[A sermon based on John 13:31-35, shared with a small church in Southern Indiana on May 15, 2022.]
I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve always found the word “glory” kind of confusing.
For instance, we have a lot of hymns and church language that talk about “giving glory to God,” or “glorifying God’s name” – and I have thought a lot, over the years, about what it means to do that – since we think God already has a lot of glory, how do we GIVE God glory? What do we mean by that, or are we just saying words? And it did not help that sometimes, in the Bible, places where the word shows up, the word “glory” seems to mean something like “brilliance,” “splendor,” “shining light” – we get that idea especially in Isaiah or Ezekiel. But in other places, “glory” seems to mean something like “awesomeness.” To make it worse, we also talk about glory as something people can earn, by winning gold medals at the Olympics or being the national spelling bee finalist or winning a Purple Heart on the battlefield …
This week, I finally did what I probably should have done twenty years ago and looked the word “glory” up in the dictionary. Our word “glory” can have more than one meaning, in fact. Because two or three different ideas, in the different Biblical languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, have gotten mashed up together in translations over time.
First, the Hebrew scriptures had a word that meant brightness, splendor, majesty – which of course applied to God. Then, the Greek translators used their word doxa, which meant expectation or opinion, or reputation, to translate that Hebrew word. Because something as splendid as God would have a great reputation. Then, the Latin translators used their word gloria, which meant fame, renown, great praise or honor, to translate that Greek word doxa. Because, someone with as great a reputation as God would be famous. It didn’t help that Christians kept using that Greek word doxa to mean “opinion,” too – like in our word “orthodox,” which means having the “right opinion” about things, like believing in the Trinity, or believing that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
But does knowing any of this help us understand what Jesus means here by glory? What he means when he says that now He has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him? Now, when the disciples have just seen Jesus wash all their feet?
Using the word “glory” had to have puzzled the disciples. Because it didn’t seem to fit. In that world, Jesus’s world, the disciples’ world, that ancient Greco-Roman world of the Roman empire, “glory” would not have described foot washing. One thing we know about the culture of that time is that it was VERY status conscious; people were VERY aware all the time of dignity, reputation, honor, and shame. People wanted to have honor, and didn’t want to be shamed; they were VERY careful about not doing anything “beneath” them, they were VERY insistent that other people recognize them with the right amount of respect and deference, and so on and so forth.
And they seem to have really enjoyed gaining glory at others’ expense – building themselves up by pushing others down, demonstrating that they were more important or stronger or richer than other people. The Romans made a lot of public spectacle out of that – parading conquered prisoners through the streets, and crucifying people, for that matter.
In that world, washing people’s feet is not something that gives anyone glory. Plus, we know, and Jesus knows, that Judas has just gone out into the night. That means Jesus is about to be arrested and crucified and go through everything in between. Being put to death by the Romans is definitely not what people in that world think of as glorious. Nothing about that looks majestic and magnificent, or bright and splendid, or like having a good reputation. It looks more like being on the bottom than it looks like being on the top.
So for Jesus to tell the disciples now, right at this moment, that now he is being glorified, and God is being glorified in Jesus and in what Jesus is doing and is getting ready to do – that is asking a lot of the disciples, and will keep on asking a lot of them. It will ask them to radically change the way they think about things, radically change what matters most to them, radically change what they believe really makes for splendor and greatness and a good opinion …
Although, Jesus does tell them exactly what change they need to make – by explaining that new idea of “glory” with the idea of “love” – by giving the disciples the commandment to love one another.
Because Jesus definitely puts the two ideas, of glory and of love, together here. He says “now I’m glorified,” and then says “so, in the same way that I have loved you, you need to love one another.” And what is the way Jesus has loved the disciples? They can see that he has washed their feet. By doing that, he has done something for them that they could not do just as well for themselves. He has helped them, he has done what they needed, and hasn’t given a thought to whether it was “beneath” him. They will see soon enough that he goes to the cross for them; again, dying for the sins of the world, is doing something people could not do for themselves, and not considering that “beneath” him.
“This is how everyone will know you are my disciples,” Jesus says: that you have my kind of radical love for one another. That’s what it means to be my disciples, that is, to follow me, to learn from me. When people see you behaving this way, they will know you learned that from me.
And that is glory. Love like that is glory, is glorious. Is splendid, brilliant, magnificent, majestic. Love like that is the kind of love God is, and shines with the kind of glory God has. Being known for love like that, that is glory.
