March 24, 2019
Jesus: I Am
I read an amazing story this week about Jacinda Ardern, the woman who is Prime Minister of New Zealand. She is the world’s youngest head of government at 37. In the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch last week, she spoke before the New Zealand parliament about the man who killed 50 people, saying, “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing — not even his name.”
We use the words “I am” to speak of our identity. How amazing that she refuses to allow him the most basic identity by speaking aloud his name. She did something else remarkable – the day after the attack, when she met with the Muslim families of those who had been killed, she wore a hee’jab, a covering over her hair, to show that she respected them and wanted this gesture to help ease their pain. She showed great sensitivity to the victims by this symbolic gesture, and she has already met with her cabinet to be sure that the country’s gun laws will change.
This morning we explore how Jesus used the words “I am” to speak to his identity. Our scripture is again linked to a passage you may have read earlier this week if you are following the devotions on our website. Each day there is a daily suggested reading in order to read through the entire gospel by Easter. Here in worship by necessity we must skip over some wonderful passages, so I urge you to go back and read more of the gospel for yourself.
Quick review – John’s gospel includes seven miracles of Jesus as representative of the many miracles Jesus performed. They were selected to help us believe Jesus is who he claimed to be and enable us to call him savior, so we may receive eternal life. We read about the wedding at Cana, which was one miracle. John recorded several miracles in chapter 5, Jesus healing an official’s son in Capernaum and then a paralyzed man in Jerusalem at a pool called Bethesda. In the beginning of chapter 6 was the feeding of the 5000, along with Jesus walking on water. We will get to the last two miracles in later chapters, that of Jesus healing a man born blind and raising Lazarus from death. These are the seven miracles – seven being the number of completion.
Now today our scripture lesson is on the first of seven statements of Jesus concerning his identity – what we call the “I am” statements. John very intentionally wants us to think back to when God met Moses at the burning bush, back in the beginning of Exodus. Moses asked what was God’s name, and God said, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.” Go back to Exodus 3 and you will see God’s name is written in all caps. In Hebrew it is rendered by the four letters YHWH, or Yahweh. God says this is the name by which God is to be remembered from generation to generation. God’s name is so holy, you will not hear any devout Jew ever speaking God’s name aloud, and the Bible often substitutes the word Lord in place of using God’s name.
People will ask, who is Jesus who calls himself “I am”, the name of God? Is he merely a good ethical teacher, a healer and miracle worker and prophet, or is he the only son of God whom we call our messiah, our savior? Does Jesus possess the full nature of God who is “I Am” and the same time is also truly human? Can he deliver us from our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross? John clearly states that Jesus is the fullness of God in human form.
If we skip over to chapter 8 in John’s gospel, Jesus is having a conversation with the Pharisees who are trying to discredit Jesus. The Jews ask whether Jesus is greater than Abraham, and Jesus replies that Abraham rejoiced at seeing him. “What?” They exclaim. “You presume you have seen Abraham?” Jesus answers them saying, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” They were furious, because they understood what Jesus was saying. Jesus was declaring that he is the eternal God who said to Moses, “I am.” They were ready to stone Jesus for words they considered blasphemy, but Jesus simply passed from their midst, unharmed.
Seven times in John’s gospel Jesus said, “I am” to describe his identity. He says I AM the Bread of Life; I AM the Light of the World; I AM the Door of the Sheep; I AM the Good Shepherd; I AM the Resurrection and the Life; I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life; and I AM the True Vine. In our scripture lesson for this morning, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” John recorded Jesus’ miracles to help us claim faith in Jesus as savior, while the focus of the “I am” statements is to show us the fullness of his being through an image or symbol that points us to God.
Our passage today begins with some of those who were with Jesus on the far side of the Sea of Galilee when he multiplied the loaves. They are so like us. They were looking for Jesus even if they were misguided in what they thought they wanted from life. Jesus told them, “Don’t work for food that spoils, but instead work for food that endures to eternal life.” They ask, “What is important? What does God want?” Jesus gives it to us straight. Believe in Jesus, the one whom God has sent. That’s the work we need to do.
Hear the shift in emphasis that John makes here. We want to work for the blessings we receive. We want to think we somehow deserve God’s rewards by whatever good things we do. But Jesus says, “Don’t work for food that spoils.” He doesn’t mean simply not to work for material goods that wear out and don’t last, like the manna that had to be gathered every morning. It’s more than that. Get away from the misguided idea that we have anything to do with deserving the salvation we receive. This is all on God’s initiative. God chose to extend his gracious gift of love, in sending Jesus into the world to rescue us from lost places where we had wandered.
Jesus tells them God’s desire is that they should believe in Jesus who is God’s son, but like most skeptics, they want some proof. “What miraculous sign will you give us so we may see it and believe in you? And this after Jesus had just performed one of his greatest miracles in multiplying the loaves to feed some 5000 people! The people bring up an episode from their religious history, which was when God provided food for the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt. God gave them this special food, called manna, which could be collected each morning for their day’s use, but it would spoil if they tried to hoard it for later. You can read about it in Exodus chapter 16. Even then, God wanted them to rely on him every day and put their trust in him.
Jesus reminds the people that it was not Moses who was responsible for providing manna, their daily food. It is God who gives us true bread from heaven. And who is this true bread? Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There are people in this country who go hungry for lack of nutritious food, but there are many more of us who hunger for the kind of spiritual food Jesus provides, the bread from heaven that offers us grace, forgiveness, a fresh start, and eternal life in him. We see those who hunger for his food of faith. They suffer from depression or loneliness; they are burdened by guilt; they feel themselves to be unworthy before God. They think they need to prove themselves with enough righteous acts in order to be deemed acceptable by the Lord. They worry they will do something or have done things that God cannot forgive. They discount the power of the cross, all Jesus has done to make us sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ our savior.
What does it mean to call Jesus the bread of life? It means that we believe Jesus is God. Jesus is the one who gives us the very gift of life, as basic a truth as bread is a basic staple food. It means Jesus is our savior. God who delivered his people out of slavery and provided manna for them to survive in the wilderness sent us Jesus who is bread for our souls. Jesus gave his very life for us, and we look to him for life both now and into eternity.
We say to Jesus, “Give us this bread.” We want this true bread of faith to give us abundant life now, along with the promise of life that extends into eternal life. We who believe in him trust his promise that we will never lack the spiritual resources we need to survive the worst life can throw at us. As we believe in him we know that we will never thirst for anything more.
We will come to six other I am’s in John’s gospel that spell out Jesus’ identity as you and I continue to read through John’s gospel. Let Jesus be for you the light of the world, a beacon of light in the midst of a dark and hurtful world. Let him be the door, your entry way into the kingdom of heaven. Let him be for you the vine of which you and I are but branches belonging to him. He is the good shepherd who in love gives his life for the sake of his sheep. He is our protector, the one who rescues us from lost places. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. I pray this week that the Holy Spirit will convict you and convince you that Jesus is your best hope, your source of peace, and the one who provides everything you need by faith in him. Let him be your daily bread, today and always. Amen.