Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost,

Gospel of St. John: One

26 September 2010

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Scripture reading and sermon text: John 8:22-42.

Another festival; another trip to Jerusalem; another demand for answers; and, yet again, a denial of the obvious. This time, we have a difference as Jesus finally explained why the Jewish leadership failed to believe in Him as the Messiah.

We also hear the importance of one of Christianity’s basic teachings, the one that divides us from every other religion in history: the divinity of Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God. No other religion recognizes the true identity of Jesus as the Son of God. This text from the Gospel of St. John brings both great joy and infinite comfort to those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God, confessing Him as Lord and believing in His resurrection.

Jesus attended the “Feast of Dedication,” better known as Hanukkah. This festival celebrated the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C. by Judas Maccabaeus. The Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes had captured Jerusalem in 162 B.C. and offered a sow on the altar to desecrate the Temple. After he drove the Greeks from Jerusalem, Judas and the priests found the Temple contained only enough of the sacred oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted 8 days, long enough for the priests to prepare more of the sacred oil.

This festival celebrated more than merely the rededication of the Temple. The Jews won their freedom from the Greeks in the Maccabean revolt and set up their own kingdom for the first time in over 500 years. However, the joy of independence didn’t last; the kingdom descended into civil war only a few generations after Judas Maccabaeus’ death. The civil war ended with the Roman arrival in 63 B.C., but the Romans didn’t bother leaving. As the Jews entered and left the Temple to celebrate Hanukkah, they passed Roman patrols in the street; while they worshiped in the Temple, the Jews couldn’t forget the Roman garrison in the Fortress Antonia that towered over the sanctuary.

The Jews hadn’t forgotten the promises of the prophets. When you read the Old Testament, you see numerous references to the “Messiah,” or the “Anointed One.” The Messiah would restore the throne of David politically and righteous worship in the Temple spiritually. The Messiah would expel the Gentiles from the Righteous Land and extend His kingdom over all humanity.

With this background, we can understand the importance of the question posed to Jesus. St. John clearly describes the Jewish anxiety with the wording of this incident. The wording in most English translations tones down the Jewish actions by using “gathered around” to describe the crowd, but the Greek word strongly implies that the Jewish leaders literally surrounded Jesus. In other words, the Jews had no intention of letting Jesus slip away this time; this time, they thought, Jesus would stay put in the Temple until He answered the question clearly and definitively. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus didn’t try to evade their questions, but He reminded them of His words at the Temple earlier (John 8:56-58): “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” Jesus had claimed divinity by using the divine name “I AM;” He had fed over 5,000 people, healed a lame man and healed a man born blind; and yet the Jewish leadership refused to accept His Messiahship because He failed to live up to their expectations of the qualities of the Messiah.

Jesus blamed their refusal on their identity, not His own: “you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” This would have shocked the Jews since they saw themselves as God’s chosen people. The Jews based their salvation on their physical descent from Abraham. The Jews had asked Jesus to say “plainly” whether or not He was the Messiah, and now Jesus had plainly stated that they did not belong to the flock of God.

Jesus told them, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” You can see why St. John arranged his Gospel to recount this incident at this point in the narrative; the previous passage in this chapter tells us about the Good Shepherd, Jesus Himself. In 10:3-5, Jesus had said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Those who belonged to God — who believed the promises of salvation by faith, not by physical descent — truly “belonged” to the flock of God.

Jesus now continued by describing one of the greatest benefits He brought to those who believed in Him as Lord: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus did not come to bring a Roman-free temporal life to the Jews; He came to bring eternal life to all who would believe in Him.

Now notice the construction of Jesus’ next phrase: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Jesus had just stated that no one could snatch His believers from “my hand;” now He stated, “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Which hand provides more protection? According to Jesus, His hand and the Father’s “hand” would provide equal protection.

This statement held true only in one way: “I and the Father are one.”

Jesus, in this one phrase, clearly claimed divinity. In case you think the Jews didn’t understand what Jesus claimed, their actions proved otherwise. “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” The Jews clearly understood Jesus’ claim of divinity:  “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

We’ve heard of Jesus’ divinity for so long we fail to understand the implications of His words. We must remember a key factor in Jesus’ life on earth: Jesus was a Jew. When asked about the greatest commandment in the Torah, Jesus quoted the Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus the Jew believed and taught the Oneness of God; yet, He also claimed identity as God Himself.

