The Church, in her wisdom guided by the Holy Spirit, chose today's Gospel reading for the beginning of Passiontide, the climactic final weeks of Lent that carry us right through the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord on Good Friday. Now, the emphasis is on the cross in a special way, for we must fix our gaze on it and what it means. Before we begin to consider any other aspect of this time of the year, and of our Scripture readings as appointed, and what they teach us, we ought to bear in mind that Jesus foretold his death and resurrection many times long before entering Jerusalem that last time. He meant to go there; he saw the cross as his mission; he insisted on giving his enemies the opportunity to do quite literally, their worst, with such words as:
"And [you] say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers."1
In short, not only did he refuse to avoid the cross; he ran toward it.
And so it is with his words in what we read today:
"Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple."
I will provide an explanation of why this statement is a picture of Jesus running, figuratively speaking, to the cross. But, first, we should clear up one possible objection. It may appear otherwise, inasmuch as at this point in the story He, as it says "hid himself." Frankly, the reply to that objection is obvious: As He had once said to His blessed virgin mother: "mine hour is not yet come." 2 His disciples had not yet been prepared; all things had not yet been accomplished. 3 But, in this passage we see that he gives his enemies a cause for pursuing him, hounding him unto death.
I could say this in my own words, but it was said so well already by Fr. Laurence Wells that I will simply quote from his most recent bulletin insert:
"God revealed His name...telling Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' That mysterious and awesome Name was abbreviated with the one word all devout Israelites past and present feel is too sacred to be uttered aloud, the Divine Name YHWH.
"When Jesus began to make statements, 'I am ....' it surely sounded as if He were claiming for Himself the very Name of God, the Name too holy to be spoken above a whisper. But in John 8:58, He left no room for doubt, when He stated firmly to His opponents, 'Before Abraham was, I AM.' Not only did He claim to be older than Abraham, He claimed to be God. If the words are obscure to us, the meaning was perfectly plain to the Jews. It is no wonder that they attempted to stone Him on the spot."
I do not know how important each of you considers the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity to be; but, understand, that it was Jesus Christ's open revelation of these two doctrines, the eternal truth about himself as God the Word (λo’γος), with God and in the beginning with God, 4 though clearly visible as a man with flesh and blood, that led to his death. He confessed and revealed that he was one with the Father, and it was this that made his enemies mad with hatred, and that caused the opposition and hostility that became present throughout the time of his public ministry among the people. If Eusebius was correct, these things were spoken before most of the events we read about in the other Gospels, even before the Sermon on the Mount where he also spoke of himself as one with God: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord..." 5 However, whether he spoke them very early or near the time of his entry into Jerusalem, the effect of the words, "before Abraham was, I AM," is obvious: They picked up stones meaning to stone him to death.
In chapter 10 of the same Gospel, we see a strikingly similar passage:
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him." 6
The Incarnation and the Trinity are the double theme that sounds clearly in each of the four Gospels, and especially so in the Gospel According to John; it is even more clear in this, the fourth Gospel. And, here, in these passages from that Gospel, we see the strong connection binding together this double theme of Christ the Son of the Everlasting Father, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the theme of the cross. That Jesus is fully God and fully man, that he has revealed his uniqueness as One with the Father, led directly to the enmity that culminated in his cross and death. So, in her wisdom, the Church opens Passiontide with an explicit public statement Jesus made about his divinity: "Before Abraham was, I AM." He revealed this to a hostile world, and he did so because his mission to die for the sins of the world was, as the Scriptures call it, His passion. 7
We see what his cross does for you and for me by hearing the Epistle appointed for this day:
"By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"
Saving the human race from sin and death, most especially those who believe in him, was his passion. For that cause He embraced the cross as His passion. Nothing could keep Him from it. The revelation that He, as He stood before them in creaturely flesh and blood as a man, is One with the Father, was both worth dying for, and was the motive that He handed them to go ahead, in their madness and fury, to seek His execution.
It also tells us that terrible truth we do not want to know. Throughout the history of Christianity many preachers, even some of the brightest, have made a habit of using these passages to speak of the Jews as especially evil, as the ones who hated God. But, if we understand clearly the words of John, we see a double lament in his first chapter, in the eleventh verse: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." The fact, however, is that John was also one of "his own," that is, His own chosen covenant people. So were all the disciples, So was the Lord's blessed virgin mother. So, also, was God the Son Himself, the incarnate Word. He was flesh in the general sense, fully human. Specifically, as every human being who lives in the real world (as opposed to a theoretical world) comes from a specific people, He was a Jew; He chose the Jews, and He came into the world as a Jew, born the son of a Jewish virgin, raised in a Jewish home, affirming always the truth of Jewish religion and Scripture as God's own revelation to His one and only chosen, beloved covenant people.
When John specifies "the Jews" he merely relates, on one hand, a fact of history: that is, it was Jewish people to whom, he spoke. But, in emphasizing their Jewish identity (which they shared with Jesus, and his mother and all his disciples), He was not saying they, as Jews, were especially evil. He was saying that even the best people, the people of God who were born into His covenant and who knew His revelation, were lost in sin and death. How much more so, then, were we who were once Gentiles born into a hopeless condition of sin and death, born into the world as children of the devil, needing adoption and new birth to become children of God. We stand in total dependence on, and in need of, God's grace. That is why, in his love for fallen mankind, for you and for me, it was his passion to embrace the cross.
After all, that eleventh verse from John's first chapter follows the tenth verse, which is why I said it is a double lament: "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." The evil of those who "knew him not" as children of the devil is not some special designation of Jewish unbelievers; it is the terrible truth about the whole human race - the world that does not know Christ; for not knowing Christ is what defines "the world." And, but for His grace given to you through baptism and through your faith, it would be the truth about you. You were born a child of the devil, subject to the full wrath of Divine justice. That is, in fact, why the cross was Christ's passion.
When Jesus was betrayed , He called his betrayer "friend.”
"Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast. And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him." 8
Judas Iscariot was no friend, was he? But, Jesus was not saying that Judas loved Him; rather he meant that Judas was still the object of His, that is Christ's, love; of Divine love. Christ still loved His betrayer, calling him "friend." And, as everyone can quote, he said about all his persecutors among both the Jews and the Romans, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." 9 This is consistent with his words, "And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world." 10 Saving the whole world was His passion, whether Jews or the many Gentiles, that is, the people of all nations. He went to His cross willingly; indeed, no one could have kept Him from it. It was His passion to save all the children of the devil, and make them into the children of God through Himself; as
Possessing the infinite power of Divine love, He calls his enemies and betrayers, namely you and me, "friend."
1. Matt. 23: 30-32
2. John 2:4
3. John 17: 1, 4
4. John 1: 1-14
5. Matt. 7:21, 22
6. John 10:27-31
7. Acts 1:3
8. Matt. 26:48-50
9. Luke 23:34
10. John 10: 47