Good Friday, March 30, 2018, Lectionary B
Elizabeth’s of Hungary in Richmond Hill, Georgia
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: John 18:1-19:42
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the great I AM, send now the Holy Spirit to teach and transform us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
“Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” So, Chevy Chase would begin his Weekend Update on Saturday Live some years ago.
Of similar comedic note there was Popeye the Sailorman, who could be heard to say, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.”
Then there are the words of the French philosopher, mathematician Rene Descartes in 1637. Je pense, donc je suis. He was French, right? Of course, it had to be Latinized at that time. Gogito ergo sum. In English we hear Descartes’ existential insight as “I think therefore I am. “I am.” It is a basic statement of being, existence, of who-ness—I am. And it is singularly, essentially, fundamentally significant as distinctively heard in the Book of Exodus:
“And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? 14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. 15 And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15). “I am.” It is a basic statement of being, existence, of who-ness—I am.
While there are any number of good, rich places we could focus on in today’s gospel for Good Friday, it might have caught our attention that those two words, “I am”, are used a number of times, in fact some twelve different times. We first hear them in verse 4.
“Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ 5 They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’” St. John in his gospel has been playing this “I am” note in the voice of Jesus all along. With variation Jesus has repeatedly said “I am”. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am from above. Before Abraham was, I am. I am the door. I am the good shepherd. And, most tellingly, I am the Son of God. Jesus also says that I am the resurrection and the life. Now, we need to acknowledge something about Jesus saying, “I am he” in verse 4 and subsequently. The Greek language in which the Gospel was originally written does not say, “I am he.” It does not include the predicate nominative, “he.” The Greek word used is ειμι, simply translated as “I am.” The translator has unnecessarily added the predicate nominative. In other words, what Jesus has been telling us in John’s gospel is that He is the same “I am,” whom Moses encountered in the Book of Exodus, referenced moments ago. By Jesus saying “I am” He was telling His listeners, not only then but now, that He is God. For the Jew there could be no greater blasphemy, punishable by death.
Consider this then: the Jewish establishment of Jesus’ time would crucify the God (I am) of Moses, the same God who had given them their precious Law. As astounding as that is, we should realize that it is God Himself who dies for us on the cross, making it possible for us sinners to approach Him, be with Him, and know eternal life. In a manner of speaking, because God loves us so much He was willing if not to change His rules to work within them in a way unimaginable, so that we might know His redeeming grace.
We again hear the words, “I am” in verse 6. “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they stepped back and fell to the ground.” What is this about? Why did they all fall down? Well, those of you who have been influenced by the Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition, as have I, might have some suspicion. One of the first places in the Bible that we encounter this falling to the ground is 1 Samuel 19:24. “And he also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets.’” Later, at the consecration of Solomon’s temple we can read these words in 1 Kings 8:10-12: “And it came about when the priests came from the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. 12 Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud.”
What has happened here? Similarly, why had those who had come to arrest Jesus fallen to the ground when He said, “I am”? In Pentecostal or Charismatic terminology it is known as “resting in the Spirit.” When God the Holy Spirit comes upon a person, he or she will collapse, fall to the ground, but not because anything is wrong. It is as if God’s strong presence overwhelms the normal human ability to stand for a period of time, sometimes short and sometimes long. It is actually a wonderful experience—resting in God’s strong, palpable presence.
Consider this perspective. Jesus had knocked everyone down merely by saying those two words, “I am.” Do you really think He could not have freed Himself from any kind of bondage or imprisonment? Think of the strong man, Samson, in the Old Testament. He was only strong when God the Spirit came upon him. Virtually every recorded feat of strength he exhibits is preceded by these words—and the Spirit came upon him.
In other words, here at Jesus’ arrest is another glaring example of Jesus having emptied Himself of His divinity by allowing Himself to be arrested. He could have burst free, but did not. St. Paul’s words from Philippians2:6 come to mind: “[A]lthough He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”
It would appear that not only did those who came to arrest Jesus lose their literal footing—they fell to the ground, but they may have also lost their mental footing. Jesus asks them again, “‘Whom are you looking for?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ 8 Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he.’” As we heard, the drama of Jesus’ arrest continued to unfold. Peter draws his sword and lops off the ear of the slave, Malchus. St. Luke’s gospel (22:51) records Jesus restoring the man’s ear. “But Jesus answered and said, “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him.”
If you have seen Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion”, you might recall that there is a scene where the healing of Malchus’ ear is portrayed. In spite of all the chaos and fear surrounding the arrest, Jesus, with love in His eyes, stoops down to the wounded, in pain Malchus, touches where his ear had been, and it is restored. It is a profoundly touching moment in what is otherwise a very dark one.
Peter, by wielding his sword, is resisting Jesus’ arrest and, perhaps, as well the coming crucifixion. Certainly, as we know, he had opposed it. At this point, Jesus again uses the two words, “I am”, but in the form of a question, a question as to an action. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” It is a transitional point in our study of “I am”, but there is more to it than that, as we shall see later.
