Text: John 8
Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, which has been known as “Passion Sunday” in the Western Church for many centuries. When we think of passion nowadays, we usually think of that for which we have strong feelings or affection, something we really care about. Someone might say that they have a passion for fixing cars, or all things baseball, or gourmet coffee. Or perhaps a you’ve seen the messages from songs or the movies that boil down to the idea that fulfillment in life comes from finding and pursuing one’s passion.
This is not how English-speakers of the past (even as recent as the early 20th Century) would have used the word. Rather, in older English, one would speak of one’s passions as the baser instincts or emotions. Gluttony, lust, and whatnot spring from not keeping one’s passions under control. Alternatively, passion would refer to bodily suffering and pain. And this, of course, is the sense in which we use the term in our liturgy. Specifically, the passion of our Lord, and the passion referred to on Passion Sunday refers to our Christ’s suffering and death.
Consider, for example, this prayer from our Great Litany: “By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.” We could sum up Holy Week through Pentecost Sunday with this single prayer!
Or recall how our Consecration Prayer from Holy Communion speaks of the Sacrament as being “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.”
As we head toward the home stretch of Lent, and shift into Passiontide, we see our Lord preparing us for his suffering and death, and ultimately his resurrection.
In today’s Gospel from John 8, we don’t see “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” No, our Lord is in the middle of a heated argument with would-be followers. Ultimately, the issues that are raised in this dispute between our Lord and the Jewish people would lead to his death. We should recognize from the outset that this was why Jesus came in the first place: he came to suffer and die for us. Even in his Passion, Jesus was Lord, in complete control. Those who turned him over to death only had the power that Jesus allowed them to have.
Our particular Gospel passage finds us in the middle of the argument that began 34 verses earlier. This is the passage that begins with Jesus’ teaching on himself as the Light of the World. Again and again, Jesus tells the people about himself but they never understand. By verse 31, Jesus is addressing those who were following him, but having doubts:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
These listeners end up making two primary mistakes leading up to today’s gospel reading. First, they root their identity in their physical descent from Abraham. As the people of Israel, their ethnic familial connection to Abraham was indeed important, but it was not the main point. Remember the words of St. John the Baptist: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham!” Instead of their descent from Abraham, the most important point of their identity as God’s people is seen in the opening sentence of the 10 Commandments from Exodus 20: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Exodus and the Passover were the main touchstones of Israelite identity. As we saw in yesterday’s “Messiah in the Passover” demonstration, the Passover was an annual reminder to the Jews, to the Israelites, of who they really were. It was a reminder that their primary identity was as God’s people whom he had redeemed.
While we typically don’t make the same mistake with reference to bloodlines, it is easy for us to fall into a similar mistake. We can think of our Christian identity as being primarily about our denominational tribe or heritage. We can see being Anglicans as our primary point of Christian identity, looking down our noses at folks from other traditions. Or even worse, we can see our high church practices as being primary, looking down our noses even at other Anglicans. After all, if they don’t chant and sing hymns and use incense all according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, can they really be Christians, let alone Anglicans? Of course, I’m exaggerating the sentiment for effect, but we can get just as tribal as the 1st Century Jewish people without even realizing it. Rather, we also need to see our primary identity as those whom our Lord has redeemed through the Exodus waters of baptism, by the blood of the true Paschal Lamb.
The second mistake Jesus’ audience was making was that they failed to realize that they had indeed been redeemed from slavery. Part of the Passover celebration was always a recital Exodus 13:14 “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.’” The rabbis said that every Jew was to consider himself as a participant in the Exodus; every Jew was to consider himself as redeemed from slavery.
Similarly, it’s easy for us to fall into a mindset that says we are Christians because we’re good, decent people. We try our best, and God is obligated to bless us and give us grace accordingly. And if something bad happens, we probably have some secret sin for which God is punishing us. But that’s not what Scripture tells us. No, Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And if we doubt this, we just need to look at the 10 Commandments that we sang earlier today, and see how far we fall short of God’s standards. In truth we are just as much redeemed slaves as Moses’ generation was, though our Egypt was slavery to sin. And even after we have been regenerated, born again, and come to Christ, we still feel the pull back toward Egypt, forgetting that the leeks and onions of Egypt came with chains.
Just before our Gospel passage, Jesus tells the people that because they are not doing the things Abraham did (that is, having faith in God and his promises, and therefore obeying God’s commands, as Sts. Paul and James remind us), they were not really children of Abraham, but were actually children of the devil. They were stubbornly shutting their eyes to the truth of who Jesus had shown himself to be. They were ignoring the fulfilment of God’s promises in the Messiah who was before them and were refusing to turn from their sins. Let’s pick up where our Gospel does: verse 46:
“Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.”
Jesus had brought them God’s Word. Jesus had proven himself by his spotless character, spotless behavior, miracles, and teachings. Yet, they refused to listen. In fact, they were slinging racial slurs at him (after all, Jews and Samaritans hated each other in those days), and accused him of having a demon. You may recall the Gospel passage from two weeks ago in which the people accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Well, here we go again. Once again, by attributing the Spirit’s work to Satan, that work that was obvious based on Jesus’ deeds and teachings, they were in danger of the kind of blasphemy that sears conscience to the point where repentance becomes impossible.
Notice that he says that they don’t hear God’s words because they are not of God rather than that they are not of God because they don’t hear God’s words. Notice that the cause for their spiritual deafness is that they are “not of God.” Their spiritual deafness is not the cause of them being “not of God.” This is important to remember: God will get and keep his own. Similarly, notice that Jesus’ glory is not dependent on us; the Father glorifies him. One of the primary ways the Father glorifies the Son is by opening our ears and hearts to God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s continue with Verse 51:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.”
Part of the evidence that they did not know God is that they failed to see that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. Jesus himself used the fact that God describes himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” as proof of the Resurrection of the dead. Because of their faith in God’s promises, Abraham and the prophets were and are alive, and will bodily rise again one day along with all of the saints. The belief in the Resurrection was basic and foundational to most of Judaism in the 1st Century, as it is today. Jesus was simply filling in the gaps from the Old Testament. Jesus was saying that it was by the Messiah that the Resurrection would come. Verse 56:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus statement, “before Abraham was, I am,” was another clear allusion to the Exodus story. Remember when Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he asked what to say if the Israelites asked the name of the One who sent him. God replied, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” The great I AM had come again, and was going to rescue God’s people once again. The people knew exactly what Jesus meant, which is why they were going to stone him for blasphemy. And if Jesus were not who he said he was, it would indeed be blasphemy. But as St. John spent the entire gospel showing, Jesus is God incarnate, the Word made Flesh, Tabernacling among us. God’s plan was that the people’s rejection of Jesus would lead to his passion and death, and ultimately his resurrection. What men meant for evil, God would turn into the greatest good.
As we head toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week, as we begin Passiontide today, we’ll see our readings’ increasing focus on Jesus’ rejection and suffering, culminating with Good Friday. In some ways, these are cautionary tales; any of us could have been just like those would-be followers who were spiritually blind to Jesus. And yet, that’s more the reason to praise God for his grace, rejoicing that he has redeemed you by our Lord’s death and passion, rejoicing that he has raised you with Christ to new life. Jesus said Abraham rejoiced to see his day; may we, Abraham’s offspring by faith, rejoice also.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.