Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2016
John 17:20-26 Commentary
One of the most creative preachers I know who always manages to approach texts in a very fresh way is Debbie Blue. For this text, she reminds us that biblically “glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds.” You can hear that sermon by clicking on this link.
What does Jesus mean by all his talk here about “glory”?
“I have given them the glory that you gave me . . .” (vs. 22)
“I want them . . . to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me . . .” (vs. 24)
Clearly this has been a key theme in John’s gospel all along. It began in his opening chapter and that well-known soaring prologue. However, a striking feature to that prologue is the fact that John never mentions “glory” until after he has given the shocking revelation that the eternal Word of God—who had been with God in the beginning and through whom all things had been made—was made flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of God’s one and only, full of grace and truth.”
John did not talk about “glory” in connection to the soaring words about the beginning of all things, about the creation, or about anything that we might regard as “heavenly” and eternal in nature. No, glory came onto the scene only after the incarnation is mentioned. It reminds you of also Philippians 2 where Paul talks about the glorification of Christ Jesus only after he depicts him as having sunk as far down into death and hell as he can go. Only then was he glorified and given the name above all names.
Another curious place early in John where glory pops up is at the wedding at Cana in John 2. We all know the story: the bridal party did not order enough wine for the (in those days lengthy) wedding reception. Although we are told the guests were probably pretty loaded already as it was, they needed more wine and so Jesus’ mother Mary corners Jesus into doing something about the situation. He does, transforming six huge water jars into the finest vintage anyone had ever tasted. A neat trick, a fine miracle. Not earth shattering perhaps. This was the first “sign” in John’s Gospel and the last such sign will be the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Now THAT was something.
And yet in John 2 after Jesus turns water into wine, the disciples are said to have beheld Jesus’ “glory” and so they put their faith in him. Really? Glory in a goblet of wine? Glory in wine created for people already tipsy? But yes, there it is: glory can be ever-so-mundane.
Here and throughout the gospel we discover a wonderfully paradoxical presentation of glory. Yes, glory can be and is everything we usually associate with the glory of God: glory can be luminous and splendid and mind-boggling and blinding and majestic in ways that unmake us and send us falling down upon our faces in humble adoration.
But glory can also come through the grace and truth of the very humble incarnate Lord Jesus. When in John 17 Jesus says he has shown the disciples his glory, it is all-but certain that he is not talking about extraordinary spectacles of light and effulgence and mind-bending special effects. The glory of Jesus emerged in the course of his ministry when he gave hope to the poor, when he forgave the sins of downtrodden and marginalized persons, when he reached out to his enemies in love, when he displayed grace to the least deserving. The glory shined earlier that very evening when Jesus stripped down to his underwear to wash dirty feet. The Transfiguration it wasn’t but . . . for those with eyes to see, it was the glory of God’s One and Only shining yet again.
In verse 24 when we hear Jesus say he wants his followers to be with him where he is so that they can see the glory the Father has given, we tend to picture golden thrones situated on lofty clouds in the heavens above. But considering that Jesus was within minutes of being arrested, tried, and crucified, is it not likely that the “where” of Jesus’ glory would very shortly be the cross itself? Is it not likely that Jesus is praying that his followers will not abandon him but will stay with him even at Golgotha to see the true measure of divine glory in reaching out to and saving a very fallen world?
If there is anything to this line of thought, then it is also a bracing reminder to us all that the Church today gains conformity to Christ and displays unity with the Father not when it garners the attention of the media and not when its programming and ministries become global in scope and not when it has to build bigger sanctuaries to accommodate the thousands who throng into popular megachurches. No, glory shines through when the Church is humble, doing quiet things to serve the poor and preach good news to the downtrodden.
The glory that the Father gave to the Son and that the Son gives to the Church is not the glory of klieg lights and media sizzle. It’s the glory of the Word of God becoming meat, being made flesh, dwelling here in the mud and muck of this world. It’s the glory of the One who came to serve and not be served. It’s the glory of the One who was, as Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, lifted up off the earth not on some high throne but on a cross of wood.
That is the glory the Father gave the Son. That is the glory we display in the Church we, like our Savior, serve quietly and humbly.
As Debbie Blue put it, glory doesn’t shine.
KOSMOS (world, cosmos) is one of John’s favorite words and it figures prominently in this prayer in John 17 as well. There are clear echoes here of John 1:10 in which nearly an identical phrasing is used in the Greek. In John 1:10 we are told that although Jesus was in the world he himself had made in the beginning, “HO KOSMO AUTON OUK EGNO” (“the world knows him not”). Now in John 17:25 Jesus addresses the Father and says “HO KOSMO SE OUK EGNO” (“the world knows you not”). Clearly the world/cosmos is a hostile place for the divine: it knows neither the Son of God who is the Word who made the world in the beginning nor the Father God who sent the Son into this world. Yet we cannot ponder this sad situation without tumbling to also the grace-filled glory of John 3:16: for God so loved THE WORLD . . . A good deal of the “glory” Jesus talks about in John 17 can be located right in the midst of this apparently paradoxical circumstance of a world ignorant of God and yet loved enough by God for him to sacrifice himself for that same world.
Here is the essence of gospel good news. We don’t have to wait for special seasons of blessing to see glory. We don’t need angels’ wings or skies split asunder. We don’t need to be transported out of the routines of our workaday lives to be encountered by glory. Nor do we need to be lifted out of our sufferings, our sorrows, our hardships to see glory. In fact, the gospel suggests that those are the very places where we can expect to see glory more often than not.
I once read a story related by a surgeon named Richard Selzer. One day Selzer had to remove a tumor from the cheek of a young woman. After the surgery, the woman was in bed, her postoperative mouth twisted in a palsied, clownish way. A tiny twig of the facial nerve had been severed in the operation, releasing a muscle that led to her mouth. Her young husband was in the room along with the surgeon. “Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asked. “Yes,” the doctor replied, “the nerve was cut.” She nodded, fell silent, and looked broken.
But the young husband smiled gently and said, “I like it. It’s kind of cute.” And all at once, Dr. Selzer writes, I knew who this young husband was. The doctor saw Jesus in the man. He saw Jesus in the man’s gentleness and love, in his sympathy and brokenness. And then he saw Jesus afresh as the kind husband bent down to kiss her crooked mouth, carefully twisting his own lips to accommodate her lips, showing her that their kiss still worked and always would.
Glory infused that hospital room that day—the glory of God’s One and Only who came here, humbly accommodating himself to us in our brokenness by taking on the very nature of a servant. We have seen his glory. We still see his glory. It is all around us. We see it at the communion table and at the breakfast table; we see it in the water at the baptismal font and in the water from the sprinkler that catches the sun’s rays just so; we see it in the anthem sung by a grand choir and in the simple chorus of “Jesus Loves Me” that our child absent-mindedly sings to herself while doing her paint-by-numbers.
This is the glory we see. Thanks be to God.
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