MARCH 17, 2005- GENESIS 17:3-9; JOHN 8:51-59

IF A MAN IS TRUE TO MY WORD HE SHALL NEVER SEE DEATH. ... BEFORE ABRAHAM CAME TO BE, I AM. In our liturgy we often pray that God’s promises be fulfilled in us; we repeated affirm our faith that God is faithful to his promises. St Paul states this truth with all desirable clarity: "God is faithful through whom you are chosen into the inheritance of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, he wrote to the Corinthians (1Cor 1:9). In today’s Gospel text we have one of the most sublime promises imaginable: eternal life. IF A MAN IS TRUE TO MY WORD HE SHALL NEVER SEE DEATH. Jesus is not holding before us unending life on earth; it is not physical death he speaks of; rather, he is assuring his faithful followers of entering upon and sharing the very life of God, the fullness of life, eternal and divine. By way of establishing his ability to make such an engagement, he goes on to affirm the basis of his authority by taking to Himself the divine name: I am (cf Exod 3:14).

Could our Lord reasonably expect these Jewish leaders to understand that he was not making a false claim, not rebelling against God but witnessing to Him? They had been formed by long years of belief in the unique God of Israel, saying daily the great act of faith that is the foundation of their religion. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord" (Dt 6:4). No one knew better than Jesus the obstacles posed by the seeming contradiction between this foundation of Israel’s faith and religion and the claim to accept him as the eternal Son, one with the Father and so united with him as to be his equal. Yet he does not here make concessions to overcome their resistance, nor defend himself in the face of their accusation of blasphemy; rather, he simply denies their charge and not only reaffirms his claim for faith in his words, but adds another that makes further demands on belief:: "I do not have a demon but I honor my Father. IF A MAN IS TRUE TO MY WORD HE SHALL NEVER SEE DEATH."

Our Lord realized that such a proclamation would invite his own death at the hands of those to whom he spoke, and in fact John adds that, upon realizing the fuller implications of Jesus’ words, his opponents felt justified in stoning him to death on the spot. Our Lord, as the Gospel puts it, "came as a light in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:5)." Already Simeon foresaw in the infant Messiah one who "is set for the fall and the rising of many (Luke 2:34)." That Jesus understood this John makes evident in various ways: "Rabbi", said his disciples, "just lately the Jews tried to stone you and you would go up again [to Jerusalem]? Jesus answered: ‘are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the daylight he will not stumble for he sees the light of the world 11:8,9)." And ascend to Jerusalem he did. It was more important to the Savior of the world to bear witness to the truth of his message than to avoid the rejection, suffering and death that awaited him because of his mission. It meant more to him than life itself to reveal the full significance of his person so that the light of God might shine brightly for all to see. For you and for me, for all who would acknowledge him as ‘the true light that comes into the world’ our Lord exposed himself to the hostility and torments of men who came to hate him precisely because of his claim to be one with God his Father.

The love that motivated such devotedness continues to give meaning to our Lord’s life, suffering and death. More, it is this love alone, the witness to God’s love for us, that gives meaning to our life. This mystery of a love that is manifested in weakness and suffering while conferring a power stronger than hatred and death itself is what we celebrate at this altar today and prepare to commemorate in the liturgy of Holy Week. May this love of Christ so penetrate our hearts and lives that we faithfully witness to others the truth of his teaching: "IF A MAN IS TRUE TO MY WORD HE SHALL NEVER SEE DEATH."


Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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