Monday, June 2, 2014

Reflections on Glory

There are 21 chapters in the Gospel of John and 5 of them – 24% – are devoted to events that took place during the Last Supper in the upper room on what we now celebrate as Maundy Thursday.  Now, while the gospel wasn’t written with chapter divisions (that was something added in the 13th century) there is a considerable amount of emphasis and weight given to this meal.

On this evening Jesus gives his disciples an example to follow by washing their feet.  He announces that one of the twelve will betray him.  He breaks bread and shares it.  He gives a new commandment (that we are to love one another as he has loved us).  And he tells his followers that he will be leaving them soon, but will send another – the Holy Spirit – to lead them.  All of this unfolds in chapters 12-16.

As they are gathered together in the intimate setting of that space, chapter 17 begins with this brief introduction,

“Jesus looked up to heaven and said…”

The remainder of the chapter contains what scholars refer to as Jesus’ “High-Priestly Prayer” and when the prayer is finished the meal concludes and the group heads to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus will pray alone before being arrested.

The dinner prayer itself provides fascinating insight into the life of the Holy Trinity in that it allows us to be privy to words spoken by the Son to the Father.  We get a sense of the mutuality and respect that exists in the heart of God.  The words Jesus uses are very familiar to us in the church,

Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.”

Glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world began.”

We began today’s service praising God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest…”  Glory is a very familiar, churchy word, but what exactly does it mean?  What is the exchange of glory between the Father and the Son all about?  What glory did Jesus have before the world began and what happened to it so that it needs to be restored?  And what might the answers to these questions mean to us beyond being a nice, safe, polite doctrinal conversation?  In other words, what difference does it make to us here and now?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary on-line suggests that glory has something to do with praise, honor, and thanksgiving.  It also has something to do with renown – distinction extended by common consent.  It hints at great beauty, grandeur, and splendor.  The site provided the following examples of ways glory is used:

· As a young soldier he dreamed of winning military glory.

· He now has only a few trophies to remind him of the glory of his athletic career.

· Let us give glory to God.

· The glory of the town is its fountain.

· an art exhibit showing off the glories of ancient civilizations.

· The new owners are trying to restore the company to its former glory.

· The beautiful art reminds us of the glory of the empire.

These different uses suggest to me that glory has something to do with what we value and esteem.  It has something to do with acknowledging a person or entity or thing that has achieved its highest potential.  The act of giving glory is a way of establishing the appropriate weight or place for what is glorified (for example, the town with the impressive fountain locates its source of worth and value in the fountain rather than, say, in a corner gas station). 

This raises a question for us: do we value things as we ought; are our priorities in order?  On a temporal level, what happens if the town with a fountain gets a new Target store?  Do the people of the community get caught up in what is new and exciting?  What do they lose when they lose a sense of the town’s glory be tied to the magnificent fountain?  On a spiritual level, what do we lose if we do not esteem God with the glory that God deserves?   What if, in our heart of hearts, we locate glory in something else; perhaps money or personal appearance or job performance or sexual prowess? 

When Jesus prays “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you”, I get the sense he seeks to be in that place or state that existed previously, something akin to the new owners trying to restore the company to its former glory.  In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, St. Paul touches on this:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11)

The passage, which scholars believe actually was an ancient hymn, suggests something paradoxical: namely, glory comes to those who do not seek it.  In fact, some of the people we glorify the most are those who humble themselves and give themselves to others asking nothing in return. 

Vanna Bonta, who is described as American poet, novelist, essayist, actress, inventor, and model, once wrote, “Fame is not the glory!  Virtue is the goal, and fame only a messenger, to bring more to the fold.”  Athletic or military glory is never achieved without sacrifice, dedication, hard work, courage, and (above all) a care and concern for others.  We recognize the glory of an achievement, but it never stands apart from the virtues that it stands upon.  Jesus is honored with the name above all names not because he demanded all glory, laud, and honor be given to him, but because of what he gave up and how he went about God’s work.

Jesus makes these three statements in his prayer:

“I finished the work that you gave me to do.”

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me.”

“Your words that you gave to me I have given to them.”

The prayer suggests that Jesus came into this world with a sense of purpose.  He knew what he was supposed to do and by doing these things the Father deems him to be worthy of glory. 

I wonder to what degree each one of us comes into this world with a purpose.  Some suppose there is a very specific way to walk set before us.  Others emphasize the importance not of the path you choose but the person you are and what you do while on that path.  The world is poorer with the passing of Maya Angelou but so much richer for her life.  In an interview in 1990, she said, “I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.”  You and I have a purpose.  Even if what you achieve affects and influences only a few people, or even if it is known only by you, God esteems you with a measure of glory.  God measures and values you as you ought to be, even (and sadly) if others do not.  Again, Maya Angelou once said, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.  Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.  We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”  Do you have the courage to seek your potential?

Let me say one final word about St. Paul’s and glory of the past.  If you look around this church building, you might naturally and accurately assess that it is a beautiful symbol of the glories of a previous age; an age when people of means came together to commission craftsmen and artisans to create something far more magnificent than we could accomplish today.  Yes, it was impressive how generations before us built this place to glorify the Lord.  But week in and week out, this place is something much more than a museum displaying only the works of the past.  We are a living community gathered to glorify God in a way that helps us put all of life in perspective.  We joyfully and passionately set out to do the works God has given us to do.  When need arises we live life courageously, compassionately, and selflessly.  I believe that God looks on all of this and is glorified.  And I believe that our devotion to God and commitment to one another is worthy of glory.  This is what makes us an attractive, active, and vital faith community. 

Perhaps the most beautiful church I have served was located in a small Iowa town.  It was on the National Historic Registry, a designation we should want this place to avoid like the plague!  One Sunday I asked for individual members to describe what they thought was the church’s most magnificent, most beautiful, most glorious feature.  One person said it was the woodwork at the high altar (and believe me, it was an exquisite piece crafted by a person who had done work for the Queen of England).  Another person suggested it was the stained glass windows, most of which were crafted by Meyer of Munich, Germany, but also (like us) included a Tiffany or two.  When everyone who wanted had chimed in, I said, “Do you know what I think the most beautiful part of our church is?  It is you, the people!”  That has been true of every congregation I served and it is true here.  I thank God for the glory that is you all and for the privilege I have to be with you as your Rector.