(Hebrews 9.11-15 & John 8.46-end – BCP Lectionary)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Today marks Passion Sunday, beginning the last two weeks of Lent when we become much more focused on the events that led up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It’s easy to get distracted by all the preparations, inviting family for Easter Sunday lunch, or perhaps planning to go away a holiday. Passiontide gives us a renewed focus on what truly matters – Jesus. In our Gospel reading, John makes sure that we are entirely clear about the true nature of Jesus. Because once we have that in our minds, then the events of Holy Week, leading to the cross and the empty tomb, will have an even greater impact, as the true depth of what happened in those few days becomes clear to us.
Today we listened to how Jesus taught about glory, death and the fate of the prophets. As is so often the case, with hindsight we know what he is speaking about, but to his contemporary listeners it was much more opaque, and they become stuck in the literal detail. Jesus told them that his hour was going to come, that the work he would do would save anyone who believed in him, and that Abraham, the great Patriarch, would have known it. Instead of realising that they are being shown the glory of the cosmic Christ, the one who has always been and always will be, his listeners could only think in terms of linear time. So they ended up arguing against him, questioning how Abraham and Jesus could possibly know each other? They live hundreds of years apart! What he says makes no sense!
And then Jesus says something which completely changes the tone of the conversation. He says ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’ The response of those listening to him was extreme. They picked up rocks, ready to stone him to death for blasphemy.
Now it may have become suddenly clear to the crowd what Jesus was talking about, but you may be wondering where this extreme reaction comes from.
It is the words ‘I am’, in Greek ego eimi.
In the Gospels of John, there are seven ‘I am’ sayings – I am the bread of life, the vine, the good shepherd, and so on. In addition, Jesus said it in today’s passage and was threatened with stoning. And at his arrest, John recorded Jesus asking the guards who they were looking for, and when they said ‘Jesus the Nazarene’, again he replies ‘I am he’. The Greek is the same, ego eimi, I am. The guards in response didn’t immediately arrest him, but instead they moved backwards and fell to the ground. Again, why this strange physical reaction?
Well, the ‘I Am’ sayings that litter the Gospel of John have a resonance with God’s revelation of himself, most often linked to God’s self-identification to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.13-14). When Moses asked God what is his name, God replies ‘I am who I am.’
So John’s use of ‘I am’ reminds us that Jesus was not just a good man, and a powerful teacher. He is the Word of God made flesh. For the Jews listening to him who were hoping for the Messiah, a great political leader to rise up and save them from the Roman oppressors, it would have a huge shock to hear that God himself had turned up. The responses are understandable – shock, denial, anger, rejection.
And what happens next leads us to the tradition that from Passion Sunday we veil the crosses and statues in church. When the people took up stones to throw at him, “Jesus hid himself.” (John 8.59)
This veiling of the cross can jar us, and make us feel uncomfortable. And that’s partly its purpose. It can make us think more intentionally about the last special weeks, and prompts us to think about our faith and our relationship with Jesus. Perhaps over time we have become used to the symbols in our churches, and the Gospel has grown familiar. Do we no longer truly see what is in front of us? Do we take the beauty for granted, and even more worryingly, do we take what they represent for granted – the merciful love of God poured out for on the Cross?
Let us be shocked, unnerved, uncomfortable by what Jesus says and by this momentary veiling of the cross, so that we can look afresh and with more longing. And perhaps suddenly God will reveal himself in new and surprising ways…