Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jesus, YHWH and Abraham

I love the Gospel for today . . . “Jesus said, 'Before Abraham was I am'” (John 8:58).

In an aricle on his blog, Multiculturalism, Religious Pluralism and The Uniqueness of Christ, scholar and retired Australian Anglican Bishop, Paul Barnett, makes some comments regarding these words. Actually, it is refreshing to read what he says in an era when even in certain evangelical circles it has become trendy so to overstate the difference between the supposed “low” Christology of the Synoptic gospels and the “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel, as to deny that the “historical Jesus” would even have had the kind of exchange with the Jewish leaders that culminated in “Before Abraham was I am” (John 8:56). Paul Barnett writes:

The proposition of the uniqueness of Christ begins with the uniqueness of Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. According to the Shema, God said “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”(Deuteronomy 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities. That he is “one” is not a statement of arithmetic relating to an indivisible monotheism. Rather, it asserts that he is “one” in the sense that he is incomparably, incontestably unique. This is the teaching of the Law and the Prophets.

The prophet Isaiah makes a number of “I am” statements on behalf of Yahweh, for example, “I am the Lord, and there is no other”(Isaiah 45:5). Jesus, too, makes “I am” statements, apart from “I am the bread . . .” etc. It has been long-recognised that Jesus’ absolute ego| eimi statements in John relate in some way to Yahweh’s words jani hu / “I am” quoted  in Isaiah (See D.M. Ball, My Lord and My God: The Implications of the ‘I Am’ Sayings for Religious Pluralism, in One God One Lord ed. A.D. Clarke and B.W. Winter (Cambridge: Tyndale, 1991), pp. 53-71.) For example: 

"I am he who bears witness concerning myself" (John 8:18).

"Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins" (John 8:24).

"When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you shall know that I am" (John 8:28).

"Before Abraham was I am" (John 8:58).

In LXX Isaiah 43:10 Yahweh said, "I am (ego| eimi) a witness, says the Lord your God . . . that you may know and believe and understand that I am (ego| eimi)."

The author of this gospel is presenting Jesus as making claims “as if” Yahweh the God of Israel. The question must be asked, why would this author have so presented Christ if this was not true historically of Jesus’ own attitudes and teachings? The question is especially pointed when New Testament writers across the board present Jesus in this way (see e.g., “Many will come in my name saying, ego| eimi ”- Mark 13:6).

If you want to read an address Paul Barnett gave to last year’s Mere Anglicanism Conference at Charleston SC, in which as an historian he shares his confidence in the New Testament documents, go HERE

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Regular readers of this blog will remember Father Stephen Freeman, Rector of St Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Orthodox Church of America). HERE, from a different angle, is a reflection touching on the same passage: 

As Christ walked in the midst of the people of Israel an event that was far more than historical took place. The One who was in the midst of them is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Strange paradox that you should meet and encounter a person who is Himself the beginning and the ending of all things. This paradox has led to many of the more profound insights of the Christian faith.

St. Maximus, reflecting on this, said that “the Incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things,” thus paradoxically placing the cause not “before everything” but in their midst, for the one who was in their midst was “before all things.”

Christ Himself would utter strange paradoxes that were completely true though opaque to his listeners: “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)

This aspect of who Christ is lies very much at the heart of much Orthodox understanding. Thus we understand that when we gather together for the Divine Liturgy, it is “heaven on earth.” It is not a change of locations of which the Church speaks, but a change in the nature of the location in which we gather – for as we gather “two or three,” “there am I in the midst of them.” And so our remembrance uttered in that service transcends the bounds of time:

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again . . .

The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning. The Lord of time and space is not bound by his creation but raises His creation “into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

It is this reality that is also proclaimed by the holy icons. They are not placed in the Church as though they were a photograph album of heroes now long dead. They are instead the “great cloud of witnesses” made present to us in the image, not as wood and paint, but hypostatically (i.e. personally). Thus icons are described as “eschatological” images – images that are painted according to the end of all things and not according to the historical record. The language of inverse perspective becomes the grammar of the age to come in the icons of the Church – pointing us not to what has come and gone, but to what is coming and now is.

And the whole congregation is invited into this new existence. Baptized into the death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). It governs our actions. Being dead to this world, we forgive the things of this world (“by his resurrection” we sing at Pascha). A life lived in forgiveness toward enemies and love for all is a life that is lived in confidence that all has turned out as it is promised by Christ. Christ defines history and gives it its meaning in His death and resurrection. His sentence of forgiveness, spoken from the Cross, is nothing less than the justice of God echoing across our world. For there can be no other justice than His freely offered forgiveness. Such light may be unbearable to some, particularly if they were counting on God to smash their enemies for them.

It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).


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