Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings
The Times newspaper published an editorial on 9th May criticising the Church of England archbishops and bishops for closing down its churches. Vicars were not even allowed to enter their sanctuaries to pray or broadcast internet services from church buildings. People in general were not allowed to enter churches to pray. The newspaper said ‘the Church of England has been shockingly absent’. The Times described Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘lacklustre’ and underwhelming’. It wrote ‘our national primate has barely been heard from. His poor performance will resonate with a lot of people’. The editorial suggested that the church should not wait for government permission to open up again. A Times columnist echoed this view on 16th May. Matthew Parris wrote of the Church, ‘Its leaders, from Dr Welby down, have been feeble. They should have fought for everyone’s right to enter a tranquil and beautiful place of worship to pray or meditate alone. Social distancing was always possible. The church has let down the laity’.
Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford and soon to become the next Archbishop of York replied to the initial criticisms that the Church has been invisible during the Coronavirus crisis. He wrote, ‘With regard to the main charge – the Church’s absence – I simply do not recognise it. The Church of England has been astonishingly present, albeit in many new and remarkable ways’. He instanced food distribution, work with asylum seekers, telephone prayer lines, Zoom Bible studies, YouTube school assemblies and streamed services.
In Scotland, there has been great silence from the Church of Scotland. Nothing prophetic nor pastoral has made the headlines. It is true that neither The Herald nor The Scotsman give as much space to Christian issues as do The Times and The Telegraph. It is almost impossible to have a specifically Christian article published in these newspapers. They do allow letters on Christian perspectives from time to time. BBC Scotland television has had ‘Reflections’ on Sunday mornings, programmes of Christian fireside chats, hymns and songs. There is always ‘Songs of Praise’. Many Church of Scotland congregations have got to grips with internet broadcasting and have reported that lots of people who do not come to church have been viewing these week by week. Food banks and other good works have been organised.
Yet something has been missing, not only for this time of Coronavirus but from the nation for many years. It is Proclamation. People are not hearing conviction, explanation, teaching, challenge, call, invitation to Jesus Christ, to God in Jesus Christ, to God through the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. The churches seek credibility in second commandment witness to love our neighbours as ourselves. We live in a hostile anti-Christian culture. What we visibly contribute to the betterment of society is for some our only justification and vindication. It is not God or our faith in God. It is not the first commandment. It is not the kernel of the Gospel. It is not proclamation.
Jesus is usually portrayed for and by his humanity; His good works, his healings, his befriending of outcastes, his egalitarian teaching, his criticisms of the powers that were in his time. Jesus is regarded as a good example for everyone to live by. His poverty, humility, suffering and unjust dying place our own human as struggles in proper context. His life is a commentary on the human condition and it is not all pleasant and pretty. Indeed what happened to Jesus highlights the worst of human choice and action. But he did not meet his end for the good works that he did. He was done away with because of his proclamation of who he was. There are sufficient examples of this in the four Gospels but this proclamation is most easily recognisable in the ‘I am’ sayings found in John’s Gospel.
People are suspicious of anyone in any culture in any age who makes claims for himself or herself. King Louis XIV of France reputedly replied in answer to a question about the relationship between the king and the state, ‘I am the state’. Some will remember the great boxer Cassius Clay later called Muhammad Ali who often opined ‘I am the greatest’. Large egos exist at humbler levels of society also. I worked on building sites during the summer holidays while I was a student. I remember one fellow labourer beginning each day with the invocation. ‘I am Rance Corbett – there is no-one like me’. Women have substantial egos too. Some opera and pop divas make ridiculous demands. Beyonce for example orders that all her crew members have to wear 100% cotton, that alkaline water must be chilled to 21 degrees and served with $900 titanium straws, that bathrooms must have new toilet seats and red toilet paper at every venue and that hand-carved ice balls should be made after each show to cool her throat. In the large normality many women expect family life to revolve around them from generation to generation while husbands and fathers are subdued and sometimes excluded.
Jesus ego proclamations are unsurpassed in the depth and purpose of their claims. They are unique and unqualified. They demand our attention for themselves and because we live in a time devoid of Christian proclamation in the public arenas of our land. The Old Testament context is Exodus 3:14 where God replies to Moses’ question as to what is God’s name. “God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Jesus makes the connection in John 8:58 “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”. This is a clear proclamation to be God incarnate. Jesus’ antagonists understood this well because they took up stones to throw at him (John 8:59).
In John’s Gospel there are seven ‘I am’ sayings.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
“I am the light of the world; whoever follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12
“I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, they shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in Me shall live even if they die.” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine dresser.” John 15:1
Let us look briefly at these in turn. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger.”John 6:35 This is an extraordinary statement for anyone on earth to make. It was proclaimed in public after the feeding of the 5000. Bread is the staple diet of nearly every human being throughout the world. It was in Jesus’ time. Jesus does not say that he is the cake of life, or the biscuits of life, the ice-cream of life or the steak pie of life. Just plain simple bread. Not even pan loaf. Jesus is the basic substance of life and living totally connected to the original power of creation, Our Maker. The life he means is not just existence but life based in relationship to God, eternal life, here and hereafter. It cannot fail.
“I am the light of the world; whoever follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12 This saying was proclaimed to the people in the close presence of Jesus’ opponents. It means spiritual light, moral light, values rooted in the life of God. The contrast is with the darkness of human souls at their worst, our terrible behaviour, dastdardly deeds, crime and violence. The presumption here is that spiritual people live by light. The Buddha claimed himself to be ‘the enlightened one’. The Italian Renaissance based in Florence under the Medici, Lorenzo in particular, was thought to be a great contrast to the so-called dark ages which had preceded. The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century likewise was considered to be a graduation out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of human intellectual understanding. For some that meant leaving behind belief in God. But Jesus is the brightest guiding light of all humanity for all time. His resurrection is the only light that eradicates the darkness of death. He alone did this. He is the light of the world.
