“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him.
We are journeying with Jesus during Lent towards Jerusalem. It will end in the death of Jesus on the Cross. This morning there is a kind of sharpening of our focus on the results of that journey – a confrontation between the Truth and the lies Jesus has come to cut through. But also, some preparation we need to understand the why Christ’s Passion and Death is such a profound act, why it has such power.
Do you know what it is like to speak the truth and to get a strong angry reaction?
- If you are parents, you are no doubt used to it, if your children are enjoying playing or watching some show and are told it is time to go to bed…especially, strangely enough, if you can see that they are tired and need sleep.
- Or maybe it is with your family, when you make a decision they were not expecting, or with your community?
- Think about challenges made by people to powerful political systems? Think of Bonhoeffer or the many other martyrs to truth through the ages who have challenged powerful ideas destructive to life?
- What about when we are challenged, it can provoke a strong reaction in us? Is our anger because of an injustice to us that we are fighting or is it our lies that we do not want to give up?
This morning we are faced with an intensification of the conflict that Jesus brings by his teaching and ministry and his very person to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus is confronting the lies held by these teachers, and he wants to reveal the truth to them – it brings about a strong reaction. They picked up stones to throw at him.
What is it that made that made them so furious that they attempted to kill him with stones?
In the verses preceding today’s Gospel reading Jesus questions their core assumptions about their very identity. He says, “I know you are descendants of Abraham…but you are not the children of Abraham.” Why? Because they did not do what Abraham did. They have a carnally minded understanding of what it is to be Abraham’s children. To these leaders Jesus says they are not of God, but of the devil, because Jesus’ words do not find a place in them. It is hard to imagine a stronger challenge.
In today’s Gospel (St John 8:46-59) Jesus continues to provoke them – but we can only see this as a loving provocation, because Jesus is love Incarnate. He wants to draw out from them the poison, the lies, that are sadly governing their way of thinking, making them confused, the lies they have swallowed and that are leading them astray, and binding them in a kind of captivity.
- In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is challenging these teachers on their understanding of death:
Jesus says, If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death. The leaders respond, Now we know that you have a demon (in other words, that you are lying) Abraham died, as did the prophets.
Jesus reminds them that to die in the hope of the Saviour, to die having seen God’s promised salvation – is not to taste death. Your father Abraham (here he acknowledges a part of the truth – that they are descendants after the flesh, but that is not enough) Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.
What did Abraham see?
Abraham did not die before hearing the promise from God that through his descendant all nations would be blessed. Abraham he did not die before seeing his son Isaac, given through the promise of God, born miraculously to him in his old age, through whom the Messiah would be born. Abraham did not die before, in the most profound testing of his faith, seeing that God would provide the sacrifice, when he provided Abraham a ram caught in the thicket in place of Isaac his son, but that too pointed to the sacrifice of the Messiah. Abraham did not die before seeing in his mind God’s promise of a Messiah according to his flesh. Anyone who died before Jesus’ coming, but in hope of the Messiah, did not see death.
But when Jesus rose from death, God showed us that Jesus is indeed greater than our father and their father Abraham and all the prophets before. And each of us who die in the hope of our Saviour who has come, will not see death, but will pass through this world and into the next – we will not go to our graves in fear but in peace, we will not see death, but know only eternal life. [Martin Luther]
- Jesus is challenging the Jewish authorities on their understanding of the Law and its consequences.
Before today’s reading, he has healed on the Sabbath day – provoking the teachers by showing the spiritual meaning of the Law of the Sabbath – that it is made for this very thing – the healing of our souls by recalling us to rest in God and be remade. The Sabbath is a gift from God to help bring about our wholeness.
Jesus provoked them by his response to the woman caught in adultery – helping them to see that the moral Law leaves everyone condemned, deserving of death, and that everyone is in need of mercy and of a sacrifice sufficient. Though he does not speak in today’s Gospel about the insufficiency of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant, St Paul reminds us today (Hebrews 9:11-15) –
if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, (a kind of outward cleansing) how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience (a cleansing of us to the depths of our souls) from dead works (serving God out of fear or mere duty and not out of love) to serve the living God.
- Jesus is challenging these teachers of Israel most, in their wrong expectations about the Saviour – they assume a kind of earthly salvation through an earthly Messiah who will bring about some kind of political liberation of the people of Israel.
This final provocation is what leads them to being sure they should stone Jesus to death.
Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him.
Here is the hardest truth to accept. One that many in our world continue to be unable to accept. When Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am,” these teachers knew immediately what Jesus is saying about himself and what he is referring to. In Exodus, when Moses is called by God to return to Egypt to liberate the people of Israel, Moses questions God:
Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [Ex 3:13-14]
When Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I am,” he is saying that He is God in the flesh.
How many in this world, can accept the wise sayings of Jesus, can accept that he is someone to listen to for advice, but hold back at the claims that God has come to us in Jesus Christ? Those who would deny his divinity, would cover over the truth – in a sense, put Jesus to death in their minds. That God should become a man, in this person and no other, in this time, in this place, is called the “scandal of particularity” [that Jesus Christ should be the Saviour of all people].
But if Jesus is not God, His sacrifice on the Cross is like other martyrs to the truth – how is he different from Socrates, who died for the truth in Athens; how is he different from the great saints or political leaders through the ages who have given up their lives for their people? How is Jesus different from other wise teachers through the ages: Buddha or Mohammed or Zoroaster or Laozi or Confucius?
The very unveiling on the Cross of the power and majesty and depths of the love of God is dependent upon who we understand Jesus to be. What happens in the coming two weeks as we look at the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ is dependent upon our trusting in Jesus’ full divinity and his perfect [sinless] humanity to be our mediator of the New Covenant.
It is fair to say we can hardly get our minds around this, it is a continual challenge to us at a deep level.
It is this power and this majesty and this overwhelming love of God that we remember and are nurtured by today in the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood. Here is the perfect mediation that is possible, here by faith we can partake of the Divine Nature to break through all the lies that bind us at the very core of our being. Here we know forgiveness and new life, we in God and God in us. Amen.