29 July 2014John 8:21-30
“He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.’ They said to him, ‘Who are you?’” (vv. 23-25)
It is often embarrassing to watch an argument, however compelling and entertaining they might be. The temperature is rising in this argument between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. They have already challenged Jesus on his identity and his status in society, and have been given a typically enigmatic answer.
There is an escalation of the argument here, which sees both Jesus and the Pharisees being particularly powerful in their dialogue, even to the point of being macabre and offensive to some audiences.
In the context of this passage, it is perhaps clear to see how Jesus came later in John's Gospel to declare that he is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Jesus is drawing a distinction between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of heaven. Jesus states that those who are sinful will be separated from God - but that the ultimate sin is to fail to believe that he is the Son of God. For the Pharisees, a relationship with God was primarily tribal, and thus a cultural given. Separation could only be caused through individual choice and action - in their debate they discuss the belief at the time (which continued into the 20th century) that those who commit suicide are separated from God.
Jesus does not engage with them on this issue, however, and instead continues to provoke as he indicates that is them who are to be separated from the kingdom of heaven.
In the African Bible Commentary Adeymo notes, "the Jewish leaders understood that Jesus was saying that he was quite different from them, and so they asked him directly about his identity. What was his authority? Who was he in God's programme?"
This is such a powerful question - who are you? It is powerful for the passage, because it is the opportunity for Jesus to disclose his incarnation and his divinity. It is powerful for people today, as identity creation, formation and reformation, are key to living in the global North. There are so many opportunities to recreate character and identity in today's society - and even the increasingly influential 'right to be forgotten' in cyberspace. In turn, separation is a painful and regular experience of many people in and outside churches today: separation psychologically (giving rise to the ever increasing pharmacological response to emotional breakdown), physically (as people live increasingly transnational lives) and even separation experienced in relationships.
However, at the end of this passage, as the Pharisees are still angry about Jesus' intervention, many people put their faith in Jesus (verse 30). In the midst of a narrative of separation from self, the world, community life and faith, there remains the choice for participation.
- Who are you? What does your answer say about you? What might be missing?
- Today, are you living a narrative of separation or of participation? What might need to change?
- This passage includes a sub-conversation which suggests that suicide causes separation from God. How would you approach this pastorally today?