Chapter eight begins with the story of the woman caught in adultery. I hadn't intended to say much about this passage, partly because I have preached on it at SBC already, and partly because it is not included in the earliest manuscripts of the fourth gospel (although it does appear pretty early on in the tradition, and there is good reason to believe it is a genuine story from the life and ministry of Jesus). I coudn't quite bring myself to skip it entirely though,
A woman is caught in the act of adultery and brought before Jesus by the Pharisees, who remind him that the law of Moses says she must be stoned, then ask what he says they must do. If she was caught in the act of adultery, there must have been a man present - at least, I think we can assume it was a man, or I suspect they would have had rather more to say. Where is he then? How did he get away scot free? We don't know, but the absence of man says to me that this has nothing to do with justice, or with making sure the law is properly observed, but is entirely about trying to trip Jesus up, and the gospel writer acknowledges as much. The woman is simply used as prop, her life entirely expendable as the Pharisees risk having her stoned to death in order to catch Jesus out. I first preached on this passage to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, and I wonder how much of that violence happens because women's bodies are still treated as props. That's why it's important that we hear this story and Jesus response to it.
So how does Jesus respond? He bends down and writes in the sand, then tells the crowd that the one who is without sin should be the first to cast a stone stone at her. One by one those who have gathered walk away, until only Jesus and the woman remain. There has been much speculation about what Jesus was writing in the sand - verse from scripture? the sins of the accusers? - but Helen Paynter of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence suggests that what matters more is that he looks away. He refuses to look at the woman as one of a baying crowd, and in doing so affords her greater dignity. Whatever Jesus was doing, it amazes me that no one had arrogance to claim they were without sin. It is at least a little to their credit that they have the humility and self awareness to realise that they cannot cast judgement if they must be sinless in order to do so. Confession isn't something we do much in the Baptist tradition, but perhaps we sometimes need a greater awareness of our own sin so that we do not stand in judgement over others.
Now only Jesus and the woman are left, and it is at this point that he speaks to her, because now he can look on her as person to person, not as lynch mob to potential victim. He asks who is left to condemn her, and when she realises that there is no one left, he tells her that neither does he condemn her and sends her away. His parting words tell her to leave her life of sin, so he recognises that she has done wrong and must put things right, but he treats her with gentleness not judgement. In the end, this story holds shame for the accusers and grace for the accused, because Jesus always stands on the side of those who are persecuted and ill-treated. It might only be nine verses long, but it's a powerful little story.
We will move one now to the readings we heard this morning, John 8:12-20 and John 8:28-32, although we will be taking a theme from them rather than handling them in great detail. These passages may incite a sense of deja vu for those of you who heard or read last week's reflection, as they are in many ways a rerun of the disagreements from the previous chapter, with the crowds questioning Jesus and him defending himself. I wanted to return to these arguments because they give us more time to return to the question we posed last week, 'who is Jesus?'
Jesus largely defends the attacks on his ministry and person by saying again that he has been sent by the Father, and that it is from the Father that he derives his authority, but the first passage begins with Jesus declaring that he is the light of the world, and that is what I want to take as our springboard. This verse is one of seven "I am" sayings found in the fourth gospel, and I want to look at them together, as they offer some of Jesus' own answers to the question of who he is.
“I am the bread of life” (6:35) We looked at this a few weeks ago, and then again last week. It says something about Jesus as our sustenance or nourishment, encouraging us to feed on his life and ministry, digesting his words and example, for they are the things that bring true life.
“I am the light of the world” (8:12) There are lots of ways of interpreting light, which is a key metaphor in this gospel, but for me it has something to do with Jesus bringing understanding. Light helps us to see things as they are, and Jesus helps us to see the worldand ourselves as we are. The theologian Brian McLaren says that the crucifixion reveals to us that we will kill God in order to hold on to the little bit of power that we have. It reveals an uncomfortable truth about the our brokenness, but this truth can set us free, because it is not only for our shame, but so that we can know what is wrong and must be put right. [I didn't say this part this morning, but it is worth adding that Jesus also reveals beautiful truths about our potential, by showing us the best of what we might be.]
“I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7) Shepherds would have herded their sheep into pens, and then instead of closing a hinged gate as we might now, they would have lain down in the gap, stopping the sheep from wondering out and predators from wandering in. This then says something about Jesus being our protection. That doesn't mean we will never suffer or struggle, but that there is someone working for our good.
“I am the good shepherd” (10:11) This is surely intended to recall Psalm 23, with it's image of God as shepherd. There is so much in that psalm - the sustenance and protection we have already heard of, but also blessing and rest. It is a wonderful psalm to spend time with, as it contains many of the promises of God for us, promises taken up by Christ.
“I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) These words come just before the raising of Lazarus, but they are made even more profound by the resurrection of Jesus himself. They speak of the promise of eternity with is the foundation of our hope, as they tell us that death and pain and sadness are never the end, for there is life and love and joy always beyond them.
“I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) We've already thought about truth and life, but I think there is something else here about guidance. Jesus did not just tell us how to live, but showed us how to live through his example. The early Christians were known as people of the Way, because they sought to follow in the way of Christ, the way of love and grace and justice and compassion and embrace. We are called to be people who follow in that same way.
“I am the true vine” (15:1) Jesus goes on to say that we are the branches, and there is something here about connection. It is when we are connected to Jesus, through prayer and worship and study, that we grow and are fruitful. Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control - these are the qualities that we display when we stay connected to Christ, and a good sign of how well we are maintaining that connection.
We've flown through those, but I just wanted to take an overview of them together, partly because then we hear the repetition of those two words, "I am". It might not seem like much - surely that's just how you begin this kind of self-declaration - but it forms a pattern. And there are other places where those words seem less natural, as if intended to add to that pattern. In John 8:58, for example, Jesus declares "before Abraham was, I am". Gramatically that makes no sense, and so it feels as if Jesus wants us to hear those words again - "I am".
But why? Well they recall the conversation between God and Moses in Exodus 3:13-14, when Moses asks for God's name and God replies "I am what I am...tell them I am has sent you". "I am" isn't much of a name and it isn't much of an answer. It sounds like the beginning of something, and I think that's the point. It is an invitation to find out more, to get to know God and see what "I am" leads to.
The following video was created after an exercise I did with with my former church in Leeds, when I asked people to complete the phrase "God is..." It picks up on some of the ideas we have already touched on, so I offer it for your reflection. It uses the language of "God is" rather than Jesus is, but as Jesus is the incarnation of God, what is true of God is also true of Jesus. A couple of the responses may seem surprising and need a little explanation - for those not familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia, “not tame but good” is one of the ways Aslan is described, Aslan being the lion who stands for Jesus in those stories; and “queer” was chosen to express the way that God defies any of the boxes or labels we try to use, being so much bigger than our language and our ideas.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have some heard some answers from the crowds in scripture, from me, from Jesus himself and from my former church, and now it is over to you. Who is Jesus to you? Will you accept the invitation to find out what "I am" is the beginning of? I'd love to hear your thoughts and reflections, so please do comment below.