“Who do you claim to be?”
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
I find myself routinely struck by John’s almost continual emphasis on who Jesus is—a matter of identity so central not only to Jesus’ earthly ministry, teaching, and subsequent rejection, but also to our very lives and identities as people of God. And our pilgrimage of conversion, I think it’s fair to say, ultimately depends on this question of identity—of our identity, not as defined for us by the worldly clamor for competing creaturely goodness, or our traditions, our nationalities, or our social standing, but as a reflection of the image of the One who desires for us nothing less than a share of the Divine Wholeness.
From In the beginning was the Word, to the final admission that the author cannot possibly contain the importance of Jesus’ appearance in one volume, John’s Gospel narrates us into a salvation that depends upon our truthful recognition of who Jesus—and, ultimately, the One whom he calls “Father”—is.
This morning we hear an episode that distills this question for us, and reminds us of what happens when we take something good—our tradition, our learning, our piety, and even our own sense of who we are—and we mistake it for the only One who is ultimate, namely, God.
Jesus and the crowd become entangled in a discussion turned acrimonious and poised for violence; something not unfamiliar to us I suspect. Just before we come on the scene this morning, the question arises: what freedom can this Jesus invest us with that we don’t already have through Abraham? This is, admittedly, a question I used to ask myself in a different form; why does Jesus need to save me? I have some sympathy for the crowd here.
“Do what you have heard from the Father,” Jesus tells them.
“Abraham is our Father,” they reply, as we heard yesterday.
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
Before Abraham was I AM.
Although biblical scholars note that this scene evidences the author of the gospel’s concern about frictions and controversies between the Johannine community and the first century synagogue with which it must surely have been in close relationship, I have to wonder if this text might also speak to tensions we all experience as we walk with the One who will author our conversion of life.
Idolatry, notes Tim Keller, is the act of taking something good—something created and given by God (in God’s charity, I’ll add)—and turning it into an ultimate or the ultimate thing. The age-old and scripturally attested temptation of the human heart is to make the created thing into a god—into our very ultimate desire, the plumb line of our moral horizons, and the ground of any meaning we make or allow ourselves to make. This is by no means limited to material phenomena, and I think seldom ever is in the thick reality of things. Our hopes, our fears; our love and our hate; our very world view and all the claims made upon our identity: all of these immaterial yet concrete dimensions of our life, unless they ultimately find their source in God’s scandalous charity, unless they grow by that light in truthful recognition of their undeniable contingency, we mistake the gift for the giver.
Yet, before any of our hoping, fearing, loving, and hating; before our minds are shaped by so many intersecting and conflicting readings of the world; and before any claims made upon our identity, God’s love is, and with it, God’s abiding intimate knowledge of each of us.
Our Lord knows well the weight with which our idols burden our hearts—the fear that without this one ultimate thing, there may be no reason to press on. But Christ has surely already met us there. Even the undeniable love of his disciples, his family, and indeed his Heavenly Father, could not change the course of the events we will begin to remember this Sunday, and in the days of Holy Week. Yet such abandonment does not dampen the flame of love in our Lord’s Sacred Heart as he bears with his Body the full dissonance between worldly claims to power and goodness grounded in something mistaken for God on the one hand, and the loving charity of God’s ways on the other.
I pray that as we follow Our Lord in the days to come, we may pray to behold Him as He is, that we may see God’s gifts to us as the good creatures they are, and that the ultimate desire of our hearts may be to come before Christ and to know him even as he has, from before Abraham, known us. Amen.
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