The Fitfth Sunday in Lent
The Gospel. St. John 8. 46.
At that time; Jesus said; Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words ; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God. Then answered the Jews, and said unto him : Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? Jesus answered : I have not a devil ; but I honor my Father, and ye do dishonor 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. Then said the Jews unto him : 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? And the Prophets are dead : whom makest thou thyself? Jesus answered : If I honor myself, my honor is nothing ; it is my Father that honoreth 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 ears old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them : Verily, verily, I say unto you : Before Abraham was, I AM. Then took they up stones to cast at him : but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.
When contemplating Holy Scripture we must remember that it is the unique record of God’s Self-Revelation. Every portion, every word, every syllable is inspired by God and is meant to teach us something about that Self-Revelation. And as we all know, God’s ultimate Revelation to humanity was in the form of His Holy Incarnation. In today’s passage from the eighth chapter of St. John’s Gospel Our Lord gives us yet another example of this Revelation.
Now this passage is a continuation of a rather long interaction between Our Lord and the Pharisees; I know, AGAIN with the Pharisees! Talk about an obtuse and arrogant bunch. Just prior to this scene Jesus had already stopped them from stoning Mary Magdalene; and not only had he refuted all their accusations about him, but he told them that they were basically fools and agents of the devil.
And yet still they continued to try to defy him; until finally Jesus turns the argument right round; He asks, no he challenges them; “Tell me, what sin have I committed? What evil? I have told you the Truth, but you still will not believe, because you are not of God”!
Now we can imagine that this declaration must have caused at least a moment of uncomfortable silence. After all, these Pharisees were supposed to have been the most pious, the most learned, the most devout Jews in all the land (though the Sadducees no doubt would have argued with that; of course, they were just as ungodly as the Pharisees). And here is this carpenter from Galilee telling these men of God that they were not of God?
Well, as you might have known, these guys immediately showed just how intelligent they were by resorting to the tactics of the weak-minded; they started by calling Jesus names. “Ah yes, poor boy, might we not be right to assume that you’re nothing more than a deranged servant of the devil”? Like that’s going to work with God Incarnate!
“Oh no”, Jesus says, ”it is not me that serves the devil. I honor God, and you dishonor Him; because I do not seek glory for myself, while you are all about personal glory”. Good luck with that.
Now here’s where Our Lord really starts to confuse these hi-falutin Pharisees; he tells them, “oh, and by the way, if you keep my words, you will never die”. This statement just blew the Pharisees away; “what do you mean, we will never die? EVERYONE dies! Even Abraham and the prophets died! Now you’re trying to tell us that all we have to do is do as you say and we’ll live forever? You think you’re greater than Abraham and the prophets? Now we know you’re crazy”!
It’s worth stopping at this point to ask if these guys were just trying to make Jesus mad or if they were really that stupid. Of course Our Lord is not talking about this physical existence. He is speaking about that life which is to come; the life that transcends this one; the life for which death has no meaning; the life for which he would offer the ultimate sacrifice; the Sacrifice of God.
And now Jesus continues on the offensive against these Pharisees; he tells them that his honor comes from God Himself, and he scornfully points out how they have failed to know God, even as they claimed to follow him. And more, Jesus claims a unique knowledge of God; such a knowledge that he could never do less than admit to it fully without being himself a liar. Think about that for a moment; how many of us have at some time denied knowing the truth of something even though we really did? Well what if it was impossible to deny?
Jesus could no more deny that he knew God than we can deny knowing ourselves. It was that level of intimacy; and it was also that level of obedience, an obedience that the Pharisees failed to show at every turn; 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.
So now we come to the really tremendous part; the knock-out punch in this verbal tussle. To this point, these supposedly learned Pharisees have repeatedly missed just what they have been told; they have refused to see, let alone accept, who they are dealing with here. They think that this itinerate backwoods preacher is just some nobody from Galilee; it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t echo the words of St. Nathanael, “can there any good thing come out of Nazareth”(John 1:46)? OK, time to release the bomb.
First, Jesus tells them; “you know Abraham, the one you call your father; well, he REJOICED to see my day”! Now this is very significant because the Jews of that time believed that Abraham, while he was still alive, had received a vision of the future and that he knew about the coming Messiah. When Jesus said that Abraham saw his day “and was glad”, he is telling the Pharisees and the Jews that he, Jesus, IS that Messiah!
These Pharisees and Jews should have known just exactly what Our Lord meant by this. The language he uses would not have been unfamiliar, particularly for those who claimed to be so pious, so knowledgeable, so well educated in the Law and the Jewish faith. And yet this claim by Jesus must have shocked them so much, that they couldn’t believe it; it was too much to think that any man would make such a claim for himself. No, he must have meant something else; he couldn’t have meant THAT!
And so, perhaps after a nervous chuckle or two, these guys do yet another stupid thing; they try to take Jesus’ words, literally, as if he had claimed to have actually been around during Abrahams’ time. “Yeah right, Abraham’s been dead for so many centuries, and you say that he saw you”? Only problem with this condescending little remark?; Jesus was talking literally. Time for the bomb to hit.
Verily, verily, I say unto you: Before Abraham was, I AM. There are two meanings for this statement from Our Lord; first,” Before Abraham was even born, I existed”. This is not a claim to great physical age. This is a statement of Christ’s pre-existent status. From the beginning there has never been a time when there was no Son of God. He existed with the Father and the Holy Ghost right from the start. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (John 1:1) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Logos, the Word of God, has always been. And there has never been a time, when he was not.
But of course, perhaps even more shocking to the Jews, was the second meaning of Jesus statement, “Before Abraham was, I AM“. I’m sure you’re heard this one before; from the 3rd chapter of Exodus, verses 13 and 14, “And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, what is his name? What shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, thus shalt thou say unto the Children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you”.
I AM THAT I AM. “and the Word was God… “Before Abraham was, I AM“. There could be no misunderstanding this; not even deliberately. Jesus had just put himself on equal footing with God; indeed he was claiming to be God. To this there was only one response for the pious Jew; this was blasphemy, and the penalty for blasphemy was death. But, of course, as we all know, the death of Jesus was not yet to come.
I began by telling you that this passage from St. John’s Gospel is a favorite of mine; what I haven’t yet told you was why. I see in this passage not only an example of the challenges that we must face if we are to maintain the Faith; but perhaps more importantly there exists here everything that we need to know to remain strong in that Faith.
Think about it, we who maintain the Faith are often ridiculed or derided by those who claim to know better; who hold to their own sort of piety; who think that they know their God, and that they know better than you. But through the Gospel of Christ we know God and we honor him. And we work to keep his sayings because we know that if we do we will never know death, because death will cease to have meaning for us.
And we know that this Eternal Life has been guaranteed by he who is himself Eternal. It is Our Lord who has revealed himself to us and has unequivocally and without doubt identified himself to us, for now and for all time; so that when someone asks us about who this Jesus was (whom makest thou thyself?) we may reply with all confidence that he is the Lord Our God; Verily, verily, I say unto you :Before Abraham was, I AM.