More than I can remember at any time in my life, we live in an era of name calling. Sexist; racist; bigot; homophobic; Islamophobic – these are the kinds of names that people are called on a regular basis. Names like these are wielded to exert power, because they strip away all moral authority and the right to be heard from those to whom they are applied. Call someone one of these names and you don’t have to interact with their ideas because in one move you have consigned them to the role of cultural outcast.
While the intellectual context has changed, the basic practice of calling people names to discredit them is nothing new. It was certainly part of the sixteenth century world in which Martin Luther lived. There, calling opponents names was part of the rhetoric of the day. It sounds odd to us, but that was just how things were done.
And for that matter, the same was true at Jesus’ time. Often people have wanted to describe the language of the New Testament as anti-semitic because of the way it talks about Jews. However the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson wrote a great journal article in which he showed that the New Testament is actually rather tame when compared with the way that Jewish groups spoke about each other.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, the Jews call Jesus a name. They call him a Samaritan and then follow it up by accusing him of having a demon. They resort to some sure fire ways to reject and discredit Jesus. Yet the thing that is striking, and is important for us to recognize, is that these are the same people who earlier in the chapter are described as believing in Jesus.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke only tell us about Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem. However, we learn from John that as a faithful Jew, Jesus made several trips to Jerusalem during his ministry. Our text takes place during one of these earlier Passover trips. Jesus has been teaching and we learn more about this when John tells us, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” This prompts a challenge from the Pharisees and Jesus responds.
Then John tells us in this chapter, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” The people who call Jesus names in our text are the same ones who have earlier been described as those who believe in him.
They have believed in Jesus, but now they are drifting away. Jesus has offended them by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” They don’t want to hear about their sin. They don’t want to hear that Jesus alone is the answer. Instead, they want to assert their status as Abraham’s offspring.
Jesus has said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Now in our text he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” This was too much for them. The Jews said, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Jesus has said that we must abide in his word. In our text he says that we must keep his word. Yet he speaks to people who though they had believed in him, are now rejecting him. Our text leads us to ponder the challenge of abiding in Jesus’ word; of keeping Jesus’ word. Jesus is speaking, first and foremost, about faith in Christ.
The challenges identified in our text are twofold. First, to keep Jesus’ word is to admit what he says about us. It is to confess that we are slaves to sin apart from Christ. The world will offer its “help” here. It will tell you that there is no right and wrong – you just need to figure out what is right for you. It will tell you that you are free to use sex in any way that feels good to you. It will tell you that what is most important as you make decisions in life is that they make you happy. And if we are honest, we do get carried along by this way of thinking. It does make it easier to fall into sin.
The second challenge is that we must accept Jesus for who he is – as the One who is the only answer. The Jews in our text don’t want to do this. They want to assert their status as the offspring of Abraham. They want to find something about themselves that enables them to stand on their own. And they reject what Jesus says about himself. They say, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’
Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Jesus gives the answer at the end of our text. He says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” When the Jews respond, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?,” our Lord answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus declares what we already know from the beginning of the Gospel – that Jesus is the Word become flesh – the One who was in the beginning with God; the One who is God.
Jesus says that if we keep his word we will never see death. The reason that this is so is because Jesus has kept the Father’s word. Jesus says in our text, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.”
Jesus kept the Father’s word by going to the cross. He carried out the saving task given to him the Father. Indeed earlier in this chapter Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
Jesus kept the Father’s word. He did the things that were pleasing to him. At the end of our text the Jews take up stones in order throw them at Jesus. They want to kill him. But Jesus hides himself and goes out of the temple. He does this because he is keeping the Father’s word. His hour has not come. There is only one way in which he can die in order to fulfill the Father’s will. It is only at his last Passover that Jesus will say, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour."
During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And then John tells us, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” Jesus kept the Father’s words by going to the cross to die as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – as the Lamb of God who has taken away your sin.
Our Lord promises in our text, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Because of his death and resurrection, Jesus promises a life that knows no death. Last week we heard that Jesus says in chapter six, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Our Lord declares that because of him, you already have eternal life. You are forgiven in Christ and so there is no sin that can separate you from God.
What is more you already have eternal life because God has given you new life through water and the Spirit. You have been born again. You have been born from above. In our text Jesus says to the Jews, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” The reason that you hear the words of God in faith; the reason you already have eternal life is because you were born of God through his Spirit in Holy Baptism.
You have this life now – a spiritual life with God - that not even death can stop. And because of Jesus’ resurrection your future is not limited to this. Instead Jesus who is the resurrection and the life will raise you up on the Last Day. In his resurrection he has begun what you will be. He will restore you to a bodily life as God intended – one in which death will never be a threat again.
This morning Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Keeping Jesus’ word means confessing what he says about us – that we are sinners who cannot help ourselves. It means believing what Jesus says about himself – that he is God in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God. And it means believing in our Lord’s death and resurrection for us. Jesus Christ kept the Father’s word and because he has done this we have eternal life with God now, and when Jesus returns we will know life in a body that can never die again.