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 to God and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. Think about it. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. They don’t seem to be the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got it all figured out and they don’t need to know more. Or, they use arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fears of confronting themselves and then inconveniently finding God. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of the feeling that neither they or this life is really all that bad. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than a surrender, where the ideals of youthful inspiration to pursue greatness have long since vanished, since the norms and ideals that demand labor and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence would disrupt an adequately agreeable and comfortable life.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ meets all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness to the threat of God’s nearness. 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 contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Modern man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the nearness of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable. They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to wrong, a good opposed to evil, and an absolute that calls into question their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that 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. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with one who challenges our ideas or habits. Jesus of Nazareth calls all 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 merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Thus, we either ignore Him or kill Him in our hearts.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human 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 emblazoned out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. 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 and all other men worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. 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) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.
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 righteously indignant because we know that we shall die. 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 are any different.
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. 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 become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is now God’s Word Made Flesh. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. 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 ‘saying’ 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 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. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into unshakable hope. 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, 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 Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer to win our salvation. He calls us forward to be moved by the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will touch us and unsettle us. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us 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’
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons