Today's text comes from two places in the 8th chapter of John:
"Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning."
"Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am."
It is a truism that the Gospel of John is set apart from the Synoptic Gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke. For one thing, it is thought that the Gospel of John was written long after the Synoptic Gospels were assembled; but the main distinction is that there seems to be a higher level of mystical content in John from the very outset:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
It is my unauthoritative opinion that the Gospel of John is much more concerned with the things that Jesus SAID as opposed to the Synoptic Gospels' emphasis on what Jesus DID. There are many more tales of miracles, and travels, and activities in the Synoptic Gospels than in John, and there may be a reason for this: it may be that the higher vibrational resonance of John is intended more for the higher level initiates than for the more popular audience of the Synoptic narratives and parables.
A good example is the subject of today's sermon, the I AM Presence, which is one of the most complex conceptual entities in the Bible, appearing prominently in both the Old and New Testaments; it is also one of the Christian concepts that appears most often in many other world religions, including the many varieties of so-called "New Age" religious philosophies. The idea that "Before Abraham was, I AM" has powerful ramifications on our own personal sense of spiritual identity, and raises many questions about the structure of spiritual reality. The Christ Impulse speaking to the people through through Jesus, the perfect God-Man, must necessarily raise the question of the character of our own anomalous spiritual personalities, and of our unique place in the vast continuum of spiritual time and space.
Our first internet commentary comes from Barnes' Notes:
"Before Abraham was - Before Abraham lived, I am"
The expression I am, though in the present tense, is clearly designed to refer to a past time. Thus, in Psalms 90:2:
"From everlasting to everlasting thou art God."
Applied to God, it denotes continued existence without respect to time, so far as he is concerned. We divide time into the past, the present, and the future. The expression, applied to God, denotes that he does not measure his existence in this manner, but that the word by which we express the present denotes his continued and unchanging existence. Hence, he assumes it as his name, "I AM," and "I AM that I AM,"
"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.
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."
Compare Isaiah 44:6:
"Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God."
There is a remarkable similarity between the expression employed by Jesus in this place and that used in Exodus to denote the name of God. The manner in which Jesus used it would strikingly suggest the application of the same language to God. The question here was about his pre-existence. The objection of the Jews was that he was not 50 years old, and could not, therefore, have seen Abraham. Jesus replied that he had existed before Abraham. As in his human nature he was not yet 50 years old, and could not, as a man, have existed before Abraham, this declaration must be referred to another nature; and the passage proves that, while he was a man, he was also endowed with another nature existing before Abraham, and to which he applied the term (familiar to the Jews as expressive of the existence of God) I AM; and this declaration corresponds to the affirmation of John 1:1-3:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."
-- that he was in the beginning with God, and was God. This affirmation of Jesus is one of the proofs on which John relies to prove that he was the Messiah, to establish which was the design of writing this book.
"But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name."
Of course, in looking for commentaries on the I AM, it was no surprise to find that Martin Luther had something to say. In Luther's, as in other commentaries, I found that much has been made of the detail about Abraham; that Jesus was descended from Abraham seems to have been of particular importance to the Jews, and this detail will prove to be not without relevance when we get further down to the subject of DNA:
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent; John 8:46-59
"13. Likewise Christ also says here in replying to the Jews, that Abraham and the prophets still live and they never died, but have life in the midst of death; they however only lie and sleep in death. For "Abraham," he says, "rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad." Thus, the prophets also saw it. Where and when did Abraham see it? Not with his bodily eyes, as the Jews interpret it, but with the sight of faith in the heart; that is, he recognized Christ when he was told in Gen 22:18:
"In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."
Then he saw and understood that Christ, born of his seed through a pure virgin, so as not to be cursed with Adam's children but to remain blessed, should suffer for the whole world, cause this to be preached, and thus overwhelm the whole world with blessing etc. This is the day of Christ, the dispensation of the Gospel, that is the light of this day, which radiates from Christ as from the sun of righteousness, and shines and enlightens the whole world. This is a spiritual day, yet it arose at the time Christ was on the earth in the flesh, a day like Abraham saw. But the Jews understood nothing about such a day because of their carnal minds, and hence they reviled Christ as a liar.
14. Therefore Christ proceeds farther and gives the ground and reason why it is just his Word and not the word of anyone else, that giveth life, and says it is because he was before Abraham, or in other words, because he was the one true God. For if the person who offered himself as a sacrifice for us were not God, it would not help or avail anything, even if he were born of the Virgin Mary and suffered a thousand deaths. But the fact that the Seed of Abraham, who gave himself for us, is also true God, secures blessing and victory for all sinners. Therefore Christ speaks not of his human nature that they saw and experienced; for they could easily see he was
not yet fifty years of age, and did not live before Abraham. But with that nature by which he existed long before the time of Abraham, by which he existed also before all creatures and before the whole world. Just as he was man according to his spiritual nature before Abraham, that is, in his Word and in the knowledge of faith was he in the saints; for they all knew and believed that Christ, as God and man, should suffer for us, as is written in Heb 13: 8:
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and for ever;"
and in the Revelation of John 13:8:
"The Lamb of God that hath been slain from the foundation of the world."
Yet now he is speaking here especially of his divine nature.
15. But here reason is terribly offended and becomes mad and furious because God should become man; this reason cannot harmonize and understand. And this is the article of faith to which the Jews still in our day can not reconcile themselves, hence they cannot cease their throwing stones and their blasphemy. But Christ also continues on the other hand to hide himself from them and to go out of their temple, so that they cannot see nor find him in the Scriptures, in which they search daily. Again, this narrative is not a little terror to all who are so foolhardy about the Scriptures and never approach them with a humble spirit. For even in our day it happens that many read and study in the Scriptures and yet they cannot find Christ, he is hid and has gone out of the temple. And how many there are who say with their mouth that God is become man, and yet they are without the Spirit in their hearts; who whenever tested, prove that they were never in real earnest. This is sufficient on this subject."
Thus, Luther, at the same time, makes much of Jesus' descent from Abraham, and yet repudiates that descent as rendered invalid by virtue of the virgin birth; a birth which insulated Jesus from the contamination of Adam's curse. The kicker of the passage, however, is the bit about how:
"For even in our day it happens that many read and study in the Scriptures and yet they cannot find Christ, he is hid and has gone out of the temple."
According to Luther, Jesus was born a Jew, was raised in the Jewish tradition, but has left them far behind (or is it ahead, since, BEFORE Abraham, he WAS?). The truth of Jesus' teaching is a secret kept from the Jews by their own unwillingness to see it--how fortunate we are to be so gloriously conscious of it.
We read the following from the Adam Clarke Commentary:
Before Abraham was, I am - The following is a literal translation of Calmet‘s note on this passage:
“I am from all eternity. I have existed before all ages. You consider in me only the person who speaks to you, and who has appeared to you within a particular time. But besides this human nature, which ye think ye know, there is in me a Divine and eternal nature. Both, united, subsist together in my person. Abraham knew how to distinguish them. He adored me as his God; and desired me as his Savior. He has seen me in my eternity, and he predicted my coming into the world.”
On the same verse Bishop Pearce speaks as follows:
“What Jesus here says relates (I think) to his existence antecedent to Abraham‘s days, and not to his having been the Christ appointed and foretold before that time; for, if Jesus had meant this, the answer I apprehend would not have been a pertinent one. He might have been appointed and foretold for the Christ; but if he had not had an existence before Abraham‘s days, neither could he have seen Abraham, (as, according to our English translation, the Jews suppose him to have said), nor could Abraham have seen him, as I suppose the Jews understood him to have said in the preceding verse, to which words of the Jews the words of Jesus here are intended as an answer.”
I've been thinking quite a bit about the business of the Hindu/Buddhist versus the Christian religious orientation; I think orientation is really the only proper word for it; the word implies that there is more than one way of looking at things. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that, since Jesus came to my rescue as a healer way back in 1983, I have been a devout, uncompromising Christian-- I have cultivated a personal relationship with Jesus, prayed to Jesus, depended on Jesus, believed in Jesus, and enjoyed Jesus' protection and influence. However, at the same time, I must confess that I have retained certain pagan attitudes as elements of my Theology; it's all a part of my desire to stay broad-minded, and inclusive rather than exclusive. This . . . flexibility, let us say . . . has set me apart from so many professing born-again Christians, who willingly, nay, enthusiastically condemn more than half the world, (i.e. followers of other religious beliefs), to the fires of Hell, just because they don't express their religious beliefs in the same language I do. It's not that I don't believe in Hell--I do--but I have been unwilling to condemn the rest of the world over what might really end up being a semantic disagreement. One of the things about my mother's Christianity that pissed me off, when I was young, was her insistence that everybody that wasn't a Christian was going to go to Hell. That was something that I could not handle.
Even C. S. Lewis, a man who could never be confused with a namby-pamby, or Pantheist Christian, made allowances for differences of opinion at this basic level. At the end of The Last Battle there appears the following conversation between Aslan and a Calormene soldier--a soldier who, though born an enemy of Aslan, was, at heart, a friend:
“Then I fell at his feet and thought, surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.”
“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”
“Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?
The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him.
For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.
And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Dost thou understand, Child?
I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.
Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."
In my case, I tried to do what so many New Age people do--I tried to subsume Buddhism and Hinduism under a generic umbrella of Christianity--I tried to make them equal in my mind. I included Jesus as one more in a long line of saints who are sent by the so-called Ascended Masters. The "Ascended Masters" are one of many organizations whose existence is proposed by New Age Philosophical cults; others are Scientology, Eckankar, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and Steiner's Anthroposophy, just to name a few.
