August 12, 2012
The “I AM’s” of Jesus
As I began to read through our gospel passage this morning I was struck by Jesus saying, “I AM.” As you know, these were the words that, in Hebrew, form what is called the Tetragrammaton, or the 4-letter, nearly unpronounceable name of God given to Moses at the encounter with God’s presence at the burning bush. Y – H – W – H from which we get the anglicized version: Yahweh or Jehovah, that we are more familiar with.
Just a bit of history around this word:
As it was revealed to Moses the Name of God was considered to be holy, so holy that, when written in the Old Testament in the original form (YHWH) the scribe, would stop his work, go wash ritually, come back, write the Name, and go wash ritually again, before continuing to write. Something similar to a Dr. preparing for surgery! This was serious business.
Of course these words are normal parts of speech. A personal pronoun, I, and a verb of being, AM.
When I began to process this sermon, I did a search in the Gospels for those two words and came up with hundreds of instances of their use, of course. Then it occurred to me that adding the definite article “THE” would separate out the specific instances that I was looking for in the gospels. What I found was very interesting.
The “I AM’s” of Jesus occur exclusively in the Gospel of John. Save one very important one: The Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke all record Jesus response to the question of the High Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, at his trial:
Mark 14: 61-62; Luke 22:70; and Matthew 26:63-64
All record Jesus answering a direct question by the High Priest:
"I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
In all three accounts, Jesus answers in the affirmative, in Mark and Luke with the actual words “I AM” and in Matthew with “YOU SAID IT!” and He followed the admission with a further statement:
“I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, AND COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”
In the Gospel of John, John’s concern with placing Jesus in his Spiritual place in the cosmos is evident from the very outset where we read, in John’s prologue:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”
John wants from the outset to make it clear to his readers that we are not talking about an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, every day Jewish Rabbi. We are talking in completely different categories here.
He goes on to make it even more explicit in his first chapter: vss. 9-12
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (ESV)
Here we begin to see John’s use of metaphor for the what of Jesus mission in the world.
And that is the point of John’s usage of the “I AM’s” throughout his gospel account.
And those actually begin with the one in our reading this morning:
I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE…I AM THE BREAD THAT CAME DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN.
I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE…
I AM THE LIVING BREAD THAT CAME DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN;
And then the punch line: In vs. 51
“… if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Jesus is here likening Himself to the Manna from heaven that Moses gave the children of Israel in the wilderness after the Exodus. Jesus makes very explicit connections between himself and this “bread from heaven.”
And then at the last, He connects the bread with his own sacrifice, and hearkens back to the whole sacrificial system of ancient Israel. Jesus is saying, very clearly to his Jewish hearers that His body, given on the cross and celebrated in remembrance, on this Table, is the BREAD OF LIFE, given by God for the life of the world.
We call the Eucharist a “means of grace.” Indeed! “Anyone who eats of this bread, will live forever!” Hallelujah!!
Let’s press on to the other I AM’s of Jesus in John’s gospel:
Just two chapters later in Jn 8: “I AM the Light of the world: He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life!”
He repeats this again in Jn 9, then in Jn 10, we are all familiar with the great passage:
I AM THE DOOR OF THE SHEEP… (He elaborates)I AM THE DOOR; IF ANYONE ENTERS THROUGH ME, HE WILL BE
SAVED, AND WILL GO IN AND OUT AND FIND PASTURE.
I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD, AND I KNOW MY OWN AND MY OWN KNOW ME;
I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD … WHO LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP
Jesus, takes on the metaphor of the Shepherd, in John 10, just as God has had that role through Israel’s history, the Great Shepherd of Israel. We hearken back to the very familiar Psalm 23:
Psa 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Psa 23:1 The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psa 23:3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Psa 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Psa 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Psa 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Here we find a Psalm of ultimate comfort, one we use often at funerals or in times of difficulty. It reveals the role of the Shepherd of Israel. Also from Psalm 95:7
Psa 95:7 “For he [is] our God; and we [are] the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. “
Jesus taps into an historical reference to God the Father with his Jewish hearers.I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD.
And again, in the very next chapter, Jesus claims the Name and Nature of God:
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE; HE WHO BELIEVES IN ME, WILL LIVE EVEN IF HE DIES,
A clear reference to the power of God the Father to give and sustain life, Jesus here is claiming the Power of God as His own power. Of course, one can claim such power easily, but in the setting of Jn 11, Jesus is talking to Mary, the sister of the dead Lazarus.
From her he immediately turns and makes his words a reality in their hearing that day:
LAZARUS, COME FORTH!!!
And in his final discourse, after supper with his disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus tells Philip and the others,
I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE; NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER BUT THROUGH ME.
These words of Jesus are the capstone of the I AM sayings! Jesus sets himself apart here in stark contrast to the world, and to the many ways, the many truths that we run after. There is one source of truth and life from God the Father, and Jesus is the Way. As Paul was later to preach
“There is no other Name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved!”
Just let me say, that if you entertain any of the popular notions of today’s pluralistic, multi-cultural religious elite, that there are “many ways to God” or that there is no one way that is “THE WAY” then this statement of Jesus must act as a STOP sign for us, before turning down that path.
And finally, Jesus final two I AM’s
I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES; HE WHO ABIDES IN ME
I AM THE TRUE VINE;
AND I IN HIM, HE BEARS MUCH FRUIT, FOR APART FROM ME YOU
CAN DO NOTHING!!!
Speaks for itself, eh?
And the final I am, from Matt 28:
I AM WITH YOU, EVEN TO THE END OF THE AGE!
AMEN AND AMEN