by Michael UseyJohn 8. 21-30, NRSV
Our theme for 2022 Lent is What Jesus Wants to Know, in which we’ll look at a few of the many questions that Jesus asks people in our NT. Contrary to some common assumptions, Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner. In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. Conversely, Jesus is asked 183 questions, of which he only answers 8.
Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly, he asks fifty. So we’ll spend just a little time this Lent considering the questions Jesus asks—what they tell us about Jesus and, more significantly, what our responses might say about what it means to follow Jesus. Through Jesus’ questions, he modeled the struggle, the wondering, the thinking it through that helps us draw closer to God and better understand, not just the answer, but ourselves, our processes, and ultimately why questions are among Jesus’ most profound gifts for a life of faith. Lin, James, Kari, and others will share their perspectives on Jesus’ questions throughout Lent.
The question I’ve chosen for this morning is not a lectionary passage, which means that very few Christians will ever hear this question preached on–which is of course my exact jam: perpendicular passages of sacred text. They are the sweetest texts to turn over in our spirits, and in my opinion are the ones that reveal so much about life and God. Even so, this entire passage doesn’t thrill me. It’s a mean-spirited debate between Jesus and the religious leaders in the temple in Jerusalem. For two whole pages they call each other names, question each other’s sanity, and dispute each other’s parentage. It’s not a clear passage either. It’s one more episode in Jesus’ long dispute with the religious leaders about who Jesus is.
From our safe distance, it’s too easy to make the religious leaders the bad guys, but they are just doing their job. They are the defenders of the faith; they are the religious authorities in charge of keeping holy things holy. They do not like Jesus’ type: they think he drinks too much, eats too much, and hangs out with whores and sinners. They think he is not holy enough –this is their central complaint against him.
Also, here in John’s gospel, Jesus says “I” way too much:
I am the bread of life.
I am the good shepherd.
I am the true vine.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the sheep gate.
I am the resurrection and the life.
These are fairly outrageous claims for anyone to make. But for a first century Hebrew, they are unthinkable. For a Hebrew, there is only one good shepherd, one true vine, one bread of life, one way, truth, and life, and that is God. Who does Jesus think he is? This is exactly what the religious leaders want to know. They are coming to the conclusion that he is one of those dangerously attractive preachers who get carried away by their own charisma and get the message confused with the messenger.
Jesus has just said to them, I am the light of the world, and that has enraged the leaders like Duke basketball fans this morning. So they challenge him, and things get worse: You are from below, Jesus says to them. I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. You will die in your sin unless you believe that I am. This drives the religious leaders beserko. They hear what he is up to; they understand the echo that he means them to hear. I am he says, and any Hebrew worth her salt recalls another voice that says, I am who I am.
It was of course the voice from the burning bush, talking to Moses. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you. I AM, the sacred name of God for the Hebrews. Can you see what made the religious leaders go ape? Jesus is using God’s name--abusing it as far as they are concerned. When they try to show him the error of his ways, he tells them that they are ones who are wrong, and if they don’t discover he’s right, they’ll die in their sins. Who are you? They ask him, and you can hear the exasperation in their words. And you can hear Jesus’ vexation in his reply: Why do I speak to you at all?
You will never go to a Christian conference, a Passport camp, or a Wild Goose Festival with the theme of this verse: Why do I speak to you at all? Imagine that on a t-shirt or sign out front of a church building. Yet maybe we should consider it an excellent question for each of us.
This week I’ve wondered if Jesus might not say to me, a religious leader, What do I speak to you at all? Leaders like me allow so much evil to go on: trans children being targeted and made to feel less unlovable and than human. Damaging lies being endlessly repeated about covid, about the presidential election, about the insurrection. A long litany of Americans of color who have been murdered, yet our students are not allowed to read their stories or hear them taught or discussed. The accelerating death of the lovely green planet that God has provided because of our greed and selfishness. American leaders siding with a foreign dictator, who is waging a terrible war in Ukraine, slaughtering her citizens, and who threatens nuclear destruction of the world on television. Maybe Jesus is deeply tired of talking to Christians like myself who allow way, way too much evil in our world. Why would Jesus speak to me at all, if I continue to tolerate so much of what I know goes against Jesus’ teachings and life?
Jesus said this to his religious leaders in response to their question, Who are you? Why does Jesus react so harshly to them? One possible translation of the Greek is What I have told you from the beginning, which is a little like Diane Ingold saying to her husband, What did I say, Bill? Did I stutter? I think Jesus is harshing on them because he knows they are not sincere; they don’t want to know that he’s the one sent by God.
This is one of the many questions that Jesus does not answer. It just hangs in the air, and for many people including us, it hangs there still. In a sense it is the crucial question of faith for those of who follow Jesus. It continues to haunt many of us because we don’t know the definitive answer, not completely. Who is Jesus, and who is he to you? And what does our answer to that question have to do with how we live now?
We know of course Jesus’ titles and honorifics–he is the Christ, the messiah, the Lamb of God, the world’s savior, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, our Redeemer, the Human One, Prince of peace, Alpha and Omega. We have just heard Jasmine confess that Jesus is Lord, something most of us have said if we were baptized as a young person. What exactly that means of course is a matter of discussion, and really exactly why we are here this morning instead in bed: what does it really mean to call Jesus Lord? And how do we know Jesus, exactly?
I cannot answer that for you, of course, but for me it means that Jesus was sent from God to reveal God’s true nature. For me, the affirmation is that in Jesus, I see God most clearly. This is not a claim of exclusiveness but a one of uniqueness. There may be (and I believe there are) other revelations of God, other signposts to God’s true nature, but for me, the measure of all those other divine revelations are the person and teachings of Jesus. Who are you? I am.
I was baptized in the 4th grade at Temple Ave Baptist Church in Camarillo, California, in 1968 by Jim Holmes. Was my baptism a conversion? I believe so, one of several I’ve had. All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I was serious, but I was young, yet I wasn’t fooling around, and neither was Jesus. My heart was in it, and so was Jesus’. I asked him to come into my life, and he came in, although I no more have words for his presence than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what makes the irises rise up out of their graves each spring. It just is. Who are you? I AM.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the amazing Georgian Episcopal theologian, is the only other preacher that I have found who preached on this passage. She says the religious leaders could not accept Jesus’ words, I am, because they could not see through it. It was opaque for them, a claim that caused terrible problems for them. Jesus was speaking for God, in a manner that they considered way out of line, that he was claiming equality with God.
But, Taylor said, maybe his claim is not actually opaque but transparent, claiming not equality with God, but intimacy with the divine. Someone so close to God that when you see Jesus, you see God, because he is the clear window God has given us to glimpse divinity and the right way to live.
Who are you? They ask, and we do too, since it’s the question that hangs in the air and draws us deeper into the mystery. We realize who we think he is, but who is he really? He has come into our lives and rearranged our world and made our faces burn with brightness, but who is he and why can’t he be more articulate about who he is exactly?
He did not answer on that particular day so long ago. He has said, I am the bread, the truth, the shepherd, the vine, the light, the way, the sheepgate, the life. What do those mean? Is all of them, or none of them? Son of God, divine messenger or neither? My personal Lord, or the Cosmic Christ, or both?
We can never nail him down. They tried once but he got loose, and ever since then he has been the walking, talking, presence of God in our midst, the living presence of God in our lives. If we cannot say who he is in 25 words or less, it may be because he is our window on the divine mystery, the undefinable I AM, and we cannot sum him up any easier than we can sum up the One who sent him. Who are you? Is the only question worth asking. I AM may be the only answer we need.