Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 25 September 2016
Trinity 18 E&B
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Following on from where Fr Alan left off last Sunday evening, in the course of this evening’s second lesson from St John Jesus explicitly appropriates the name of God. The reference, you’ll recall, is to Moses, after the episode of the burning bush:
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’…
This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
As one scholar has written on that Exodus episode,
‘One might wish to … understand this “explanation” of the name as a refusal of revelation: “I am who I am” and what that is is none of your business.’
Romer, The Invention of God, 29
A nice thought. But, as often, it misses a word-play: this passage was intended as a story which Rudyard Kipling might have entitled ‘how Yahweh got his name’. It is an aetiology. Aetiologies, never to be confused with genuine etymologies, the linguistically-traced origins of words, were a bit of an industry in the ancient world. Greek and Latin poetry is full of them, as are the works of early historians like Herodotus. The idea of aetiologies was that somehow these stories conveyed the essential truth about that mysterious process whereby meaning attaches to combinations of sounds in language, and differently in different places and among different peoples (think about our biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and think about how that linguistic confusion introduced in Genesis is symbolically reversed by the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles).
It was a seeking after the truth of things that motivated those writings. But it was an essentially romantic sort of truth that was always uncovered, like a modern urban myth, satisfying and comforting, which seemed to make empathetic sense to the listener. That is not the sort of truth that Jesus is talking about when he says:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
We can understand that as a statement about the world, about how things are. Many a sermon has reminded us how untruths multiply and interweave and catch us out. Which is, of course, another truth. But this is not a generality: John is here reporting a particular conversation between Jesus and some fellow Jews who are inclined to ‘believe in’ him, which means, in John, ‘trust his testimony about himself’. It follows Jesus’ self-proclamation as the light of the world, and his foretelling of his own death. Now, as some are taking him seriously, he pushes them harder.
‘The truth shall make you free’. We hear that phrase as being about truth (which may have been Jesus’ emphasis too) but the listeners catch something different: they fix on a much more immediate preoccupation of their day, ‘freedom’. This is not a rhetorical aspiration as in modern political speech. The greatest division in the Roman empire was between slaves and free, with a whole class of people, freedmen, who had bought their own freedom, or been given it, to whom it was especially precious, and in no way a theoretical adjective. To tell someone they need to be ‘made free’ is an insult to any but an actual slave.
The logical opposite of a slave in any household is a son – the freeborn heir. By this route Jesus moves the conversation on to his relationship with God, his own ‘sonship’. With more of the courtroom rhetoric I was speaking about a few weeks ago, he is finally explicit about his relationship with God, to the point that he makes a unique and remarkable statement: ‘before Abraham was, I am’. With this ultimate aetiology he is claiming the name of God, Yahweh, as his own identity. They pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy, but he hides and gets away.
This ‘I am’ statement colours a number of others in John’s Gospel – ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the true vine’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. Once we’ve heard ‘before Abraham was I am’ these all become statements about God. But let’s return to the original statement:
‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’
If we do continue in his word and are truly his disciples we are indeed set free, though our modern slaveries may be of a different, subtler kind: to comfort, status, dysfunctional relationship, possessions, money, alcohol, whatever it may be. ‘Truth’ for Pilate was just another rhetorical opportunity, as freedom is to a modern politician. But for many in the world, like Jesus, unjustly imprisoned on death row, it is even today a life-or-death issue. But this is a larger statement: here we are in the environment of what Jesus calls elsewhere the Kingdom of God. The Gospel is supposed to call us out of lazy allegiances to whatever we think important, whatever enslaves us or claims our allegiance, and put us in the presence of God, under whose true and truthful allegiance we gather, and whom we worship.
Yahweh probably doesn’t originally mean ‘I am’; its etymological origins are opaque. It most likely originally referred to a tribal god of storms, a desert deity with warrior characteristics known to some of the distant ancestors of those John calls ‘the Jews’. But by the time of Jesus God has become known to his people by this name, which sounds like ‘I am’ in Hebrew, and the name has fixed to itself this deeper meaning; Jesus’ appropriation of it to himself adds further depth, but, importantly, it also adds a new homeliness, which is the hallmark of the incarnation. It makes Jesus a sacrament of God in the world, a presence with us that he continues to offer, by extension, in the blessed sacrament of the altar, where we are about to worship him.
In modern human terms that is more than slightly odd. But in its strangeness, and also in its familiar humility and smallness, God’s nearness to us and empathy for us, is our freedom and our salvation.