“I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, they shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9 This was proclaimed in the presence of some Pharisees. Jesus was here most likely comparing himself with the false messiah characters of recent past Jewish history. Since the successful Maccabean revolt of 167 BC there had been many Jewish insurgents and guerilla groups fighting against their various colonial overlords. Barabbas, who was exchanged for Jesus at his trial, was probably one of them. That might explain why the people called for his release. At least he had put up a fight. To them Jesus had just caved in, surrendered, given up, failed utterly in contrast to his claims about himself. Throughout Christian history there have been many false alternatives to Jesus. Mohammad is the most obvious one. But in America in recent times there have been leaders of sects who claimed to be rivals of Jesus. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science and Charles Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were three among others. In our own lifetimes we have seen cults led by James Jones and David Koresh both of which ended in mass suicides. Jesus is the only true recognisable way to the Father to eternal safety and security, to his protection and salvation. Others talk of God with whatever name, distant, remote, separate from us. Jesus alone is the gate to the Father, intimate, immediate, real.
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11 This was also proclaimed to the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. Shepherding was not a glamorous job in Jesus’ time. It was a dangerous and somewhat anti-social occupation. Wild animals and thieves threatened flocks. Good pasture was hard to come by in the rocky terrain of Palestine. Occasionally a shepherd would forfeit his life in defence of his sheep. Jesus identifies himself with this selfless conduct. But there is much more to this metaphor. Unlike military leaders who use, exploit, sacrifice and squander soldiers in warfare while saving themselves, Jesus offers himself up. Unlike political leaders who order armies into battle knowing that death and injury awaits them, while living comfortably enough with the consequences, Jesus does not treat his followers in that way. He is the good shepherd. He genuinely cares for and loves his sheep and gives himself for them. We are his sheep and it is for us that he sacrificed his life on earth.
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in Me shall live even if they die.” John 11:25 This was proclaimed to Martha and the mourners who had assembled at hers and Mary’s house after the death of Lazarus and before Jesus had brought him back to life. Jesus proclaims Himself to be God incarnate, our Maker and Creator, the author of life in all its forms beyond our sight and understanding. There is no greater power that we humans may know than resurrection. Christianity is based on resurrection. It answers all humanity’s questions about our life and living, our temporality, our dying and our destiny thereafter. Jesus reveals the fact of resurrection before his own. He resuscitated Lazarus but he himself was resurrected. Lazarus came back to this life and later died naturally. Jesus never came fully back to this life and did not die again. To make such a claim, such a proclamation was indeed to proclaim divinity.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6 This was not a public proclamation but part of Jesus’ farewell discourses to his disciples. The audience this time was in private. Jesus alone is the way to the Father, the way to understanding God as Father, the way to personal relationship with God as Father. The gap between humans and God was closed. Jesus used the term ‘Abba’ in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Paul understood the same intimacy. We cry ‘Abba’ Father’(Romans 8:15). It means ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’. No other faith or philosophy offers this one to one relationship with God. Truth is a rare phenomenon in human society. Jesus is the truth about our human condition because he suffered for being here among us and died at our hand. We are treated with lies in everyday life and we ourselves tell lies. Untruthfulness is our character and our behaviour. In all your daily chat and gossip, what do you say that is actually true?Jesus is the truth of our relationship to God. He is true to God, to himself and to us. Jesus is the life. He had already proclaimed publicly ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Fullness of life in Jesus Christ is possible for us. We in church congregations may not show that fullness of life very well with our moaning and complaining and negativity and lack of faith and trust and hope, but it is there for us to grasp. Doing good in however humble ways is this fullness of life. During the coronavirus crisis people have found this out to be the case. It is better to give than to receive. The heights of Christian worship in Word and Sacrament represent the fullness of life proclaimed by Jesus. A taste of heaven. It is Christ’s life within us that is our salvation on our earthly journey and in eternal life.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine dresser.” John 15:1 The vine is Israel. Jesus is the true Israel. His followers are to be the first of the New Israel, members of the New Covenant. God is the careful and caring vine dresser. He weeds, he feeds, he prunes, he harvests. Israel has lost its way and has forfeited its mission to take the knowledge of God to the whole world. Those in charge at the time of Jesus had long lost the vision of Isaiah. ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’ (Isaiah 40:28-31). The vine is to spread throughout the world, for all the community of humanity for all time. It has done so. And its has been husbanded and garnered, and its has been pruned and replanted. If we are unfaithful as a church we will wither and die on the vine. The Church of Scotland has departed from its foundations. It is in rapid decline. The crop is poor. The wine is like vinegar. Our Presbyterianism does not make our hearts glad. Our procedures drain our strength and enthusiasm. We need the New Wine of Jesus Christ Himself. We need to be reformed, re-engaged, revived. That promise is possible and available through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No matter how far down, congregations can recover. We are the grapes, the leaves and the branches. Apart from Jesus the Vine, we can do nothing.
The ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus are proclamations of divinity. The are outrageous, arriviste, egomaniacal, simple unacceptable unless they are true. We proclaim them to be true in our time. Proclamation is needed throughout the land. The Gospel needs to be addressed and heard. We must proclaim Jesus back to the centre of our national life.