The poet Malcolm Guite explores how Jesus reveals Himself to us through the ‘I Am’ sayings of John’s Gospel
This article was published in the May to August 2019 issue of Rapport magazine.
This summer I shall be leading a retreat at Lee Abbey reflecting on the seven beautiful and mysterious ‘I Am’ sayings of Jesus, as they are presented to us in John’s Gospel. In each of these sayings, Jesus reveals not only who He is, but how He is lovingly present to us. It is no accident that in John’s narrative these sayings begin with bread and end with the vine, since it is through bread and wine that Jesus has particularly promised to meet us in our ordinary lives.
They are called the ‘I Am’ sayings because the Greek Ego Eimi, which is translated as ‘I Am’, has a special resonance which reaches back to the mysterious name of God Himself, which the Lord gave to Moses at the burning bush: ‘tell the children of Israel that I Am has sent you’. Indeed, we know that, by using this phrase, Jesus was identifying himself fully with Yahweh (I Am), because when He says in John 8:58 ‘before Abraham was
“I Am”’, we are told that ‘they took up stones to cast at him’. They assumed He was blaspheming, because only God could use that name.
Jesus is not only fully God, He is also fully human. And in each of the ‘I Am’ sayings He makes that full Godhead available to us, not in an abstract, theological way but in warm, human and bodily ways that meet our needs and become part of our story. This is what I have tried to open out in each of the seven ‘I Am’ sonnets in my book Parable and Paradox and it is what we will explore on the retreat. Here is a little taster:
I AM the Bread of Life
The setting for this saying in John 6 is a place of real human need: a bewildered crowd who need to be fed with actual bread. But that practical need leads to the deepest revelation of who Jesus is and how He saves us.
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. John 6:35
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question
That trembles on the lips of anxious mothers,
Bread for their families, bread for all these others;
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied
Where to get bread? The question still returns;
In our abundance something starves and yearns,
We crave fulfillment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs,
Who opens out the secret hopes we cherish,
Whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish,
Whose words unfold in us like living seeds:
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete,
I am the bread of life, break me and eat.
I AM the Light of the World
C. S. Lewis famously said, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’ In this sonnet I celebrate all the different kinds of light we see in the world itself, but finish with a call to follow each of those lights back up to their source in Christ.
Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’. John 8:12
I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.
I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through translucent leaves in summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies,
It gathers in the candles at our vespers
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew,
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.
I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.
I AM the Good Shepherd
This sonnet came as something of a shock. I had expected to write something comforting about those ‘good shepherd’ pictures we saw in Sunday school. But the pain and scandal of clerical abuse led to this cry of despair and prayer.
‘I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’. John 10:11
When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.
Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.
I AM The Resurrection
This saying of Jesus’ is not given in some peaceful valley, but in the midst of trauma to a bereaved and angry woman, which is precisely why we need to hear it at funerals. In this sonnet I have tried to voice some of Martha’s bewildered questions.
‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies’. John 11:25
How can you be the final resurrection?
That resurrection hasn’t happened yet.
Our broken world is still bent on destruction,
No sun can rise before that sun has set.
Our faith looks back to father Abraham
And toward to the one who is to come
How can you speak as though he knew your name?
How can you say: ‘before he was I am’?
Begin in me and I will read your riddle
And teach you truths my Spirit will defend.
I am the end who meets you in the middle,
The new beginning hidden in the End.
I am the victory, the end of strife
I am the resurrection and the life.
I AM the Vine
The ‘I Am’ sayings are not just analogies, they are even more than metaphors; they are invitations to find a whole new way of being with Jesus. I have tried to explore a little of that in this final ‘I Am’ sonnet.
‘I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.’ John 15:5
How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?
Malcolm Guite is a poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and academic.
All poems are from Parable and Paradox, by Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press, 2016, used with the poet’s permission.