Jesus is carried off by the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police. Peter and another disciple, presumably John, follow. John knew the high priest which apparently made it possible for him to speak to the woman who guarded the gate. Peter was then allowed to enter the courtyard. It is this woman who puts Peter on the hot seat, and it is where we next hear those two words, “I am.” “The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’” Though perhaps spoken in a whisper, we can hear Peter’s words, “I am not” virtually ring out like a bell. “I am not.” The cold air would have augmented the sound. “I am not.” Are we deeply hearing what Peter said? “I am not.” This was Peter’s first denial of Jesus.
Jesus is questioned by the authorities. Likewise, Peter is questioned; this time by a group of people. “Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’” This is Peter’s second denial of Jesus. Jesus had prophesied this. “Truly I say to you (Peter), that you yourself this very night, before a cock crows twice, shall three times deny Me” (Mark 14:30). Peter’s third denial of Jesus soon follows after the second. “One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it (I am not), and at that moment the cock crowed.” Jesus’ prophesy had been fulfilled. Peter’s betrayal was complete. What a betrayal it was, so much more than the obvious, but that comes later.
The “I am” phrase continues. Pilate replies to a question of Jesus’ by saying, “I am not a Jew, am I?” Ethnically, Pilate was not, but was he in another way a Jew, a man also under the law? Moments later in their discourse Jesus will say to Pilate, “You say that I am a king.” Now, the great “I am’s” titles begin to reassert themselves. As Jesus is the good shepherd, the bread of life, and so on, He is also King.
Finally, there is one last “I am” phase that Jesus uses. “I am thirsty,” He says in verse 28. This may come as no surprise. Jesus was human and He probably was thirsty among other incredible discomforts, as He is now hanging from the cross. Psalm 22:15 describes His thirst in this way: “My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth” (BCP p. 611). John tells us parenthetically that Jesus says these words in order to fulfill scripture (i.e., prophesy). We can read in Psalm 69:21: “They also gave me gall for my food, And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
Remember, though, what was said earlier. “There is more to it than that.” What is the it? The it was these words of Jesus. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In other words, when Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” He wasn’t just saying, “Boy, I would love a nice refreshing Coca Cola.” No, His thirst was beyond any bodily dehydration, as you and I might experience after long, hot day in the sun. His thirst was deeper than that. He longed to drink the cup that God had given Him, meaning the completion of His salvific work, mostly expressly in in the work of the cross.
Of course, we can also thirst for more than something liquid, can we not? Psalm 42:1 surely identifies what Jesus truly meant when He said I am thirsty. Listen to the words: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God.” Here we arrive at the pivotal salvific point in Jesus’ ministry. So that we might be forgiven of our sins, Jesus took them and our punishment upon Himself. What is that punishment? It is separation from God. Earlier in today’s service in Psalm 22:1, we heard these words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This is to ask, “Why have you deserted me?” Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels both record these words as being spoken by Jesus before He dies on the cross. Jesus wasn’t just thirsty for a drink of cold water. He was thirsty for God, His Father’s presence of which He had been deprived for our salvation.
By now I suspect you may be saying to yourselves that I am tired. I am tired of hearing about I am. Surely, though you have noticed a big hole, a shocking contrast, an unsettling comparison between the words of Jesus and the words of Peter. Jesus said, “I am.” Peter said, “I am not.” As noted earlier, “I am” is a basic statement of being, existence, of who-ness—I am. Jesus said I exist. Peter said I do not exist when he denied Jesus. It is a scary thought—not to exist, to be in darkness, to not be alive, to be quite frankly in despair. This is where Peter had placed himself.
John’s gospel does not record this, but we read in Matthew (26:75): “And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, “Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.” It is so obvious that it almost pokes us in the eye. Peter had not only denied Jesus, He had denied himself—I am not, he said. Peter’s denial of Jesus was a spiritual and an emotional suicide.
Needless to say, we all have our wardrobes, our closets of “I am.” I am a man, a priest, a father, a husband, a brother. I am of a certain age, weight, and height. I am good at certain things and not good at others. We all have a closet full of “I am’s.” Put another way, we may wear a number of hats.
Jesus, as noted, had a closet full of “I am’s”—the good shepherd, the door, and the rest, but most preeminently He is the “I am,” God Himself. Then, there is Peter. He would have said that I am a fisherman, a husband, and a follower of Jesus, but then crunch time came and he said, “I am not.’ Extend that out and we may hear Peter saying, I do not exist, I am no longer who I am. I have no being, no existence. Now, that might seem farfetched, but is it? Who was Peter without Jesus? Who are we without Jesus? Oh, we could back to our closet of “I am’s,” but like all clothing they will eventually wear out, get old, dirty, and need to be thrown away. As we advance in age, this reality becomes painfully clear. We are not as energetic, sharp, or as good looking as we once were. If we live long enough we may lose our sight, our hearing, ability to walk, or even our memory. Who would we be without our memory?
Jesus, who is the great “Am I,” the creator of all existence, all being, chose to become “I am not” by going to the cross. Why did He make this choice? Certainly, it was out of obedience to God the Father, but it was also so that you and I might say that we are or in the first person, I am. By His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus has made it possible for us to become who we truly are, our “I am”. As St. Paul tells us, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In the “I am” of Jesus, God Himself, we are offered and able to become more than any “I am” we might have imagined. Indeed, in the “I am” of Jesus we begin to come more and more like Him, who is eternal. We know, experience, and enjoy the “I am” of eternal life. You might say that is some of the good of Good Friday.
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.