This Easter season, Keith and I are exploring Jesus’ “I AM” statements in the gospel of John. All four gospels show Jesus using figures of speech inviting his listeners to experience God’s kingdom. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, he uses parables, but in John’s gospel, we have these statements instead. John’s gospel also differs in that Jesus’ divine origins and identity are openly revealed.
That’s where the “I AM” statements come in. Remember God telling Moses at the burning bush, “I AM who I AM?” That is a translation of the literal meaning of God’s personal name, Yahweh. In Greek, these words are “ego eimi,” words Jesus uses in every “I AM” statement.
Whenever those words appear, it is an announcement of the fully divine presence incarnate in Jesus Christ. Usually Jesus also links the divine name with a word image, so we get a picture of what God is like. This Eastertide, we are exploring these statements, asking, just who is this Risen Christ, and why does believing in him matter?
There are two “I AM” statements in the scripture I am about to read. Listen carefully—there will be a quiz! (Read scripture: John 6:16-35). Okay, who heard both of them? Raise your hands…The obvious one is “I AM the bread of life.” But did you catch the other one? It’s a little disguised—it comes when Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” He’s really saying “I AM; do not be afraid.”
Now if you are used to how the other gospels’ tell Jesus’ story, John’s seems a bit like a “mash-up,” combining bits and pieces in different ways.[i] The story of the feeding of the 5000 comes just prior to where I began in Ch. 6. John adds that the crowd Jesus has fed wants to make him king. But that is not Jesus’ mission, so he escapes. Later he walks on the sea and approaches a boat the disciples are rowing through rough waves and wind, and they are terrified. They must have thought he was some sort of demonic apparition, an embodiment of the sea’s mythic chaos and disorder. At that moment that Jesus says, “I AM; Do not be afraid.”
The second “I AM” comes a bit later. The crowd Jesus fed pursues him across the sea. He enters into a back-and-forth dialogue about their perceptions, their motivations in seeking him, and their belief in his true identity and mission. “I AM the bread of life” concludes their dialogue.
So we have here two announcements of God-with-us. One comes to the disciples, Jesus’ handpicked few, alone on the sea. On the surface, Jesus’ words are a simple self-identification—it’s just me, don’t worry. But Jesus’ words also echo with scriptural meanings. “Do not be afraid” is regularly spoken in the stories of theophany, when the holy living presence of God appears to a human being. The vision of Jesus trampling the sea is exactly that, and we are reminded of Genesis, the Spirit of God creating over the chaotic waters. In a fearful time, when everything around them seems out of control, it’s as if Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I know your fear. It’s okay—you are not alone. God in the flesh has come to be with you.”
The other announcement, however, comes to a crowd whose motives in pursuing Jesus are mixed at best. When they find Jesus, they interrogate him about his transport across the lake. Scholar Brian Stofreggen suggests they are seeking to control Jesus and his food-producing power. [ii] First they wanted to make him king. Now they want to control his movements.
But Jesus sidesteps that question, aware they are motivated by their bellies, not their hearts. Later they declare, “Give us this bread always!” and to my ears, they don’t sound like grateful recipients, but like a toddler trying to control a parent: “I want what I want when I want it, so give it to me now!” (I have lots of current experience with such things!).
Could it be that the human craving for control is at stake in both of these stories? On the one hand, there is encouragement when our control is lacking: a close community of people, having taken the risk to follow Jesus, in a moment of uncontrollable terror are invited to trust that the power which made the universe is at their side.
On the other hand, there is a warning not to presume we can control that power: the bread Jesus gives is not meant to satiate the selfish hunger for security. We are invited to awareness of a hunger much more profound than self-centered belly cravings. What we really crave is life.
All our attempts to manipulate and control are ultimately about securing life for ourselves. If I just work hard enough, we think, I’ll have enough money or status, and I’ll finally live the good life. If I just eat the right foods, exercise often enough, or find the right medication, I’ll finally live the good life. If I just build up enough weapons or put up enough fences,my house—or our nation—will keep out intruders, and the good life will be secure.
In relation to some other “I AM” statements—extra points at fellowship time if you can tell me one of them—Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[iii] But what, exactly, does Jesus mean? What is “life?” We think of life as the ongoing function of an individual organism, and death as its end. But the Bible’s notions of life and death are quite different. The people of scripture understood life and death in terms of their covenant with God.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning, and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or action…Life and death do not have to do, in biblical perspective, simply with the state of the individual person but with the relation between the person and the community that identifies that person and that gives personhood.”[iv]
Life, in other words, is having our being in loving relationship with God, and through God, with other people and creatures God has made. This life, the life Jesus offers, is a task for which the community has responsibility. We are called to work together to make a society characterized by peace and justice, in which we value one another and take caring action.
But this life is also a free gift, a grace from God that we cannot presume to manipulate for our own purposes or deny to anyone else, even to those who do not seem up to the task of community. [v] Jesus holds in balance the realities of community life as both task and gift.
Can you hear this understanding of “life” in what Jesus tells the pursuing crowd? “Do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” he says, and when the crowd asks how to accomplish this task, Jesus tells them their work is “to believe” in the One God has sent. “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Ground everything you do in the confidence of God in Jesus Christ, and you will never be excluded from the relationships that matter.
These words take on a greater poignancy if we hear them in the context of the Christian community which was the primary audience for John’s gospel. John elsewhere mentions ‘being expelled from the synagogue,’ and scholars think it was something his people were experiencing. For their belief in Jesus, they were being cast out and excluded from the community which had defined their identity and security. Much like those disciples in the rough wind and waves, they were fearful of engulfment by demonic forces. They needed the gift Jesus gave—the confirmation that God held their life secure and would never “drive them away” or desert them.
Sometimes we feel like them, when we recognize the challenges we face in the task of community life in Christ. There is nothing easy about discipleship in our day, though our challenges are quite different. We may not risk expulsion from our homes and families, but we often feel displaced in a rapidly changing world. We find ourselves starved for substance in our larger culture, which glorifies superficial values of “material wealth, sexual attractiveness, physical prowess, and social status,” what Marjorie J. Thompson calls, “the spiritual equivalent of empty calories.” [vi] Fear dominates our airwaves and our psyches, and we are pessimistic that human beings can truly make “just and secure orders of life.” When we are tempted to despair, Jesus says, “I AM; do not be afraid!”
But other times, when life seems to be going well, we are tempted to put our security in our own abilities. We begin to think we can make and discern the good life for ourselves. Where food is so readily available and convenient, few of us experience true hunger. We don’t know if we are eating for sustenance or just to dispel boredom. We get complacent about the needs of others because our own needs have been met. We begin to think our individual well-being is the sum total of life’s purpose. And yet, even with overstuffed bellies, we experience emptiness and isolation. We hunger for the life abundant, and Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life,” calling us again to the task of community grounded in the nourishing relationships with God and others only Jesus Christ can give.
My friends, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was resurrected. The One who was banished and destroyed, cast out of “life” itself, rose again, creating a new community where we may abundantly partake of nourishing relationships. Grounding everything we do with confidence in Jesus, we can take courageous action, each of us and all of us together, building a community of grace, and welcoming everyone we encounter to experience the life abundant only he gives.
All glory, honor, and praise be to you, O Christ! Amen.
[i] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1504
[iii] John 10:10—I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd.
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense, revised ed. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003, 89.
[v] Brueggeman, 90, 92-93.
[vi] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast, 3.