "see" used here means "pay special attention", or "give prime significance", to "have your sight so fixed" on death that you lose the capacity to live life to the full. What do you believe about death? Because what you believe about death will surely affect the way you live. It is in John's Gospel that we find what for me is one of the key sentences in the whole of scripture: 'Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness"'. The whole purpose of Jesus' coming among us was that through our faith in him we might be enabled to live life to the full, awake and sensitive to the heights and depths of human experience = all of it. Does your Christianity make you alive to that degree?

And third: the crucial question which proved a stumbling block for Jews of the 1st century, and is still a stumbling block for them, and many others in the 21st century: Who is Jesus?

The question as it appears in today's Gospel is: "Whom makest thou thyself? Who do you claim to be?" But of course Jesus makes no claim for himself. He doesn't make himself anything. All Jesus is, is of God. Jesus' relationship with the Father is one of intimate knowledge, total obedience, and unity of will and purpose = so much so that we call him Son of God, 'the image of the invisible God' the one in whom 'all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell' (Colossians 1.15, 19); 'in him the whole fullness of God dwells bodily' (Colossians 2.9).

That is what's behind that puzzling claim that Jesus makes towards the end of the passage: "Before Abraham was, I am". Throughout John's Gospel, the two words "I am" have very special significance when used by Jesus. They not only signify Jesus, who is speaking; they also refer back to that curious passage in the Book Exodus when God makes himself known to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God "What is your name?" God replies, "My name is 'I AM'" [? ? ? ? (YHWH) in the Hebrew]. In the incident in today's Gospel, the issue of identity with Abraham had come up yet again in the argument between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In making the astounding assertion "Before Abraham was, I am", Jesus was identifying himself with the holy name of God, asserting

6 identity with God, and thus claiming to be greater than Abraham. For those crowded round Jesus that day, it was crystal clear what a claim he was making. This for the Jews was the ultimate blasphemy, deserving of death by stoning.< br/>br/> In the unfinished temple courtyard, there were still blocks of stone and piles of rubble near at hand. The enraged Jewish leaders immediately pick up stones to deliver the appropriate punishment, but Jesus disappeared.
br/> This was the final straw. This Jesus had to be got rid of. From this moment on, he was a marked man. It was now only a matter of time. Throughout the remaining days of Lent those three questions will come up again and again as we follow the story of these last days in the life of Jesus, questions posed for the characters in the Passion narrative, but also for us,:
· How do you recognise truth?
· How do you see death?
· Who is Jesus for you?
How do you answer these questions? And do your answers make any difference in the way you live your life?
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