Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
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. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or haughtily. Think about it. How many of you have heard a person say, I am spiritual but not religious. What that usually means is that he or she isn’t in the least bit interested in the intellectual pursuit of God, and is, rather, smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently he’s got it all figured out and he doesn’t need to know more. If he goes on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves him, one soon learns that it amounts to nothing more than if it feels good, do it. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than adolescence write large onto the big screen of Western life, where the actors refuse to grow up and in which the success of the production depends upon the perfection of their immaturity.
Of course, Jesus meets all opposition to His visitation then and now with the words that read in this morning’s Gospel. 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) To be fair to post-modern nihilists, they have stopped caring about Jesus Christ because they are drenched, drowned, saturated, and soaked in the pagan culture which envelopes and enables them. But should their spiritual right to feel good, and do whatsoever pleases them be threatened by anything like Christ, they soon become the new Pharisees. They believe that freedom from the perceived threat of a Christianity that they think has only enslaved and oppressed the world, must be put down at all costs. What threatens them most is that there might just be one form of goodness and truth that is absolute and not relative, true and not false, right and not wrong. Who and what they fear most is Jesus.
So they are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find Jesus Christ to be alien to their religion and their worship of false gods. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness they must jump to condemnation and censure of it in God’s good world. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) Are we not correct in thinking that so much of Jesus Christ’s nature is alien, strange, foreign, and just too bizarre to command our allegiance and following? Are we not justified in feeling uncomfortable and irritated with so much of what Jesus said and did? And must that not mean that the problem is not with us but Him? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not hear and bear who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. 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 common sense.
And, of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of what most mortal men think makes sense! If who He says He is was within the scope of human intelligent creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so they condemn Him as demon-possessed. 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. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that pride and arrogance stand only to make a man not better but worse. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) What He will offer is something that the world has never before experienced in quite this way.
For it challenges our faith. Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to belief exceeds our wildest imagination. Our minds protest that He has gone too far. 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? (St. John viii. 52-53) 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. Indeed the words that they spoke, like those that you speak, die. And so we cannot believe that your words will ensure our everlasting life.
This is the response of all men who conclude that God’s transcendent Word was dead to Abraham. 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 human life is made by God to be blessed, honored, transformed, and perfected by the indwelling Word of God’s love. What He reveals and communicates throughout His life is the passionate love of the Father for His people. Christ discloses also that His Father’s intention to save and deliver His lost sheep has never waned or abated. Christ keeps the Father’s saying because He never ceases to communicate the Father’s love for us in His flesh. The Father’s saying is the Word of love that moves and enlivens the whole of the universe. The Father’s saying is the Word of love that longs for His people in the life of His Son. This is the same unchanging Word of God that became flesh in Abraham’s heart, as faith and hope in the future coming of Christ were made alive to him. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s eternally-begotten Word of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, we will try to envelope Jesus with our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that will bring all men to Himself because He does not count the cost. God’s Love is as broad as the universe and runs as deep as the human heart of Jesus Christ. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion. This is the Passion that stirred Abraham to hope for the salvation of the nations through God’s Word. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those in ancient times whose souls heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
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, or even to be hurt or wounded. On this Passion Sunday Christ calls us into a vison of His suffering love. He calls us also to begin to become vulnerable enough for His love to wound us. Such an experience will not, of course, feel good. For true love to come alive a man, he must be smitten and wounded. Jesus is smitten and wounded because of His love for us. If we journey up to His Cross to behold His dying love, we shall be smitten and wounded also. So let us thither ascend and with the poet muse with wonder and awe upon Christ’s love that dies to smite and wound us into a death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons