The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (known colloquially as, The Bird and Baby) is frequented as much by tourists keen to follow in the steps of Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, as undergraduates seeking a warming pint of good beer on a frosty November evening. Tolkein and Lewis are still very much present in the atmosphere of Oxford, and it is to C. S. Lewis that our minds might understandably turn in hearing today’s gospel. His trilemma: lunatic, liar, or Lord, is a simple way of saying that either Jesus Christ was and is who he claimed, or else he is a lunatic ‘on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg’, or the devil himself.
It is a stark but real choice. In today’s gospel the Lord makes this claim; not to be a prophet or great leader, but God himself. Even the great Abraham, we are told, ‘rejoiced to see my day’. And he further invokes the memory of Moses, who led the people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, when he proclaims, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM’. Just as the Lord revealed himself to the Moses in the burning bush – ‘I AM that I AM’ – so Christ here claims to share in the same title – that of God.
This is why the gospel according to Saint John is littered with this phrase. ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’; ‘I am the true vine’. These sayings (ego eimi) remind us of the very identity of God; the one who, as Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is not simply one being among many, but the very act of being itself (Ipse actus essendi subsistens).
This is why the Lord can claim, ‘whoever keeps my word will never see death’, and this is why each and every day, and most especially as we prepare to enter into the great mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection in the events of holy week, we are called to acknowledge the divinity of Christ and to live according to his will and his precepts. If we do so, we rightly acknowledge him as God. If we do not, then we must ask: do we claim he is a lunatic or a liar?