The Great White Brotherhood of St. Germaine is another (related) New Age organization--it is the one that I first came in contact with, when I started getting religion; through this organization's teaching, Jesus became, to me, one more great saint in long line of saints. Furthermore, I have to confess that I still hold to that argument somewhat. However the enlightenment that I have been getting from the Steiner lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Epistles of Paul has really turned me around quite a bit; through those lectures, I can see that Christianity is a truly significant step forward in the spiritual evolution of Humankind, and that Jesus' claim to be the ONLY begotten Son of God is a whole lot more true that I used to think possible.
There are other Steiner works in which he places Jesus in a superior hierarchical relation to Krishna, Gautama Buddha, and so on; but I never saw as clearly, as I now see, that Jesus brought a new concept into the world that is of incalculable revolutionary importance; through His power as the Anointed One, and the sacrifice of His Holy Blood shed for Humankind, the kingdom of God is now available for humans to enjoy here on Earth. It is one thing to say that the human spirit is and always has been an eternal thing--that before Abraham was I AM; but to have the I AM look you in the face and proclaim His Presence in the here and now of mundane existence--THAT IS A BIG DEAL--AND A NEW DEAL.
According to Hindu philosophy and Buddhist philosophy, life is a veil of tears; Buddhist monks spend their lives in meditation, renouncing the illusions of maya, and attempting to escape this veil of tears by sidestepping it and entering a higher world of spirit; detachment is the key--do not become attached to anything, and you will never be disappointed, and the higher vibrations of spirit will dominate your life--even if your whole life is spent in a dream as illusory as the dream of maya you are renouncing.
We all want the higher vibratory world of spirit--this is what sehnsucht is all about; but Jesus came to teach us that the act of renunciation, the invalidation of physical life, is a negative act. I can see, now, that Jesus brought a revolutionary message to the world: the message that, although the world of the physical is Maya, is illusion, it is still an illusion created by spirit, and we can make it real by simply validating it--by penetrating the spiritual essence of it, and watching it ripen into reality before our physical eyes, just like a story becomes a myth, just like a symbol becomes an archetype. As I said last week:
"The apparent contradiction is not actually a contradiction; it's just like how, when we figure out how to say something, we're not really expressing truth as much as we are merely finding a way of articulating an expression that our puny literal consciousness abilities can appreciate. Likewise, an action is a so-called "elected invention" that is ultimately futile, but which we perform anyway, because, as Jesus says, we can see the reality even in the maya. In the Hindu philosophy all reality is maya, so all actions are maya; but Jesus says, "Yeah, it's maya, but it's also real, it's also there, and because of that we can validate it and cherish it give life to it, as yet another dimension of spiritual reality… Not a lower dimension but another dimension.
At the end of the lectures on the Bhagavad Gita Steiner proclaims the singlemost important revolutionary contribution Jesus made to the evolution of Humankind: that the Christ Consciousness is available to EVERYONE. Steiner makes the distinction between the Hindu principle that physical reality is maya, illusion, and is therefore to be transcended through renunciation, and the completely new affirmation of spirit IN THE FLESH that was the primary thrust of Jesus’ entire career. Though His incarnation and sacrifice, His blood shed onto the face of Mother Earth, Jesus ushered in a completely new epoch, an epoch of Heaven on Earth. Jesus did away with the futility of human existence by affirming the spirituality and validity of maya; of course the mundane dimension is an illusion, but, so what? What articulation of spirit does not fall short of the infinitude of its source? The fact that we are all tiny foci of an infinite personality does not make us insignificant, but rather makes us glorious realities in a universe in which levels of reality constantly intertwine and comingle! That Jesus was Man and God is our inspiration not our condemnation! Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved!"
The problem with any articulated form is that it is only an approximation, that it is only symbolic--the limits of its finite definition never allow it to go far enough to tell the whole tale. It takes the open-ended, unknowing power of faith to realize the ultimate truth of anything, and once a thing has achieved its ultimate form, we can't understand it anyway. You have heard me speak the word "mythological" many times: a story or an event becomes "mythological" when a single articulated form, or plot, or situation, becomes illuminated by the resonance of infinity; an archetypal symbol is just such a thing; an archetype is a form, dictated by the consciousness of man, that is universal enough to enter the the collective unconscious (or consciousness, take your pick) and become an element of language, while still resonating with eternal rays. For us to think of life as a veil of tears--for us to long for heaven as a better place than here-- is to deny the existence of the I AM Presence. The I AM says that now, before Abraham was in the past, now, before Abraham will be in the future, I Am. I Am now, in the present is the glory of Christianity, and Jesus' gift to the world.
Next time we will take a deeper look at how the I AM Presence interpenetrates the Eternal Now. For now let us close with this prayer: Jesus, thank you for motivating John the Beloved to invite us to contemplate the infinite. Help us stretch our minds around this inconceivable immensity, and find ourselves, at last, in your cradling arms. Amen.