Sunday, May 4, 2008

Glimpses of Glory: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 4 May, 2008

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10,33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11; John 17:1-11

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1)

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”. I’ve been so grateful to Angus for including that great line from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in our worship as often as he does. It always gets my pulse going a little faster and makes me feel just a little bit more heroic and excited about being a Christian. I say “just a little bit” because glory is one of those elusive words that quickly fades in the cold light of day. We sing about the Queen being “happy and glorious” when we know from our stamps and coins that she looks like anyone’s grandmother with an often troubled family life. We revel in the glory of our favourite sports teams, while conveniently forgetting that this year’s champs can be next season’s bums. We are told of glorious wars and victories, when we know that slogans such as “Mission Accomplished” promise more than they deliver. Even in church we take our glory with a bit of a smile and a nod. The angels might say “Glory to God in the highest”, but it’s hard not to giggle when the angels are preschool-age children and grandchildren with tinfoil wings and lopsided halos made of gold pipe cleaners.

It’s probably best that things are this way. I doubt that any of us could really handle it we saw real glory, like “ the glory of the coming of the Lord”. It would be more than we could stand. God seems to have learned that early on in his dealings with his chosen people. In the Book of Exodus, we are told that God came to the people of Israel while they were in the wilderness in Sinai and tried to speak to them. Exodus says that “all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” (Ex ). All this glory was too much for God’s people to bear. They were afraid that God’s glory would kill them, and they begged Moses to ask God to pull back and leave them alone. God agreed, and pulled back, and told Moses to tell the people to hide in their in their tents, where they were safe. I am sure that if I were to open my front door one morning and saw fire and cloud and a voice like trumpets, I would ask God to please draw back and let me go back to my coffee. Glory is best taken in small doses. Angels with tinfoil wings and lopsided halos are infinitely preferable to the strange and terrifying beings that we glimpse in the Christmas story; no doubt the shepherds felt safer around the manager, away from the awful glory in the night sky that left them “sore afraid”.

The writer and mystic Annie Dillard tells an unforgettable story about traveling to join many other people on some hills in Washington state to watch a total eclipse of the sun. She describes seeing something that, for an unreal moment, pushed her to the edge of sanity. “The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. The color has never been seen on earth”. She is still trying to deal with this terrible light, which makes her husband look like a stranger from the land of the dead, when there is a new shock. “From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch on the brain slammed.”

For a few moments there is a terrible fear, and then the light returns, and sanity returns, and then there is the mundane reality of a body that wants its breakfast. Annie Dillard describes how the eclipse watchers left the hillsides and returned to their cars in relief. The eclipse is still going on overhead, but enough is enough. “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendour, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home” (p. 28). This reaction should not surprise us, really, because is it so human. After the sheer evil of the 9/11 hijackers and the glorious heroism of the firefighters at the Twin Towers or of the passengers on UA Flt 93, what were we told to do with these new insights into human nature? We were told to go shopping, to do our bit to restore the world and the economy to normal.

So we poor humans have a limited appetite for glory, or terror, or indeed for anything out of the ordinary, but God does not stop being God and glory, however we understand it, is part of God’s nature. The words glory and glorify are used six times in today’s gospel reading from St. John. In fact, glorify is one of John’s favourite words. Over one-third of its occurrences in the whole New Testament are from John. Indeed, one of the first things St. John says in his gospel, is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

How is the world filled with Jesus’ glory? It wasn’t the glory of kings and Roman emperors in their triumphal processions in some scene out of Ben-Hur, because the Jesus of Palm Sunday, riding a donkey, was a pretty poor excuse for an emperor. It wasn’t the glory of the Temple in Jerusalem, with its gold-clad walls and its priests in their robes. It wasn’t even the glory of Greek wisdom and philosophy, because Jesus was a simple rabbi and his apostles were ordinary guys. The world-filling glory of Jesus was a baby lying in a manger who filled strangers with hope and wonder. Glory was a man stopping to speak to a Samaritan women at a well when no one wanted anything to do with her. Glory was a finger dipped in saliva and slowly rubbing the darkness out of a blind man’s eye, like a dirty window being cleaned. Glory was a voice calling a friend out of the tomb and back into the land of the living. Glory was a sufferer hanging on a Roman cross, a friend showing patience and wounded hands to doubting Thomas, a companion breaking bread and praying at the dinner table.

The glory of Jesus is a glory that never overwhelms us. It’s not something that we run away from because it’s big and fearful and incomprehensible. Rather, it’s the glory of intimacy and familiarity that we find in rare moments of life that we want to hang on to forevermore. It’s the glory of light, the glory of friendship, the glory of acts of unexpected kindness given and received. It’s the glory of forgiveness, it’s the glory of growing into wisdom, of learning patience, of receiving and giving blessings. It’s the glory of the candlelit church on Christmas Eve, the thrilling hymns of Easter, the small voice of reassurance at a funeral that says farewell, but not forever. If Annie Dillard experienced a terrible and annihilating glory in that hillside during the total eclipse, the glory of the Son of God is different. Christ’s glory may fill the skies, as the hymn tells us, but it comes in washes of light like a sunrise, filling the land with colour and warmth, and promising us that night and death and all our other fears are but things that will pass.

The words of our gospel today form part of what biblical scholars call the Farewell Discourse. The Son returns to the Father, but his glory remains. This week in the Christian calendar also marks the Feast of the Ascension, when Christ ascended into heaven. For Christians this is not the end of Christ’s presence in the world. The Son of God is not subject to eclipses. The world sees the glory of God whenever Christians through their love and unity show God to the world. At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus prays “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that the may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:11). This protection does not mean that Christians are immune to cancer, or death, or persecution, or dwindling churches. Rather, protection means, I think, that we are given a share of God’s glory through our common life and worship that allows “eternal life” to begin now.

The next time you see a child’s artwork done in Sunday school, it’s a glimpse of glory. If gnarled hands brush yours as you receive a cup of coffee after church, there’s a touch of glory. If you see the reflection of stained glass dancing in the wine and you somehow feel, as you bend and sip, that this is real communion with your Saviour, that’s a taste of glory. Glory comes as a visitor to the hospital room, in the strains of an anthem, in a humble church and in the Sunday best that smells of woodsmoke and mothballs. Glory is that instinct that says “this is where I need to be this Sunday morning, with my creator and with God’s family”. Glory is here. Glory is now, and for ever more. Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

© Michael Peterson+ 2008

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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