Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
There is and perhaps always has been a strange falling off and aversion to Lent the closer one comes to Good Friday. The fact of the matter is that the life of Christ –let alone His last days, does tend to make people rather uncomfortable. The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle most men in all ages. There is something about human nature that is resistant, refractory, and recalcitrant to God and His Word. Christ sensed this two thousand years ago, and He finds the same today. Which of you convicts me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) Faith seems to be the problem, and most people, it would appear, haven’t got it. And why is this so? Christ says that it is because most men are not of God. And by this He means that most human beings have no familiarity with God’s nature and true substance. The problem with the Pharisees, whom we read about in this morning’s Gospel, who were waiting for the Messiah’s First Coming and for those of us who are waiting for the Second Coming, is that we do not know God. And we do not know God because we are either carelessly deaf, of willfully resistant. We are deaf if we have stopped caring –mostly because we are drenched, drowned, saturated, and soaked in the pagan culture which surrounds us. We are resistant if we presume to have cut and pasted, custom fitted and suited God’s will for us in ritual acts and devotions that suit our own needs. In either case we are in danger of not knowing God and thus discovering His love and Passion for our salvation.
So we are very much like the Pharisees and Scribes of old, who consider what we hear from the heart of Jesus Christ to be alien to our religion and our notion of God. This morning, the Pharisees, bereft and devoid of any hint of evil by which to accuse and censure Jesus, attack Him. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) We, with the Pharisees, are bothered by superfluity of goodness, mercy, compassion, pity, and kindness that seem so natural and instinctive to Jesus. We are used to a measured goodness, calculated mercy, kindness that never threatens our creaturely comfort, and generosity that neither pinches nor cramps our spiritual space. And so we convince ourselves that we need neither hear nor embrace those parts of who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. We pardon, excuse, and justify our failure to follow Him on the intellectual or emotional grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of any reasonable service and bounden duty to God.
And, of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of our natural and instinctive potential! If who He says He is and what He asks were within the scope of human ability and expertise, well then we could save ourselves! So the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and so give Him in faith what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His the Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42) The Pharisees won’t and don’t believe because they think that he is possessed by the Devil. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. (St. John 8. 49-51) What Jesus carries and bears in Himself is beyond the reach and extension of any human effort, good work, doctrinal law, or ethical code. He makes it very clear that what He offers to the world He has heard and received from the Father, in order to honor, obey, and glorify the One who sent Him. He is on a Divine Mission and so He says, in another place, My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) And what He claims to do is no different from what God commanded Adam to do in the primordial Garden. Man was made to know and love God and to become a steward of the Creation. But, being mindful of his creaturely limitations, he knew that he could obey God’s Word and fulfill his vocation only through Divine Grace. But because the First Man fell through disobedience to God, a greater than Adam would be needed to restore, return, and reconcile man to God.
And here is where, I am afraid, our faith fails us. Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) So our human imagination and intellect snap and crack; our reason is assaulted and violated. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? …whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) With us the Pharisees so much as say, You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead, and their words have died with them. All human words die. And so we do not believe that your words lead to everlasting life.
This is the response of them for whom the eternal Word, spoken to the prophets and in the flesh that dwelt among us, is powerless and dead. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am. (St. John 8. 54-59) Christ the Word teaches us that both as a human being and as the Son of God, He never seeks His own glory and honor. He is what He receives from His Father. Human beings were made to become the sons and daughters of God through knowledge and love of Him. Man can rediscover the knowledge and love of God now only through One who perfectly knows and loves the Father. Christ’s knowledge of the Father informs and defines His whole being, meaning, and purpose. He is not separated from the eternal Word or wisdom that defines and moves the universe. And He is wholly united to the Word’s desire and passion to redeem and save all men through His unity with human nature. He claims to be that saving Word that Abraham heard and followed through promise, and that the prophets espied, detected, and pursued with a passion. Before Abraham was, I AM, Jesus says. I am the Word that was heard of old, is with you now, and promises to save all who believe and follow me. I am my Father’s Word and eternally-begotten Son. Will you follow me? If we are like the ancient Pharisees, being dead, we will try to drag Jesus down into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. (St. John viii. 59)
But Jesus is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will; His will is His Love; His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is His passion to bring all men to Himself, and He never counts the cost. Divine Love moves the universe and towards Himself at all times and in all places. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly pursues us until we become His own. His Love is that Passion which steadfastly suffers in love for all other people. His Love is that Passion which withstands all attempts to interrupt and quench the firey plan and purpose of God’s Love. His Passion and Desire waggled and whipped up Abraham into faith and hope in God’s Word for the salvation of the nations. That same Passion resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those Prophets whose souls heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…[eagerly longing] to come before the presence of [their] God. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is God’s Word as Passion made flesh, which will so love the world that He will lay down His life for those who with faith in God’s Grace will become the new sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in His determination to reveal God’s Passion and Love for us. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior, which means to suffer, endure, permit, or be acted upon. Today Jesus Christ suffers and endures a first rejection of His love and Passion for the salvation of the world. But, today, I hope that we shall not find ourselves on the side of the Pharisees who are always counting the cost, and thus casting those proverbial stones at Jesus to drive Him away because He will not worship the false gods of their foolhardy fancy. I hope, rather, that we are beginning to see and know that Jesus first came not to be loved but to love with that Love which can never be arrested, hindered, or impeded. I pray that we are starting to see that Jesus is the I am of God’s Love in the flesh, which will so love us that though sinful man will torture, silence, and finally kill Him in the body, His Passion and Desire for us will neither falter nor fail. In fact, I trust that we will come to see and know that because He loves us, He dies for us, and invites us into His death so that we too may die. Then I pray that having died, we all may be made alive through the Grace of His enduring Passion that lifts us up out of His ashes into that new life which He has been planning for us since the days of our Fall. Amen.