What is (A reflection on John 8.21-30)

What grounds your life?

What is the most important? What does it mean for you to be?

Is it your career? Is it your things? Is it pleasure? Is it your relationships? Is it the quest for Truth?

I was reminded of these big questions this morning as I read through the Gospel reading appointed for the day. In it, Jesus is having yet another argument with the religious authorities over his identity.

The Gospel according to John shows Jesus as a more mystical figure than the other Gospels — some have called it a poetic telling of Jesus’ life and others a theological reflection on Jesus’ life. Both of these ideas seem to have some merit, and there is some historical evidence that the fourth Gospel was used in the early Church to draw the newly baptized more deeply into the mysteries of faith. You might say that it was the “graduate seminar in Jesus.”  

Regardless, in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes some big claims about himself: “I am from above,” “I am not of this world,” “I am he.” This last one is a little misleading in English. It is widely believed that Jesus is here making a reference to the mysterious Divine Name revealed to Moses, YHWH, which translates to something like “I will be what I will be.” Not “I am he” but “I AM.” There’s an interesting parallel between this ancient Hebrew name of God and Greek philosophy of Jesus’ day in that both associate divinity with Being itself. In Greek philosophy, the divine was referred as to On (το Ον) — That Which Is. To the culturally Greek Jews of Jesus’ day, who retained their faith’s absolute insistence on the personal nature of divinity, this was changed to o Ōn (ο Ων) — He Who Is. Christians have long associated this title with Jesus: It is in fact inscribed on Jesus’ halo in iconography. All this to say, these are weighty words that Jesus is using here: “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am He Who Is” means something like “You will die in your sins unless you consider my life to be Life itself, unless my way is your way, my words are your words, my life is your life.”

And so we return the question: What grounds your life?

It’s a question the Examen puts to me every day and it’s a question I rarely have a good answer for. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that, yes, my faith, Jesus, grounds my life. But I wonder if this instinctive answer is really true: How might my life be different were this really the case? How might the use of my time and money be different? How might my words be different? How might my attitude be different?

It’s a challenge. And it’s an important one, as Jesus reminds us today. Of course, the One who issues the challenge is loving, merciful, forgiveness, and compassionate. It’s a challenge that is also grace for us. But it’s still a challenge and I hope it’s one that will sit in my heart and make me a little uncomfortable for the remainder of the day and throughout this last week of Lent and through Holy Week next week. And I do hope it’s a challenge that you will sit with too: What’s grounding your life?

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