Jesus defended Himself by reminding the Jews, ““Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” This quote comes from Psalm 82, where the Psalmist quotes God as saying, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (82:6-7). This passage, according to the Jewish teachings of the first century and after, referred to Israel at Mt. Sinai. According to Jewish Midrash, at Mt. Sinai, the Jews heard the voice of God and lived; had they not disobeyed the Law by worshiping the golden idol, according to the Midrash, their ancestors would have received eternal life. Unfortunately, the Psalmist continued by saying, “nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” The people broke the Law even before Moses returned from the top of the mountain to receive it.

Jesus continued: “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” Jesus could claim godship because, unlike their ancestors at Mt. Sinai, He had never sinned; Jesus kept the Law perfectly in His life. He challenged the Jews to believe in Him based on His works on behalf of the Father: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Jesus didn’t demand blind obedience from anyone; He challenged everyone to examine His works and determine for themselves whether His actions confirmed His identity.

Rather than examine the evidence, the Jews “sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.” Somehow, the circle disintegrated around Jesus; He left the Temple again, “went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained.” Jesus remained beyond the grasp of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, but others did accept His challenge to examine His signs. “And many came to him. And they said, ‘John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.’ And many believed in him there.” The Jewish authorities may not have believed in Jesus, but others did.

“I and the Father are one.” How can we believe in one God and yet accept Jesus’ divinity? How can we believe in one God and yet accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit? This statement requires a lot of explaining, and fortunately for us, the Church crafted an explanation very quickly in our history.

Let’s keep one thing in mind: The Church has never denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. St. John opened his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). Jesus, the Word, didn’t merely sit with God during the creation; “the Word was God.” Jesus, the Word, created everything; Moses wrote, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). St. John would later write in his first epistle, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).

St. Paul also believed in Jesus’ divinity. Jesus appeared to St. Paul at his conversion as a bright light (remember what St. John said: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men”). St. Paul later wrote of Jesus to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15-17). St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

When we compile and examine the evidence of the Scriptures, we see that every theophany (appearance of God) in the Old Testament points to Jesus; the Jews who wrote the New Testament accepted Jesus’ identity as God, even as they retained the teaching of the Oneness of God.

Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity qualifies as a mystery; we cannot fully understand it. However, we know the Father has eternally existed as the Father, meaning the Son has eternally existed. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, has also eternally existed.

The divinity of Jesus brings great comfort to all of us who believe in Him as Lord. Our faith in Jesus assures our eternal salvation, for no one can remove us from His “hand;” our salvation rests securely in the protection of Almighty God the Son. Everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, finds salvation from sin and victory over death.

Jesus’ divinity also reminds us of the enormity of our sins. If anything less than the death of the Son of God could have atoned for our sins, we would have a chance to rely on our own merits to attain salvation. Instead, our sins proved too great for us to pay the penalty ourselves; our prideful rebellion would prevent us from attempting to reconcile with God.

However, Jesus surrendered for us; Jesus payed the penalty for our sins. He offers His payment to us by grace. When we receive His gift of salvation, Jesus accepts us into His family; we become “joint heirs” with Jesus and members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Do you understand the penalty for your sin? Do you want to reconcile with God, your Creator? Salvation comes only through Jesus alone. Confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection. Do you doubt your worth in eternity? Jesus thought you worth His life. Do you wonder if anyone loves you? God loved you enough to send His only-begotten Son to die for your sins and rise again to give you victory over death.

In A.D. 325, the Church met at the Council of Nicaea to denounce the teachings of Arius of Alexandria. Arius had taught that Jesus did not eternally exist, that as the “firstborn of all creation,” God the Father created Jesus the Son, who then created all things. The Church reiterated Jesus’ divinity in a lopsided vote of 316 to 2. Contrary to the novel The da Vinci Code, the council did not “vote Jesus divine;” the bishops present only codified what the Church already believed.

The Church composed the Nicene Creed to summarize the true teachings concerning the identity of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.