Working Preacher’s Lenten Series this year focuses on the “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John for the sake of intentional reflection on and proclamation of God becoming flesh.
Let me say that again — God becoming flesh. The cross is many things; but first, it is the death of God. Let that sink in.
The “I AM” statements are more than just a novelty of the Fourth Gospel — they reveal, in all fullness (John 1:16), the identity of Jesus. “Obviously,” you might be thinking.
But Lent is the season to remember one very important thing about what it means to be a Christian: that when Jesus goes to the cross, there goes God.
Jesus as this one-and-only God, this unique God (John 1:18) is the distinctive claim of Christianity. Yet in today’s world what’s said and believed about Jesus has the tendency to divide Jesus’ humanity from Jesus’ divinity. Our Christologies seem comfortable with choosing one or the other, depending on whom we need Jesus to be in a certain time or place — or, for a certain purpose.
The Gospel of John reminds us — which, during Lent, is an especially important thing to remember — that to believe in Jesus is to hold the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity together.
“What difference does this make?,” you might be asking. Well, when we collapse Jesus’ humanity into Jesus’ divinity, it gets harder to imagine the purpose and pathos of the cross. After all, if that was God nailed to a tree, to what extent was that true suffering? And when we minimize Jesus’ divinity, it becomes easy to reduce Jesus to an above-average teacher, miracle worker, and advocate for the poor.
The challenge of Lent is to negotiate these simultaneous truths — and how to admit our own truth regarding which Jesus we prefer. Otherwise, all too often, Jesus ends up being trotted out and used to justify moral claims as if God were not a part of the picture.
A word about grammar may be useful here. The “I AM” statements in John are of two varieties: the absolute “I AM” statements in which there is no qualifier, and the “I AM” statements with a predicate nominative.1 And yet the point of both is to hold both together. Each time Jesus says, “I AM,” the entirety of the “I AM” statements stands behind this revelation. And every time Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life, I AM the light of the world,” the fullness of the absolute “I AM” statements stands behind this claim. When we keep this in mind, we begin to see that if we try to separate God and the Word made flesh, we have likely missed the point of Christianity altogether.
Consider the following quotation, circulating on Pinterest boards and throughout social media: “I AM. Two of the most powerful words; for what you put after them shapes your reality.”
This Lenten series helps us imagine that what Jesus puts after “I AM” in the Gospel of John shapes our reality.
Week 1: I AM the Bread of Life (Feb. 21, 2018)
Text: John 6:35-40
When Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life,” it is easy to limit this promise to our practices surrounding the Lord’s Supper. Certainly, this communal act is central to our Christian identity. But Jesus reminds us that the offer of himself is not just for us on a Sunday morning, but also so that we might provide life for others. Jesus as the bread of life is for the sake of eternal life for all, life that is both the assurance of life after death, but also life while living, here and now. When we believe that Jesus is the bread of life, we actively look for the people who need to be fed. Those whom the world drives away. Whom the world allows to go hungry. For whom abundant life (John 10:10) is almost impossible to comprehend. Jesus as the bread of life shapes the reality we can help create for the world God loves so much.
Week 2: I AM the Light of the World (Feb. 28, 2018)
Text: John 8:12-20
Readers of John’s Gospel know Jesus is the light of the world since way back in the opening chapter, but it is only here, in John 8, that Jesus states it so clearly. Yet, he does not say it to the disciples first. That revelation happens later in the story of the healing of the man born blind. No, “I AM the light of the world” is first for those who question it and condemn it. It is first for those who refuse it and reject it. It is first for those who, even if they don’t know it, need to hear it the most. It’s easy to testify to the true light that shines in the darkness to willing listeners. It’s far more difficult to give witness to Jesus as the light of the world when you are certain your witness will be rebuked and, in the end, rejected. We are to be the light of the world in the world — this is our reality now. Light that exposes people and systems and institutions that have used darkness to hide what they don’t want to be seen. It is light that shines in the lives of those who have known only darkness.
Week 3: I AM the Door (Mar. 7, 2018)
Text: John 10:1-10
Doors keep in and keep out. They make us feel safe, either by making sure no one gets in or by justifying our staying in. They are the border that insures separation from those who we suspect might harm us. This passage affirms that Jesus as the door is most certainly our security. But a careful reading suggests also that this is a rather permeable gate. The sheep are led out to pasture and they are brought back into the fold, safely into the arms of their shepherd. “I AM the door” is cause for us to imagine what kinds of access we choose to be — to keep out or to invite in. To provide protection for those in peril or shut out those who need shelter. Moreover, “I AM the door” shapes our reality, asking us to recognize and realize where and how and why we walk out of the fold (or not), leaving comfort and safeguard behind to be God’s love in the world.
Week 4: I AM the Good Shepherd (Mar. 14, 2018)
Text: John 10:11-18
A beloved image of Jesus is much more than we ever imagined. Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders comforts us, makes us feel secure and safe. Jesus keeps the threats out. We follow Jesus because we know his voice and he calls us by name. But when we keep reading, we find out that Jesus as shepherd is not just a promise for us, but a promise for others. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” We’d like to hold on to Jesus as our shepherd, my shepherd, and ours alone. That is our reward, so to speak, for believing in Jesus. And yet Jesus as the good shepherd shapes our reality by asking us, just as he did with Peter (John 21:15-19), to be the shepherd now. The promise of other sheep to be invited into the fold, the promise of God loving the world, will come to fruition when we recognize Jesus as shepherd also names our identity. So we look for those sheep who have been outcast, rejected (John 9:34), to invite them into the community of Christ, to give them belonging when they have never had it or have been denied it.
Week 5: I AM the Resurrection and the Life (Mar. 21, 2018)
Text: John 11:17-27
The raising of Lazarus makes two very important claims for our future — that Jesus will be raised, and so will we. This is good news, of course — a certainty of what happens after death that gives us hope and allows us to hope for those we love whom we lose. Death will not be the end. Jesus’ tomb, our tomb, will end up empty. But in all of that certainty about our future, we sometimes forget the ways in which the promise of resurrection impinges on our present. This is what Jesus needed Martha to see, and what he needs us to see — Jesus is the resurrection AND the life. Jesus needs us to see that we can experience resurrected life here and now, and that shapes our reality here and now.
This means that we make sense of life through the lens of resurrection. It means we give witness to rebirth and recreation when all there seems to be is death all around. Witnessing resurrection on a daily basis is what makes it possible to view the places and spaces where death seems to have taken hold, where empire appears to be the only power, and where suspicion and intolerance look to have won the day. This is where we must give witness to the truth we know.
1 Absolute “I AM” (without a predicate nominative) include: John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 7
“I AM” with a predicate nominative: John 6:35; 6:51; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25-26; 14:6; 15:1, 5