The Glory of God

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, May 19, 2019, for Easter 5, Year C.  Texts:  Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35.  Image: Christ in the Heavenly Jerusalem (anonymous).

Now is a time of endings and beginnings.  Let’s get the world of TV pop culture out of the way first:  Game of Thrones ends tonight, and The Big Bang Theory ended earlier this week.  It is not the end for them:  as fans will know, both stories continue in other forms.  But it is an end.  College students are taking finals and ending their semesters.  Soon high school students will, too.  Seniors will graduate.  Graduate students, including one from our choir, will finish their degrees.  It is not the end for them, of course: there are vacations, as well as the beginnings of jobs or further education awaiting them.  But it is an end.  On Wednesday at the noonday service, we welcomed a new member of the body of Christ, N.N., through the Sacrament of Baptism, and we have two more baptisms coming up in the next month or so. Those aren’t the beginning:  life and faith have already been quickened.  But they are a beginning.  More somberly, two beloved members of our parish, N.N. and N.N., ended their earthly sojourns in the last two weeks.  Even as we grieve and we pray with those who grieve, we remember what Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” [Jn 11:25 KJV]  So, it is not the end for them.  Merely an end.[1]

Into this time of endings and beginnings, God speaks in today’s reading from the Revelation to John:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” [21:6c].  Not a beginning, as of a summer or of a job or of a life, but the beginning—the ultimate origin of all life and all being.  Not an end, as of a story or of school or of a life, but the end—the ultimate purpose and meaning of all life and all being.

That ultimate essence of God, that fundamental limitlessness, transcends understanding.  I’m reminded of students in calculus and related math classes, who grapple with the fact that infinity cannot be manipulated in the same way as the numbers they learned in elementary school.  I’m reminded of logicians who have peered into the foundations of mathematics (which is adjacent to some of the things I teach at Cornell) and discovered paradoxes and impossibilities.  For some, that leads to despair. [2]  Our human minds struggle to understand these things.

Our minds cannot comprehend God, who is without beginning and without end yet is the beginning and the end.  The Christian tradition, like the Jewish tradition, does not respond to that fact with despair, but with the cry of, “Hallelujah! Praise! Glory!”

Incomprehensible glory is not easy to describe, so when analytical prose fails us, we turn to symbols and poetry.  The book of Revelation is replete with the imagery of high fantasy:  violent battles, thrones, monsters, a luminescent old man with flaming eyes (that’s Jesus), a mounted warrior with a sword emerging from his mouth (that’s also Jesus), even a dragon.  No wonder it’s been called a “scary book…the most feared in the New Testament.”[3]  In liturgy we tend to avoid those scary images,[4] instead singing hymns to express the glory of God:  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth” [Lk 2:14].  “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory” [Is 6:3].  Scripture is filled with the word “glory”:  according to one count, it occurs only two fewer times than the word “Christ.”[5]

It’s a challenge to pin down what that word, “glory”, means.  How would you describe the glory of God to another person in this room?  Or to a colleague?  Or a stranger on the street?

I’ve been wrestling with that God-question this week.  The best answer I have is:  God’s glory is revealed in God’s work. I see that revelation resounding in the readings today in three ways.

First, God’s glory is revealed in the work of creation.  Psalm 148 echoes the creation story of Genesis 1 in its praise of God for the glory of creation.  We praise God for the heavens:  the angels, the heavenly host; the sun, moon, and stars.  We praise God for the earth:  the mountains and hills; for plants and trees; for all animals, even sea-monsters (which in the 1928 BCP was instead translated, “dragons”).  We praise God for humankind, all exalting God together for the wondrous order of creation, for the strength God has given his people, for his splendor over earth and heaven.  This is the glory of God that we can see, if our eyes are open to it in love:  the striated sunset over the lake, the yellow bloom of forsythia, the infectious laughter of a child.

The human experience of the glory of creation began in the Garden of Eden.  But, as the creation story of Genesis also tells us, in that same garden a rift opened between God and humankind.  Sin entered in.  Our ability to participate in the glory of God, even to perceive it, was fundamentally damaged.  Only God could repair that damage.

Which leads to the second way God’s glory is revealed: in the work of redemption, accomplished through Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.  At birth, Jesus is glorified by the appearance to shepherds of angels who sing that same hymn, “Glory to God.”  Glory to Jesus for emptying himself and taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness [Phil 2:7].  Glory to Jesus for sharing our human nature, for living as one of us [Euch. Pr. A].  Glory to Jesus for proclaiming the good news of salvation, freedom, and joy [Euch. Pr. D].

But, that proclamation carried consequences.  Jesus was betrayed, seized by the authorities, beaten, whipped, spat upon, stripped of his clothes, stripped of his dignity, stripped of whatever perceptible trappings of divine glory might have been remained, and nailed to a cross to be tortured and killed.  Yet it is precisely at the beginning of that Passion, at the moment of Judas’ betrayal, that Jesus utters the words in today’s Gospel:  “Now I am glorified, and God is glorified in me” [Jn 13:31b, paraphrase].  To Jesus, the sacrifice of the Cross is not shame, but glory.

The greatest glory of life might well be that of sacrifice.[6]  Next weekend, in observance of Memorial Day, many will honor those people who have sacrificed their lives in the military service of this nation.  As a poet wrote,

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. [7]

How much more to sacrifice one’s life not for country, but for all people, in all places, throughout all time.