That is a mighty big shift in the way we’re supposed to think about “glory.”
Because even today, honestly, we still think of “glory” in a lot the same way those ancients thought about it. Even after a couple of thousand years of Christian teaching and “orthodoxy.” We still think of “glory” as “having a high position” or a really great reputation for being important, influential, rich, … or even just being flashy, shiny, like having a lot of gold-plated stuff … We are still stuck somewhere between that ancient world’s view of glory Jesus’s transformed view of glory. And when we do make the effort to get past that misguided focus on status and power and wealth and so on, we sometimes fall into the trap of a kind of joyless perfectionism, of thinking that the more exhausted and miserable we are by our good deeds, or the less we object to unkindness and injustice, the more saintly we’re being. We still have a lot to learn about Jesus’s kind of glory.
There was an early Christian theologian, Irenaeus, who said “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” He was undoubtedly thinking about Jesus when he said that, thinking about how Jesus is our model of humanity fully alive. Fully alive to God. Fully alive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Fully alive to other people, who are made in the image of God. The glory of God is Jesus, the Human One, fully alive – so alive and free that he can be radically faithful to God, and can love others without reserve.
This fully alive-ness was probably why so many people loved Jesus. We can tell that Jesus must have really cared about people, really listened to them, and somehow let people know that they really mattered to him. He couldn’t have been the kind of person who was always in a big hurry to move on to something more important, or someone more important. He was fully alive to them, and they felt it, and loved him for it.
My guess is that the people who didn’t love Jesus, the Temple authorities mentioned in the text for instance, might have disliked him for that very reason. He treated people they thought were “beneath” them as if they were just as important, as if they mattered just as much. He didn’t have the “right opinions” about them, how much more they mattered than “ordinary” people, or of how correct they were. So that offended them, and they couldn’t like him for that reason. They had the wrong opinion of what it meant, of what it means, to be glorious.
They would have struggled with Jesus’s love commandment. But to be fair, I struggle with it, too. If I’m honest with myself, I admit that loving some other people is not easy, certainly not all the time. Several years ago – I won’t say how many – I was going on Session at Corydon, and we were having one of those officer training retreats that probably a lot of people here have been through, and our pastor at the time asked us to go stand in the corner of the room that matched what we thought would be our greatest challenge about “serving the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” – the energy, the intelligence, the imagination, or the love. So everyone went off to one corner or another, and I made a beeline for the “love” corner, and then I looked around, and I was all alone. Everyone else was in some other corner. [I thought, really, am I the only one this is hard for?] Our pastor said, well, I’m just kind of stunned that you would admit that.
But even now, … aren’t we all still working on understanding this, and putting it into practice? Aren’t we all still working on sharing so much of Jesus’s aliveness to God that we experience God’s love fully; so much of Jesus’s aliveness to the Holy Spirit that we see the truth of things clearly; and so much of Jesus’s aliveness to others, who are made in the image of God, that we can and do simply extend the love of God we experience ourselves to them,
Maybe we make this harder than it already is, by not paying attention to how this all begins with God’s love. Just this week, one of the devotional writer Richard Rohr’s daily meditations pointed out that “Mystics [like Jesus] experience a full-bodied embrace and acceptance by Divine Love, and then spend their lives trying to verbalize and embody it. They invariably find ways to give that love back through forms of service and worship, but it’s never earning the love—it’s always returning the love.” Thinking of the command to love one another as returning the love we already have from God in Christ may feel like a change to us from “obeying a commandment,” but it’s probably closer to what Jesus seems to have meant …. Less like having a long checklist of “how to love others,” and more like the love we see demonstrated by Jesus, which our telling and retelling Jesus’s story in church is meant to help us see, understand, and experience. More like being fully alive, as we believe Jesus was – and is.
The glory of God is humanity fully alive. That’s not humanity “at the top” being self-important. It’s not humanity crushed by domination, or drained of energy, intelligence, and imagination in the name of a distorted version of “love.” But humanity like Christ’s, alive to God and to God’s love, and for that reason, alive to the image of God present in one another; humanity fully engaged in the breathing out and breathing in of that receiving and giving God’s love.
That still doesn’t sound easy to me. But it does sound like an ongoing invitation to the new life in Christ – and a promise that the more we live that life, the more we will, indeed, give glory to God.