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‘Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” ’ (John 8:58)
You can always tell when Jesus says something truly sensational and scandalous because people respond by searching for rocks to fling at his head. The eighth chapter of the Gospel According to John contains four instances of Jesus saying, “I am,” which is one way Jesus imparts his divine identity to his listeners. Out of the four, only the final one elicits such a stony reaction, while the first three build to the climactic iteration. The escalation begins slowly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Next, Jesus says, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (8:24). Then, a few verses later, he says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am” (8:28). Each of these statements of his divine identity flies right over the heads of his opponents. But then the conversation intensifies. Jesus says they are from their father the devil. They think he may have a demon. He says no one will see death if they keep his word. They are sure he has a demon. He says Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Now they know that he’s crazy—he’s not even fifty! How can he have seen Abraham?
Then Jesus knocks their socks off with his most dangerous statement in the whole Gospel: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This time, no one mistakes his meaning. No one asks him to clarify his words. They understand the full significance of saying, “I AM.” They know God said the same thing to Moses when Moses was brash enough to ask God for God’s name (Exodus 3). But underneath the shocking nature of Jesus’ statement is a subtler point (ultimately missed in the search for stones) about how our eternal God interacts with a finite creation.
Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel According to John are revelations of God’s very being. Because of the simplicity of the sentence (just a subject and a verb), “I am” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. Since we live in a temporal world, eternity is an impossible concept for us to wrap our heads around. Eternity is not “endless” time; nor is it the framework in which time finds a snug fit. In eternity, before and after are undefined and the only when is now. (The previous sentence makes no sense, of course.)
When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he uses our language to express the eternal nature of God. He does not say, “I was before Abraham was,” which is the grammatically correct way to articulate the thought. Instead, his “I am” (while functioning in our world as a present tense construction) is really a representation of the eternal tense. In eternity, I AM is the only sentence that makes any sense at all. In other words, eternity happens. It didn’t start and it won’t stop because the notions of beginning and ending are thoroughly temporal. And eternity happens because God is.
We run into trouble when we expect God to exist in the same way we do. Our minutes tick by one after another. For every one of our actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. But those are our minutes, our reactions, our gravity, and they all rely on linear experience. When Jesus says, “I AM,” he reminds us that God created linear experience, and thus is not beholden to it.
When we stumble into God’s presence, we encounter eternity making utter nonsense of time. Time ceases to matter because eternity overrides the rules of linear experience. That’s why it’s so hard to say how long we feel the presence of God. We feel that presence in moments, not minutes. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he pushes us to relinquish our need to order events when God is concerned. God exists in eternity, which just happens.
* If you read my last contribution to EpiscopalCafé in conjunction with this one, you might deduce two things: (1) I like to use Holy Scripture to discuss spirituality and (2) I seem partial to the Gospel According to John. These deductions are both entirely correct. As a member of the Millennial generation, I am attracted to the Fourth Gospel’s combination of mystery and revelation. If you have a group of Millennials in your church (right now, that would be your middle schoolers through your college students, give or take) who huff and sigh and roll their eyes every time you pull out the Bible, try some passages from the Gospel According to John. You might encounter fewer glazed looks and drool-flecked chins.