The 'I Am' Sayings in St. John's Gospel: An Introduction – The Chaplain

A warm welcome back to College, to students, staff, Fellows, choristers, parents and visitors. It has been a recent tradition to have a sermon series in the Hilary term, and this term I have chosen the ‘I am’ sayings in St. John’s gospel, or at least some of them, which I shall explain in a moment.

Incidentally, I recently tried to get into Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological College, and found that I couldn’t because there was an IAMS conference going on. On the front door was the sign: “The IAMS conference”. And I thought that really, to be grammatically correct, this egocentric gathering it should be the “WE ARE” conference shouldn’t it? Of, course those of you with cats will know that IAMS is a brand of cat food, one that we feed to our own cat.

Anyway, this term’s sermons will have nothing to do with cats, I expect, but you can never be sure. We have seven eminent preachers who are going to examine seven sayings of Christ: “I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Good Shepherd” and so on. So it is my task this evening to try and introduce the series and to put the forthcoming gospel readings and sermons into some kind of biblical and theological context, and who knows, you might have your appetite whetted for the subject and get hooked.

For it certainly seems like a fascinating subject to me, the idea of who is God anyway. It is fundamental isn’t it? Why are we here to worship, on what do we base our lives, what is our basic ideology, morality, our purpose for being. These essential questions of human existence are radically influenced by these questions: who, or what, if he exists, is God and what is his character, purpose and will? Now this may get a bit technical, so hold on, and for the theologians among you, you will almost certainly get a question on the signs and sayings in John in Finals, so it’s an essay question worth revising.

So let’s start with some essential information: firstly, John’s gospel is the only one to use the “I am” statements. Now, whether this is because that was John’s recollection of Jesus’s ministry, or the way John particularly wanted to depict Jesus’s ministry, or just a useful device to communicate his theology is not clear. If we consider John’s gospel to be quite a late gospel, written after the others, then there could be some element of refined and considered theology about it. And that idea is collaborated by the structure of the gospel, in that the “I am” sayings contrast with the “I am not” sayings of John the Baptist at the beginning: “I am not the Messiah (1.20); are you Elijah, I am not (1.21); I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals ( 1.27)”, and again, “I am not the Messiah” (3.28).

Now, when it comes to Jesus, it’s important to clarify that there are three different types of “I am” sayings. Firstly, the metaphorical (“I am the bread of life, light of the world” etc.), which we will look at this term, where Jesus identifies himself in comparison to something else, often following an action or miracle, which becomes a sign, an identification, of who Jesus is and an explanation of Jesus’s actions.

Secondly, we have the self-identification sayings (“I am he, I and the Father are one, I am from above”, and so on). These sayings identify Christ in relation to his Father and usually follow some kind of inquiry, when Jesus is in discussion and his identity is called into question or needs verifying, either for the person with Jesus, or for us the reader.
The third kind of statement is the simple statement of existence and this only occurs once in 8.58: “Verily, verily I say to you, ‘Before Abraham was I am’.”

So what is the point of all these ‘I am’ sayings. Is John labouring the point somewhat? Well, if we consider the opening lines of the gospel: “In the beginning was the word” etc. then we have a gospel that is fundamentally Christological in its purpose. John is writing in order to explain that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and introducing the idea of pre-existence, which was developed later in the Church’s history: the idea that Jesus existed before his human birth, thus proving his Divine status.
But the real purpose of the gospel, beautifully structured as it is, becomes apparent at the end. The beginning is an teaser, as it were, the end is the answer:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
In this context the metaphorical “I am” sayings and the self-identification ones are relatively clear as ways to paint a picture of Jesus in terms of his actions and his relationship to God the Father.

But what about the simple, “Before Abraham was, I am (not even I was, which would seem more grammatically correct, because Jesus is quoting the Hebrew, “Yahweh”, in Exodus 3, which has no tense). But now we get to the nub of the issue:
There is precedent in Old Testament traditions for a similar enigmatic “I am” statement. As we have heard, Exodus 3 recounts Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb. When Moses asked whom he should tell the people sent him to deliver them from Egypt, God revealed himself as “I am” or “I will be” (Ex 3:14).

It is not so much a statement about ontology, proving the existence of God, but more a statement about the character of God, which becomes more clear, as we hear in the later books of the bible, through His involvement with humans history. He is not only a creator God, but active and creative within history. The name God takes for himself in the burning bush is almost a challenge: I am in every moment of time and space, and thus, Moses, I will be in every part of your future and your people, so look out! It is the same challenge that He sets us “I am”: here, active, living, involved.

So, this is the background to the verse in St. John that we heard tonight: “I am he”. John is applying the Greek version of the Hebrew “I am” Thus, Jesus identifies himself with the same God who manifested himself in his saving relationship with the Jewish people. John’s whole gospel, from its beginning to its end, attempts to show that Christ is God’s Son, who existed before creation, lived, ministered, died and rose again, according to his Divine character and purpose, which is at one with his eternal Father, who is active in all the pain and joy of human history. Each saying and sign points to this Christological truth, and as John points out at the end, the purpose of encouraging the reader to believe it is so that they might have life “in his name”: the very name itself represents his saving, sacrificial, loving purpose.

The metaphors that Christ uses to describe himself in the seven sayings we will be examining this term are very special and beautiful. They are well-known phrases that perhaps we take for granted, but I hope you will enjoy this term, as I will, looking a little deeper into the power of Christ’s language and his message. For the words are, after all, the words of life. Amen.

The Chaplain
18th January 2009

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