APRIL 1, 2004 , THURSDAY OF 5TH WEEK OF LENT- HOMILY: JOHN 8:51-59
I DECLARE SOLEMNLY: BEFORE ABRAHAM CAME TO BE, I AM. Surely this is the boldest assertion anyone could make for it is nothing less than the claim to be the living God worshipped by Abraham himself. At the time it was made this claim put an all but unbearable strain on faith. The religious Jews to whom this statement was addressed understood it as a blasphemy and sought to put Jesus to death on the spot by stoning, the penalty prescribed in the book of Leviticus: “The one who blasphemes the name of Yaweh must die; the whole community must stone him.”(24:16) There can be no doubt that, in the mind of John the Evangelist, faith in Jesus means accepting him as God. All the more in that, while this text is the most explicit witness to this belief, it is not the only one in which this same claim is made in this Gospel. “The Word was with God and the Word was God” John tells us in the first sentence of his Gospel. He states it in the middle of his Gospel where Jesus says “I and the Father are one” (10:30). This text is more striking in the original Greek that translated literally reads: “I and the Father are one entity.” John also affirms this same truth at the end of his Gospel, when Thomas exclaims to the risen Christ: “My Lord and my God!”
Nothing was more fundamental to Jewish faith than that God is One. The Shema’ Israel was and still is regularly repeated in the Synagogue services keeping before the minds of all believers this all-encompassing truth: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” How then could any true Israelite be expected to accept this claim of the preacher from Nazareth to be himself God, one with the Father? This was the scandal raised by faith in Jesus for the Jews of his day. It continues to be a scandal today, not only for believing Jews, but also for Muslims, for the liberals of our Western world, for Hindus who accept Jesus as one among a number of avatars. It is a belief that only the gift of faith can accept.
Reason can do no more than indicate how it is possible for an individual who is truly a man to be at the same time God the while affirming that God is One. And in point of fact, many who called themselves Christians were known as Arians believed Jesus to be divine did not consider him to be One with the Father. For a time it seemed their view would prevail. They had the numbers and the political power behind them. It required the courageous efforts of the best minds of the times over many years to forge the doctrine that adequately preserved the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God, equal to the Father in his very Being. Even then, only be enduring much abuse, slander and persecution were such bishops as Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and their supporters able to have this belief in the full divinity of Christ accepted as the true doctrine of faith, as Orthodoxy.
To obtain some fuller idea and feeling for what this struggle for the truth of our faith cost its protagonists and defenders let us read a few lines of a letter St. Basil wrote to a bishop-friend while in the middle of the conflict.
Now those who have assumed that undisguised feeling of hatred against me seemed to me to be doing something like that related in Aesop’s fable. For just as he made the wolf, who through shame lest he seem to kill one who had previously done him no harm, prefer certain charges against the lamb. When the lamb easily refuted the entire accusation falsely brought against him, the wolf in no way ceased from his attack, but though defeated in justice was victorious with his teeth… For two charges at the same time are made in the accusation against me. One, that I separate the Persons, and the other, that I never employ in the plural any of the names appropriate to God but speak in the singular, of one Goodness, one Power, one Godhead, and all the others similarly. (Ep.clxxxix, Loeb ed., III, p. 59).
Basil may have felt like a lamb among wolves, but history vindicated him. His courageous resistance made him seem great even in his life-time. To him and to the others who stood with him when such a stand was a dangerous risk do we owe the preservation of our faith.
As we approach Holy Week with the mystery of our Lord’s rejection, sufferings and death the liturgy vividly brings to our attention the fact that these events took place precisely because our Lord claimed to be more than a prophet with miraculous powers; he maintained that he is God, fully divine, equal to the Father, One Entity with Him. We shall never realize all the implications of this mysterious truth so long as we are in this life. The doctrines that rightly affirm this teaching claim to do nothing more than to point to the mystery that surpasses human reason. But it remains accessible to the faith offered to us by the Spirit of Christ given us in baptism and in this Eucharist we celebrate even now. May we always treasure this life-giving belief; may this faith guide us in our daily life, permeate our thoughts and strengthen us in act so that we might be transformed by the Lord of glory. He who died for us has gone ahead to prepare a place for us in the presence of the Father for ages unending.&
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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