We remember and glorify Jesus for that sacrifice, in which he took away the sin of the world.  But beyond the incarnation, beyond the crucifixion, chiefly we glorify Jesus for his resurrection:  by his death, he destroyed death; by his rising to life again he won for us everlasting life [Prf. Easter].  What glory in that Easter triumph!

Christ is risen, and death is overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns! [8]

This is the glory of God that we see if our eyes are open to it in hope:  the yearly cycle of death and rebirth in nature, the forgiveness of a friend we have harmed, the thrill that dawns in the soul that hears the good news,

“There is life eternal yonder;
[There] is Paradise wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoices.” [9]

The work of God in redemption, the glory of Jesus in the resurrection, was accomplished in first century Palestine, around and in the holy city of Jerusalem.  There the rift between God and humankind began to be healed in the person of Jesus, who was both God and Man.  There the Kingdom of God was inaugurated.

But that kingdom is still coming; and is yet to come.  In that here-and-yet-not-here state, God’s glory is revealed in the work of transformation.  All three of today’s readings speak of transformation.

In Acts, the nascent Church is transformed by Peter’s vision and courage.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he not only baptizes Gentiles, which might have been okay, but he breaks Jewish purity laws by eating their food with them.  From a 21st century perspective that concern might be too far removed to make sense.  But, those rules about food were part of a nationality identity and reflected a sacred covenant with God.  If that’s still too far removed, consider this:  how many times in the course of an election does the question arise, “does this candidate seem like someone you could grab a beer with?”

Who we are willing to share table fellowship with matters.  Peter was letting his identity be transformed by God by learning to dwell together with Gentiles —with “the other”, with those who would be de-humanized.  To paraphrase our bishop from her sermon here yesterday at the diocesan EfM graduation, de-humanization is the great sin of our society today.  Would that we be transformed like Peter in listening to the Holy Spirit, in putting aside that which would separate us, and in perfecting our love for one another.

Jesus gave us that so-called new command to love one another in today’s Gospel reading (which we also read on Maundy Thursday, but after five weeks we probably do need a reminder to love one another).  It’s not actually a new commandment:  love for your neighbor was already in commanded in Leviticus [19:18,34], and every Bible commentary I own comes up with a different theory to justify calling it “new.”  I’m reluctant to add to the mess, but… Since this is an Episcopal Church, let me suggest it’s new “because Jesus.”  The command itself is being transformed by coming from the mouth of Jesus, from someone who truly could claim, “I am the example of that love.”

In the most spectacular transformation in today’s reading, we witness in Revelation the transformation not just of humans or laws or commands but of the entire cosmos.  Evil, symbolized by the chaos of the sea, has been destroyed.  Death is no more.  Mourning and crying and pain are no more.  The entire creation, heaven and earth, is renewed.  The New Jerusalem descends with the glory of God, and John waxes poetic, envisioning a city with “a radiance like a very rare jewel, with twelve gates, each a single pearl, a city of pure gold, clear as glass” [Rev 22:18, 11, 21, paraphrase].  Next Sunday we’ll read more about the glories of that city.  Today, what’s important is that, in it, the home of God is among mortals, and he dwells with them.

This is the glory of God we can see with our eyes open in faith.  Finally, the rift between God and humankind is healed.  Finally, the promise of Immanuel, God With Us, is fully realized.  Finally, God speaks from the throne and says, “I am making all things new.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

God’s glory is revealed in God’s work:  God the Father has created.  God the Son has redeemed.  God the Holy Spirit has transformed.  And we cry:  Hallelujah!  Praise!  Glory!

Acknowledgements.

Barclay, William.  The Daily Study Bible:  The Gospel of John, volume 2, revised edition.  Westminster, 1975.

Brown, Raymond E.  An Introduction to the New Testament.  Yale, 1997.

Dunn, J. D. G., and Rogerson, J. W., eds.  Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003.

Marsh, John.  The Pelican New Testament Commentaries:  Saint John.  Penguin, 1968.

Myers, A.C. “Glory” in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Eerdmans, 1987.

Price, Daniel J.  “Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, volume 2.  Eerdmans, 2001.

Von Speyr, Adrienne.  The Farewell Discourses: Meditations on John 13-17.  Ignatius, 1987.

Footnotes.

[1] The contrast between the and a(n) is inspired by Robert Jordan’s magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, 1990-2013.

[2] Some of those logicians developed mental health problems.  Whether there is causal link is unknown, but for more of the history, read the accessible and gripping graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.

[3] The Life With God Bible, ed. Richard J. Foster, HarperOne, 2005, p. 483.

[4] The Dies iræ, the sequence of the traditional Requiem Mass, is a notable exception.  The Anglican Service Book, 2007, p. 364, provides for the use of this sequence at funerals.  Bring back the Dies iræ!

[5] The Logos concordance tool for the NRSV, restricted to Bible Text, counts 470 occurrences of “glory” and related word forms.

[6] Summarizing Barclay, p. 148.

[7] Laurence Binyon, For the Fallen, published in The London Times, September 21, 1914.

[8] John Crysostom, The Paschal Homily, trans. https://orthodoxwiki.org/Paschal_Homily.

[9] From “The Order for the Burial of Dead Priests”, trans. Isabel Hapgood, as set to music by John Tavener (Funeral Ikos, 1981).