I Am. I Am Not.

Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John

Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying,  “I Am.”

These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman.

The final time he echoes the divine identity happens at the start of the Passion Gospel, which I just read. Judas Iscariot brings a detachment of soldiers and police to arrest Jesus. They have lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus has only himself and his mission and his identity. “Whom are you looking for?” he asks. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answer. And he responds with the echo of the divine name. “I Am.”

Judas, the soldiers, and the police fall to the ground at these words. There’s no way to mistake who is really in control here, despite Jesus’ lack of arms. Jesus repeats his question, “Whom are you looking for?” And they answer the same. “I told that I Am,” he says. “Let these others go.” Back in Exodus, God speaks God’s divine name to Moses so that Moses might have the strength to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” (Do you see the parallels here?)

Moses receives reassurance through the Divine Name. Jesus, too, uses his “I Am” statements not just to describe himself, but to give others purpose and identity. When he says, “I Am,” he helps others discover who they are in relation to him. The woman at the well is a perfect example. After her conversation with Jesus, she races back to town and says to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Of course, Jesus did no such thing. The closest he came was a comment on her marital history. But I don’t think the woman is exaggerating. I think that when he discloses to her his divine identity, she more fully grasps who she is.

A similar story happens in Chapter Nine when Jesus gives sight to a man born with blindness. Jesus tells the man to go and wash in a particular pool, and he comes back able to see. But none of his neighbors recognize him. “Is it him?” they wonder. “No, it’s someone like him.” The man who can now see says, “I am the man!” In echoing Jesus’ divine identity, the man is saying, in effect, “Giving me sight was small potatoes. Encountering this Jesus allowed me to find my identity within his divine identity.”

And this brings us to the tragic story of Simon Peter on the terrifying night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. First Peter resorts to violence to prevent Jesus from being taken, but Jesus tells him to put his sword away. Already we see Peter’s fear is causing him to forget what Jesus has taught him. And soon Peter forgets himself, forgets who he is in relation to Jesus. The woman guarding the gate of the high priest’s house says, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Peter says, “I am not.”

There are two layers here. First is the lie, for Peter is in truth one of Jesus’ disciples. Second is the rejection, for when Peter says, “I am not,” it is a direct negation of the words Jesus uses to echo the divine identity: “I Am.” By saying “I am not,” Peter rejects the piece of his identity that is bound up in Jesus’ identity. And just as Jesus said, “I Am” twice earlier in the Passion Gospel, Peter twice says, “I am not.” The second time he is standing and warming himself by a charcoal fire – I point that out because it will be important in a minute.

I don’t blame Peter. Fear is a powerful motivator, and I can’t think of a more terrifying night to be a follower of Jesus than that one. As Peter’s denial demonstrates, fear is powerful because it makes us forget both who we are and to whom we belong. Fear makes people act in ways contrary to their natures, contrary to good sense, and contrary to the ways of God. When I am afraid, my world gets very small, and I get mean – both in the sense of spiteful and in the sense of stingy. When we say “I am not” like Peter does, that is, when fear overrides faith, we enter the illusion of smallness, the world closing in on us. But the divine identity – the “I Am” of the burning bush and of Jesus’ many statements – includes within it the infinity of God, the eternity of God, and the grace of God.

On Good Friday, Jesus takes to the cross all the evil baggage of the world, and thus fear is so close. But fear cannot overwhelm the divine identity within Jesus, nor can any of the other baggage, as the empty tomb will proclaim this Sunday. After the resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples on the beach. He’s cooking fish on a charcoal fire like the one Peter stood around on the fearful night. Three times he asks Peter if Peter loves him. Three times Peter affirms that he does. In this grace-filled action, Jesus helps Peter find himself again and find who he is in relation to Jesus.

The First Letter of John tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I can think of no better description of the divine identity than Perfect Love. God yearns for us, especially when we are afraid, to dwell in the divine “I Am” so we remember who we are and to whom we belong.

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