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All through the mystical Gospel of John, Jesus has been trying to tell his followers who he is. All along he has taken concrete examples and figures of speech common to their lives and applied them to himself. All along, he has tried to explain what their relationship with him will mean.
“I am the bread of life,” he says, promising that all who come to him will neither hunger nor thirst.
“I am the gate,” he says, adding that, just like sheep walking into a paddock, those who go through him will find safety and sustenance.
“I am the good shepherd,” he says, and, just in case his followers don’t get the reference, he explains that he lays down his life for the good of the sheep.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says in response to the dear ones who would blame him for the death of his dear friend Lazarus. Standing weeping outside the tomb, confronted with the seeming finality of death, he tries to explain. “Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”
It is a hard sell—until stinky Lazarus comes stumbling from the tomb.
Days later, Jesus is at supper with his friends. He has washed their feet, he has predicted his betrayal and denial, they have shared the meal, and now there is so much he wants to tell them, so much he wants to leave with them before he goes, so much they will need to remember once he is gone.
But they don’t like this talk of him leaving. Where is he going, and how will they know the way?
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he tells them. To get where I am going—to the heart of Love, to the Source of all that is good, to the meaning of life, and the rapture of divine union—come by me. Live the way I have lived.
And then they really get into it, this business about him leaving. They are beside themselves. Jesus means to prepare them for what is coming; he wants to assure them they will be okay; he tries to offer them consolation.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” he promises. “God will send you an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will teach you everything you need to know and empower you to do things you cannot imagine. And peace!” he almost shouts, seeing their worried faces. “I leave you with my peace. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t be afraid.”
But they, like we, are troubled. And with his every word, their anxiety rises. They cannot imagine carrying on without him; they don’t know what he’s talking about. They, like we, are afraid of what is to come.
Grasping, he tries one more analogy:
“I am the true vine,” he says, implying that they are branches, suggesting an organic connection, explaining that God, his Holy Parent, is the loving and attentive vinegrower who ensures an abundant harvest.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” he tells them. “As God has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love and God’s love, so that your joy may be complete.”
Joy is surely the last thing they can imagine in this moment of confusion and anticipatory grief.
For thousands of years they and their ancestors have heard the story of Moses at the burning bush. For years they have identified with Moses’ confusion, his fear, his desire to have God choose anyone but him for a very tough job, his desperate attempt to find a way out.
“If I go to the Israelites,” Moses had said to the voice coming out of the bush, “and if I tell them that the God of their ancestors has sent me to them, and then they want to know God’s name, what would I say then? What would I tell them?”
For thousands of years they and their ancestors have pondered the divine response: “I am who I am.”
What did that mean? “I am who I am.” What kind of a name is that?
And then Jesus shows up, as if speaking for God. Then Jesus shows up, God with skin on. And Jesus keeps saying, “I am, I am, I am.”
Bread and gate and shepherd, resurrection and life, way and truth, and now the true vine.
“I am who I am,” he seems to be saying. “Though I am here with you in the flesh now, I am more than flesh. Though I am the life, I need not draw breath to live.
“I am the One who will not leave you. I am the One who will always be with you. I am the One who will live in you and through you.”
“The world will try to separate you one from another. The powers will work to divide you by race, class, religion, gender, politics, fear, and hatred. The economy will divide you into haves and have-nots, telling you that you are not enough as you are, that you will never be enough unless you have more. Even religion will try to isolate you into camps of chosen and other, saved and lost, believers and not. And you, in your doubts and insecurity, your feelings of unworthiness and your need for self-worth, will judge some better than you and others less than, isolating yourself in your need to be special.
“But I am who I am,” says Jesus—the liberator, the healer, the uniter, the good shepherd who will not rest until every last sheep is found, the suffering one who will conquer death, the mercy that forgives all, the grace that blesses all, the love that casts out no one and nothing but fear, the vine from which all things are created and in which all things are one.
“I am who I am”—the one who has moved into your neighborhood, the one who walks with you, the one who dwells with you, the one who longs for just a glimpse of you, the one who will never leave you.
“And you are who you are—children of God, made in the image of God, the apple of God’s eye, made to be one with God.
“We are who we are”—made for each other, made to be together, made like vines and branches to stay connected and rooted, alive and fruitful.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Dwell in me. Stay put in me. Let me make my home in you. Make your home in me. Stay connected. Live inside of Love. Make room for joy.
“I have said these things so that we might be one. I have said these things so that the joy I know my may be in you, so that your joy, your life, may be complete.”
May it be so.