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 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. The majority of men in our own time 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. Or he or she is using arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fear of confronting themselves and then necessarily finding God. If such a person goes on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves him, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of feeling. If it feels good, and I do it, it must be authentic and morally good. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than an adolescent approach to reality, where the ideal of adult behavior has long since vanished, since adult behavior would testify of norms and ideals, which our society has deemed hurtful.
Of course, Jesus Christ meets all opposition to God’s 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, who have stopped caring about Jesus Christ because they are drenched, drowned, saturated, and soaked in the pagan culture which envelopes and enables them, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. They have become habituated and hardened to a new religious dogma whose benefits demand that they have a spiritual right to feel good, and do whatsoever pleases them. With Christ, they find a real enemy of their secular religion, and thus soon become they become the new Pharisees. What is threatened is their supposed freedom. In Christ and His religion they fear only what will enslave and oppress them to the shackles that impede their progress. 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, and forever binding upon their consciences. Who and what they fear most is Christ.
So they are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find Jesus Christ who questions their religion and the gods whom they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradictory of our ways and mores we fear. That we might be questioned about our choices and customs might irritate or enrage us. Jesus of Nazareth calls most of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He irritates us merely, 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. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him.
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 are irritated because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage is enkindled when He challenges their reliance on a Law that cannot save them. 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 their arrogance stands only to make them 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.
We are irritated and might become enraged. Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are offended because He challenges us to imagine something beyond our frail powers. 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 mean: 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 their words are as dead as they. 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. (St. John 8. 54-58) 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 communicates to the world as the Word made flesh is God’s love for His people and passion for their salvation. Christ discloses also that His Father has always intended to save and deliver His people. Christ keeps the Father’s saying because it is the power of love that through Him will save all men. 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, the same saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation and the life with God that never ends. 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, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into 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 longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This is the passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and 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 ancient souls who 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 and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, Christ calls us into a vison of His suffering love. He calls us also to overcome our prideful irritation and arrogant rage with a humble desire for the love that He brings. Our first opening to His passion will not feel good. He comes near to us. If we are humble enough, His approach will challenge and shake us. If we remain with Him, He will begin to smite and wound us. If we persevere with Him up to His Cross, we shall be smitten and wounded by His suffering death. So let us consider Christ’s approach and with Henry Vaughn gaze with awe upon the 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.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’)
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St. Michael and All Angels Sermons