Passion Sunday – Before Abraham was, I am

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.[1]

Anthony Bloom was a doctor who later became a bishop. He was born to a Russian family just before outbreak of WWI. After the Russian Revolution, they had to flee Iran, and eventually settled in Paris, part of a significant Russian émigré community there.

Looking back to a life-changing event in his teens he said: “I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of him. I was found; I did not find him.”

As a doctor and a surgeon he served during WWII first with the French army and then with the French resistance. He later became a priest and then a bishop overseeing the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland, but he continued to be a doctor of the soul. Perhaps it was the vividness of his own sense of encounter with Christ as a teen-ager which led him to have a special interest in youth work.  In the Russian Orthodox Church, children can come to private confession when they are quite young. This led to some problems of which Bp Anthony was aware, and which cast light on our readings today:

Bp Anthony described having children come to him for confession, and listing  ‘a certain number of “sins” in inverted commas, that is sins of which they should accuse themselves. And having listened to the tone of their voice [he] would say, “Tell me, do you really feel bad about it?” “No.” “Why did you confess all these things?” “Well, that’s the list which Mummy gave me. That’s the sins she is displeased with me about.”

‘That is a disaster because first of all it blurs for the child the sense of what is truly right and wrong – because the fact that the parents dislike this and that, expect this or that does not prove that it is right or wrong at all.’

As a parent, I found this a bit unsettling – does it mean that when I am irritated by something, I cannot assume that it is for the right reasons? You see the problem.

How can we see more clearly? When Anthony Bloom talked to young children who came to him for confession, he did ask not ask them to reflect on how they broke the 10 commandments. This is what he wrote:

‘The first question I would ask is, “Do you know anything about Christ? …  if the child says, “Yes, I do know something about Christ,” I would say, “Do you like him? If you met him, would you choose to be friends?” If the child says, “Yes, I like him, I would make friends,” then he knew that he had a way in, and he would ask him about this friendship [with Christ], about what the child knows about what our Lord like and dislikes.”

And here, the questions which Bloom asked  to children are not unlike the ones which are addressed by our Lord in the Gospel today.  The Gospel invites us to join in the conversation that our Lord is having with the people of Jerusalem, his conversation with the ones who were serious enough to go to the Temple.  The conversation is all about who Jesus is, and the conversation asks us the kind of questions with Anthony Bloom asked the children who came to him:

“Do you know anything about Christ?” “Do you like him? If you met him, would you choose to be friends?”

The religious seekers with whom our Lord is speaking in Jerusalem in the Gospel for today do not seem to know him at all. They mean to insult him by calling him a Samaritan, one with a mixed up religion. They even accuse him of being possessed by a devil. In the verses before the lesson, OBL speaking of to them of Abraham, and their relation to Abraham. This leads to discussion in Gospel about Abraham, and our Lord makes the surprising statement the Abraham rejoiced to see his day.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Armenian Gospel, c. 1455.

This is one of the many puzzles in this passage, and the passage does not give us a clear answer: In the early Church, some thought that Abraham encountered Christ when he welcomed the three angels with Sarah at the oak of Mamre, that one was a special appearance, a theophany, of the Saviour who would later visit His people [Greg Grt]. Others, that when Abraham sacrificed Isaac, he saw in the ram which God provided in place of Isaac a foreshadowing of Christ [Aug]. Or, that ‘In Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham saw the day of humiliation of the promised seed, the son; in his receiving him back from death, the victory over the grave’ [Pusey][2]

So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  [What could He answer? Abraham, they all knew, had been dead for a thousand years]

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.[3]

They pick up stones to kill him. Why this strong reaction? What has Christ done to deserve being killed by stoning? In his answer, Christ makes an extraordinary claim. He not only says that he existed before Abraham, but He claims to be Abraham’s creator, the creator of all that is, nothing less than the God whose name is so sacred that the Jews of his day would not even use it.

When he says that before Abraham was, I AM, Christ gives to Himself the same name that the Lord gave to Moses.    You remember, when Moses meets the Lord at the Burning Bush, the Lord charges Moses to return to Egypt and to save his people who have become slaves. Moses insists that he needs to know God’s name, Unless He knows the name of God, the people of Israel will not believe him.

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.’”.[4]

Anthony Bloom’s question to the young who came to him was: Do you know anything about Jesus? If you met him, would you want to be his friend?

The answer which we find in the name which the Lord gives to Moses, and which the Lord Jesus makes his own, this answer seems as much a puzzle as an answer. He is the self-existing one, the one Eternal Cause of all things, Who ever shall be what He is.[5]  Do we know Jesus? Of course we do, that knowing is part of the loving which brings us here to worship and to say our prayers. And yet, in that name, we know that what we know is the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of a journey, a door into a vast mansion, a sacrament, an outward sign of something with an infinite and eternal depth. There is revelation, but there is also a mystery, something hidden, and that hiddenness is an important part of the revelation.

This Sunday called Passion Sunday because in these last two weeks of Lent we fix attention on the Passion of our Lord. But to appreciate the passion, to enter into the mystery of the Passion, we need to be clear that we are not simply spectators of a particularly brutal death, not even just spectators of a particularly good act of self-sacrifice. What leads to the Passion, what makes the Passion both horrible and a gift,  the promise of salvation, is the identity of the one who suffers. Do we know who Jesus is?[6]

[7]Why are many of the most religious people of Jesus day so wrong about who He is? It seems that what they knew about God did not open the door to help them to recognize Jesus, but it closed the door. This is also a warning to us.

To appreciate the events which we will celebrate and commemorate in this next two weeks, we need to be aware of the danger of too small an idea of who God is, of who our Saviour is.  The Gospels not only describe the man Jesus suffering, but they also invite us to recognize God whose wisdom, Goodness, and love smashes all our idols, all our small ideas about Who He is, and what he will do for us.[8]

Do we know Jesus? of course we do, that is why we are here. But what we know is only a beginning. We are still, like the disciples and the blind man we met on the Sunday before Lent, we are still in some way blind. Our Saviour will show us a love and a wisdom beyond our wildest dreams, a love which reaches to the depths of our souls, which embraces the sufferings of the world,  more than we can ask or imagine. Let us give us any smallness in our ideas about God so that we can receive with joy what He will show us.



[1] John 8.58-9
[2] Pusey, Lectures: In Isaac’s sacrifice Abraham saw the day of humiliation of the promised seed; in his receiving him back from death, the victory over the grave; yet this, though perfecting the work of our redemption was not yet the “day of the Lord” the day of His final glory, and His coming power.  The “days of the Son of Man” (Lk. 17, 22) are not yet His “day”.  It may there be more faithful to Holy Scripture, to infer that Abraham saw not our Lord’s work of redeeming love only, but that also, which the saints of the New Testament look and long for, the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour. For why should we shrink back faint-hearted from the thought that God revealed so much to “His friend” of whom He said “Shall I hide from Abraham the thing, which I shall do?”  [This following comes from Aug, on John, Tract. XLIII, 16, Vol 7 Nicene Fathers, p 244]”He saw and was glad,” says St. Augustine, “Who can explain this gladness?  If they were gladdened, whose fleshly eyes the Lord opened, what was his joy who with the eyes of the heart saw the ineffable Light, the abiding Word, the brightness shining on pious souls, Wisdom unfailing, God abiding with the Father, hereafter to come in the flesh, nor yet leave the bosom of the Father?  All this Abraham saw.  For when He says “thy day”, it is not expressed, whether he saw the day of our Lord in time, when He should come in the flesh, or the day of the Lord, which knows neither dawn nor setting.[2]  I doubt not that father Abraham knew the whole.  And where shall I find it?  Ought not the testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ to suffice us?  Suppose we cannot find (as it may be difficult) how it appears Abraham rejoiced that he should see the day of Christ, and saw it, and was glad.  Yet if we find it not, can the Truth lie?  Let us believe the truth and doubt not of the well-earned privileges (meritus) of Abraham.  It may be that we know not where this was; that we know not one of the thoughts of the friend of God; and that when our eyes are holden, he saw the Invisible in His glory.
[3] 8.58-9
[4] Exodus 3. 14
[5] This title, I am that I am is the source of the holy name of God in the OT, Yahweh.  This name Yahweh was so sacred, that Jews did not read it, but substituted the name, the Lord, Adonai.  Following this tradition, most English bibles give the name “The LORD” as the Holy Name in the Old Testament.   This custom was the origin of the name Jehovah, which combined the Hebrew Letters for the Lord, J – H – W or V – H, with the vowels of the Jewish name for the Lord, Adoniai.
What this means is that when Jesus told the Jews  before Abraham was, I am, he was using the language for the name of God and applying it to himself. He does not say here, I am the light of the world, I am the bread of life, I am the Good Shepherd, but simply, I am, and they would have heard:  I am that I am, the Holy Name of God.  This is way the Jews picked up stones to stone him. He had just declared, and a way which clear to them, that He is the pre-existing one, the one who called himself I Am to Moses.  Our Lord applied the Holy name to Himself.  It is because he does, because he reveals His identity, that the Jews turn against Him.
[6] Remember where journey to cross begins. Back on Sunday before Lent, behold we go up, disciples don’t understand, blind: blind to the Love of God which was subject of Ep on that same Sunday, Love which endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things is the destination. However many times we make the journey, our eyes are still in someway closed. What God wishes to reveal and to give is beyond all our asking and imagining. If we don’t know that, we are like children with hands closed. We know God, made journey, creeds are essential, guides essential, lead us on the way. And yet, God is beyond our capturing, need to be ready to have our understanding stretched: I am who I am, not just the biggest kind of creature we know, but a being of a different kind, darkness as well as light.
[7] More than decade ago, Mel Gibson produced the film the Passion. The graphic detail of the film confronts with the viewer with the awful sufferings of Christ, and with the brutality and viciousness of his captors. But here the detail of the film can also cause a problem.  We are not saved because Jesus suffers in a particular horrible way.  We are saved because the one who suffers is the I AM who sent Moses, the I AM who is the creator of all that is, God of God, light of Light.  And it is especially important that we know this.
[8] Mel Gibson has an important cameo in the movie-holding nail in hand of Christ. He is guilty. He sees that his sins are an offence to friendship of Christ-but that is not possible to see those offences first. First, we must know something of who the Saviour is. Not simply a great teacher, a great moral example, but the one who says, before Abraham was, I am’

One Comment

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *