I Am, Part 2 (5/14/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We are examining the “I am” sayings of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John. I mentioned last week that these sayings have caused lots of controversy and confusion among modern scholars. We’ve all heard these sayings that John attributes to Jesus:
I am the good shepherd.
I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
The problem comes in realizing that the Jesus we find in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke would never say such things about himself. It is only in the Gospel of John that Jesus seems determined to spell out in great detail the theological significance of his life. In fact, while the other gospels have Jesus speaking in one sentence aphorisms and very short parables, the Gospel of John has Jesus giving extended theological discourses. Many of the I am sayings are found in what is called the farewell discourse, which covers four complete chapters—four long chapters of nothing but Jesus talking about himself and the theological significance of his life.
Not surprisingly, most modern scholars do not believe Jesus actually said all those things attributed to him in the Gospel of John. But that does not mean we should ignore John’s words. I explained last week the way many people, including me, think of the Gospel of John. John was a mystic who was in communion with the risen Christ. He had a real, sincere relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. He looked back on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and re-interpreted it in the light of his personal experience with the risen Christ. It is not Jesus of Nazareth speaking of himself, but rather the risen Christ of faith speaking through John.
Thinking of the Gospel of John in this way allows us to reclaim the words John attributes to Jesus, without all the problems involved with envisioning Jesus of Nazareth saying such things about himself. Last week we spent the entire sermon discussing just one of the I am sayings: I am the good shepherd. Today we will go over the other I am sayings in less detail.
First, I am the bread of life that came down from heaven. I’ll read the passage from the sixth chapter of John:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Here, Christ is claiming to fulfill the spiritual hunger that gnaws away inside each of us. Spiritual hunger. I think most of us can identify with that. We understand what it means to be hungry. We’ve all felt that sensation, the need to fill our bellies with food, and we all know how great it feels to satisfy that hunger.
But there is another type of hunger inside of us. Life is not easy. We don’t ask to be born, it just happens. And we arrive in this world without a lot of the answers we would like to have. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Asking such questions is a big part of what makes us human beings.
I enjoy watching my cats lay around and stare off into space, and I sometimes wonder what they are thinking. But I’m fairly certain they are not contemplating the existential predicament. The existential predicament goes like this: “I did not ask to be born, but I was. Now that I am alive, I want to stay that way, but I won’t.” Cats and dogs are not concerned with such matters. It is a uniquely human phenomenon.
And that is the source, the cause, of our spiritual hunger. What this passage from John says is that the life, death and resurrection of Christ is the bread that can satisfy that hunger. When the religious authorities question how Jesus can make such a claim, John, speaking as the risen Christ, answers those authorities:
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Let’s turn to another of Jesus’ I am sayings, found in the 8th chapter of John:
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.
Jesus, the light of the world. What a great and powerful image. Light verses darkness is one of the great metaphors in the Christian life. When a child is struggling with fractions and decimals, it seems there is this dark fog that keeps him from understanding. And then, one day, as we like to say, “The light comes on.” Suddenly this new language of divisors and tenths and hundredths starts to make sense.
Human life can be just as confusing as fractions. But this idea of Jesus as the light of the world—it is such a comfort. It illuminates that existential predicament we talked about, especially the why am I here part. In looking at the life of Jesus we see the intended purpose for our own lives. We are here to take joy in life, love one another, and to love God. It’s simple. And that simple truth turns the light on in our lives, giving our days purpose and meaning.
The next I am saying is perhaps the most mystical of them all. I am the vine, you are the branches. If you envision a grape bush, the vine is the larger trunk of the plant, and the branches spring forth from the spreading vine to bear fruit. In my eyes, this is definitely the post-resurrection Christ speaking at this point. This is the Christ with whom John is in a spiritual relationship speaking these words.
This passage can take on new meaning when used in prayer. In the mystic traditions of the great religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, among others, there is the notion of two selves within each of us. One self, spelled with a small case “s”, is the ego-centered person we show to the world. This is the self that contains our personality, the self that makes us the individual we are among all the other selves in the world.
In prayer and meditation, one tries to move beyond that little self by going deep within. Deep within us is our larger Self, spelled with a capital “S”. We can think of this deeper Self as the person we were meant to be. We can also think of it as that point within us that is one with God. That inner self, a Christian would say, is one with the Holy Spirit, one with Christ, which is inseparable from God. A Hindu would say that inner self is the Atman, which is inseparable from God.
The point is, when one moves inside to the very deepest level we come into communion with God. And from there—from deep within—we can look back at our outer self objectively. We can see ourselves as one person among billions, understanding that we are no more and no less important than all of the brothers and sisters with whom we share this creation. It is seeing things from God’s point of view.
With this “I am” saying about the vine and the branches, I see Jesus using similar imagery to the outer self and the inner Self. Jesus is the vine, rooted in God, and we are the branches that spring forth from that vine. Christ is the very center of who and what we are at our most basic and honest level. And that is good news. Listen to the passage from the 15th chapter of John:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
And that leads us to the final “I am” saying that we will examine. This is a favorite of the fundamentalists, who use it to claim all those who do not confess Jesus as their personal savior are lost souls. This is John 14:6: Jesus said to them, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
That sounds fairly unambiguous. And if we attribute those words to Jesus of Nazareth, and take them out of context, then they say exactly what they appear to say. Jesus is the only way to God. No one makes their way to God except through Jesus.
But let’s dig deeper. First, let’s keep that image in mind of the risen Christ speaking through John. If we can make that separation, let’s think of this as Christ speaking as opposed to Jesus of Nazareth speaking. Listen to the passage:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’
If this is the Christ speaking, we must ask ourselves, what is the Christ? What does that word mean? Go back to the very first chapter of John’s gospel, and the picture starts to become clear. It is there that John claims Jesus Christ was one with God before the moment of creation, that Christ is the logos, the word, the law, through which all of creation came into being. Christ is the redemptive love of God which called the universe into being and which holds the universe together.
So if Jesus Christ truly is one with God; and that is John’s contention; and if Christ is the redemptive love of God made flesh in the person of Jesus; then when John’s Christ says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” isn’t he really saying that salvation is always in the hands of God? We cannot work our way to God. We cannot be so good that God has no choice but to be in communion with us through all eternity. No one comes to God unless it is God’s will. It is only through God’s redemptive love that we become united with God.
Of course, Christians believe we can see that redemptive love when we look at Jesus. I believe that. But that does not mean one must necessarily confess a specific belief in Jesus of Nazareth to be the recipient of God’s redemptive love. I see people in all the great religious traditions faithfully surrendered to God’s redemptive love. That is the way one achieves communion with God. We Christians should be cautious about thinking we have exclusive claim to God’s love just because we see that love expressed so perfectly in Jesus Christ. I think that is what makes Christianity the greatest religion in the world. But I do not think that gives Christians a right to judge other people of faith as standing outside the grace of God.
With that, we’ll bring to an end this two-part series on the “I am” sayings of Jesus. For those of us who are willing to open both heart and mind to the wonder of the Christian faith, these sayings are really important, even if they are abused by some in the church. They are important because Jesus truly is the good shepherd, the bread of life, the light of the world, the true vine, and yes, for those of us who follow in his path, he is the way, the truth and the life.