Jesus was very good with words and could easily build an argument that made the greatest minds work very hard, while still being able to tell stories that even a child could understand. Often what he said was not popular. This was particularly so when he claimed to be God, taking for himself the special name of God, I AM. This was blasphemy as far as his listeners were concerned. Sadly the Jewish leaders were so keen to kill Jesus as a blasphemer that they didn’t allow themselves to think about his promise, that those who believe in him will never die.
The readings on Thursday were Genesis 17:3-9, Psalm 105:4-9, John 8:51-end. My reflection is given below.
If we were to ask several people what they like about SL I imagine the answers would vary. It’s a fascinating place with so many different areas to visit, some showing the most amazing creativity. While visiting you can meet people from all over the world and learn a huge amount. If Star Trek is a passion of yours you can take part in role plays, to boldly go where no split infinitive has ever gone before! It’s possible to have the most wonderful face and body, and to dress in the height of fashion for minimal cost. So many aspects of this world can attract us.
One of the greatest fascinations for me is the opportunity to meet people and discuss with them. I could never hope to meet such a wide range with such incredible knowledge in real life. I learn so very much, though at times I find it a challenge and it can make my head hurt as I try to fathom it all.
For the Jewish leaders in our gospel passage there was no need to venture into a different world to find intellectual challenge. Jesus brought it right to their doorstep. The small portion of this chapter that we have read today comes at the end of a verbal duelling match between Jesus and the Jews. There had been a lot of talk about being children of Abraham but Jesus retorted that they were children of the devil. Having done their best to fight back with words, like many people when they are losing an argument, the Jews resorted to name calling to cut Jesus down to size. In the section of the conversation just before what we have read the Jews decided that Jesus was a Samaritan (a member of the most despised race) and had a demon.
What our passage opens with was enough to cause the Jews to believe that finally they had hit on the truth, Jesus DID have a demon. What else were they supposed to think when he told them ‘if anyone keeps my word he will never see death’? Here they were on solid ground. They knew that people died; it was a fact of life. Even the great and good died. As they said, Abraham and the prophets died, they were not exempt.
Unfortunately for the Jewish leaders they were not as right as they thought. Jesus wasn’t talking about physical death but spiritual death. Jesus was not promising that anyone would not actually die. We know his disciples died, often horrible deaths. If this statement of his was to be taken literally we too might wonder what sort of person Jesus was.
What Jesus is saying is that those who keep his word will have eternal life. They will pass through physical death but their spirits will never die. It is possible to see now if we have this eternal life by our way of life. If we live in a way that is pleasing to God, we are keeping Jesus’ word. We won’t be doing it by following lots of rules but by acting out of love for God. We won’t be doing it as a method of earning our way to heaven as that has already been done for us by Jesus. Our way of life will flow naturally from where our heart is. This identifies us as followers of Jesus.
Naturally the Jews were puzzled by what Jesus said. A human being making a promise like this naturally prompts some hard questions. It could lead to the men in white coats coming to take someone away to a place for their own safety! It’s easy to understand why the Jews asked Jesus who he was making himself out to be.
Jesus was more than happy to give them the answer: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’. This is one of the famous ‘I am’ statements in the gospel of John. You can see that it enraged those who asked the question, so much so that they were prepared to stone him.
For those listening, Jesus had just uttered blasphemy. When Moses first met God at the burning bush and sent him to the Israelites, Moses wanted to know who had sent him so asked God. God said to Moses, “I am who I am….Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Later in order to make sure not to take God’s name in vain, instead of pronouncing I AM as Yahweh, the Jews substituted ‘the Lord’ when they spoke of God. This name, I AM or Yahweh, was very, very special to them and not to be used lightly, if at all.
Imagine how the Jews felt when Jesus took that title for himself: Before Abraham was, I AM. In using this term for himself, Jesus was claiming the same authority as God. Not only that, he told the Jews that he had seen Abraham and knew he had rejoiced at the idea of the Messiah coming. He also said he was alive before Abraham lived, before Moses met God in the burning bush. Jesus is claiming to be older and greater than two of the most revered leaders of the Jews. He also speaks of God as his Father, thus making himself God’s Son from the beginning.
This is really important for us all. There is no point in Jesus making his claim about those who keep his word not dying unless he has the authority to substantiate that claim. In taking for himself the name of God, Jesus is showing that he does have that authority. Jesus is not just a good man whom God decided to speak and act through, like many others in the past. He is God’s one and only Son who came into the world to save it and us from the consequences of sin.
What a gift we have been given: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death’.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor