I AM, what?
When we left our gospel narrative last week, Jesus was being pestered by a crowd of people to give them free bread, as he had done when he had fed the 5,000. And when Jesus declined, the crowd reminded him that Moses had fed their ancestors in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus corrected them, reminding this crowd that the manna—the bread from heaven—had come not from Moses, but from God.
At this point the people became much more pointed in their pestering; they said to Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Last Sunday’s lesson ended with the same verse that begins our lesson today:
Jesus said to the people, “I AM the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
If you were here last week, you will know from Carol’s sermon that this should have ended the matter. The crowd should have realized that they were looking for the wrong kind of sustenance from Jesus, looking for the wrong kind of food. But they didn’t realize this, and the matter didn’t end there.
What happened next is the subject of today’s gospel lesson. What happened next is that the Jewish religious leaders from the temple began murmuring against Jesus. This murmuring was not like the murmuring of the hungry Israelites in the wilderness who had begged God for food. No, this murmuring was more like,
“Who does that Jesus think he is, anyway? God?”
These people weren’t really asking a question. My grandmother had another way of saying what these people were saying. My grandmother would observe that someone (usually me) was “getting too big for their britches.” We aren’t talking oversized people here, but oversized egos. “Just who does Jesus think he is, anyway?”
Today we understand Jesus’ “I AM” statement as an affirmation of these people’s rhetorical question. They asked, “Who do you think you are, God?” And—in a way—Jesus answered, “I AM.”
Those synagogue leaders knew—just as we know today—that God had identified himself as “I AM” when Moses had met God in a burning bush. There just is no way to quantify God, to limit God, to bind the ultimate reality and the creator of all things with some kind of other quantifier, with a predicate for God’s existence. God is merely “I AM.” All the rest of us, we created beings, need a predicate, a descriptor, that goes with the “I AM” statement. Those synagogue leaders knew that God is I AM—what they were rejecting is that Jesus is I AM.
Thanks to the wonders of e-mail and Facebook, there is a graphic being shared this week, an image that I placed on the front of today’s bulletin, bad grammar and all; did you week it?
This graphic was shared by a fellow preacher, so I assumed that the origin of the graphic was rooted in today’s scripture. NOT SO! Apparently New Age practitioners, self-help gurus, and psychologists alike have all used this saying, whose author is not known. In a few minutes I am going to appropriate this saying as a lens through which we can apply today’s gospel lesson to our lives. But first I want to share with you some of the ways that our culture uses the “I-AM premise” to define our existence.
- The great philosopher Réne Descartes supplied a very popular way to define reality. He famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, we humans exist because we can think. This is the Enlightenment’s understanding of reality: thinking is what defines us.
- Maybe, though, philosophy is not your thing. The artist Barbara Kruger conceptualized another modern view of existence: “I shop, therefore I am.” This is the Capitalist answer, one that says either I buy things as recreation, a way of spending time—or, more direly, I am empty and lost so I must shore up my sense of self, my identity, with things.
- If you are not a Shop-a-holic, you might be more attuned to another way to define existence. A horror film critic (discretion prevents me from identifying the name of his blog) says that two words, “blood” and “boobs” are the most powerful concepts that exist. In his view fear for our safety (fear of death) and the drive to procreate (to have sex) are what define us. But surely we are more than the sum of our biological parts!
What do YOU put after your own “I AM” statement?
I read a story recently told by a psychologist. One of his patients began many of her sentences with the words, “I am sorry….”
- “I am sorry that my child did not turn out as that I had dreamed for her.”
- “I am sorry that I got sick.”
- “I am sorry you are so disappointed in me.”
- “I am sorry to tell you…”
The psychologist observed that we should take care what we affirm for ourselves, that whatever we put after our own “I AM” statements becomes a kind of self-fulfilling wish. Whenever we begin a sentence with I am we create what we are and what we want to be. At the same time, we are also showing how we define our existence.
As Christians, a better mantra might be, “I-AM a beautiful child of God and worthy of God’s love.” As a congregation, our I AM statement is this: “I AM the hands of the Lord in this place, reaching out to our community and the world.” So individually and collectively we are God’s people, beloved people of God, people who DO THINGS in God’s name.
God doesn’t need any words after I AM to share God’s reality. God simply is I AM. Jesus didn’t need any words after I AM either, but in John’s gospel he added a few to shape our reality in relation to God, to point the way to what our I AM should include. In this way Jesus left us some predicates, some pointers, to guide our lives in relation to his ultimate I AM.
John tells of seven I-AM statements made by Jesus. In our lesson today Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” This is the first of the seven I-AMs. After “I AM the bread of life,” Jesus added, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And in a few minutes we will feast at Jesus’ Table, just as he said.
Our feast today will define us: I AM a beloved child of God; I AM a follower of Jesus. And, after we are fed, each week we affirm “We are—I AM—the body of Christ.” GO IN PEACE, DO THINGS in Jesus’ name.
 Exodus 3:14