“Before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58
I’ve heard there is a worldwide shortage of chocolate and now word’s leaking out about a bacon shortage as well. Forget global warming, this is a real crisis.
Ever since Mary Poppins suggested that a teaspoon of sugar helps the medicine go down, and probably before, there have been efforts to make Jesus more palatable to the masses. To be sure, perhaps because those people who pronounce so loudly that they know the ‘real Jesus’ are often so unloving in their portrayal of Him, it is necessary to counter that message. Many of us try to do a “not-but” as a message. In other words, we say, “Jesus is not xxx, but He’s xxx.”
As Anthony LeDonne pointed out in last week’s blog, the picture of Jesus in the Gospel of John is a pointed one. When he says, “I AM the Gate” or “I AM the Way, Truth and Life,” there are sure to be many who can’t take that type of pronouncement. The same holds true with what to do with traditional religious faiths who present themselves as originating from the same promises made to the patriarch, Abraham.
That doesn’t even speak to the influence that eastern philosophies have brought to western life through New Spirituality. I can’t even speak to that at this point. Hopefully, sometime this Spring.
During my adult life there have been two general outlooks on the person of Jesus and what to do with Judaism and to a lesser extent, Islam. The conservative view has held that Jesus came to fulfill the Old Covenant requirements and, therefore, once and for all made them and their religious icons irrelevant. So, while conservatives hold to the primacy of Jesus as God, Son and Sacrifice, they uphold Israel’s place as a nation state in order that the prophecies about the end times will come true. Nevertheless, they see Judaism as unnecessary. History is full of conservative religious leaders denouncing Jews as “Jesus-killers” and these leaders (including Martin Luther) have taught that unless Jews renounce their love for the Law, they will see damnation. As such, other than a Jewish remnant, Israel will be the battle ground for the end times.
More liberal Christian thinkers are not sure Jesus really was God but most certainly was the exemplar for God’s kingdom rule. Jesus, they suggest, taught us to love and share and rejoice in the prospect of a new society envisioned by God’s overriding view of humanity and earth. So while liberals accept and welcome the diversity that Judaism and Islam bring to the language of love, they tend to humanize Jesus and downplay the nation state of Israel. These are broad, crude sketches of the general outlook.
New thinkers like Anthony LeDonne, NT Wright among others suggest that you don’t have to take Jesus out of his Jewish roots to appreciate his divine calling and nature. But they also suggest that there’s great deal of mystery to be found in the words of Jesus. In his book, Simply Jesus, Tom Wright calls them words that are, “complex in meaning and dense in hope.” Wright points out that scholarship research around first century sources have been recently helped by skeptics who have brought new light to the word usage and translations of historical documents.
The sermon series of Jesus’ “I AMs” looks over eight statements Jesus made in the Gospel of John. I have jumped them out of order but they basically fit within the chapters of John 6-15. This Sunday’s statement of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am.” is intended to show the complexity of his pedagogical reveal and works toward a greater understanding about who Jesus said He was.
It is tempting to solely portray Jesus as antidote or exemplar but when we dispense with the chocolate covering, I think we will find a new conversation between Christians, Jews, Muslims and skeptics. It is precisely the conversation and the ensuing scholarly research that will delve into Jesus’ words and work. I think we will all be impressed by the power and authority He has in life and love. It is sure to be more useful than saccharine in bad medicine.