We Beheld His Glory
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday). Fr Richard Ounsworth preaches on the difference between fame and glory.
One of the most important words in St John’s Gospel is ‘glory’; right at the beginning we read that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son…’ Jesus Christ is the revelation of the glory of the Father. And that glory is beheld especially when Christ is ‘lifted up’ on the cross. The kind of exaltation – of lifting up, of glorification – that belongs to Christ is humble submission to death by hanging upon a tree.
In this idea of glory St John is transforming the meaning of the Greek word that he uses. That word is ‘doxa’, and in the normal Greek of the time it meant reputation, being well-thought of, or ‘fame’. It’s something to do with what people say about you, something noisy. Whereas in the Gospel, glory is something not noisy but shiny. This is the Jewish notion of glory, the visible manifestation of the greatness of God. Moses saw the glory of God on Sinai, and later that same glory was seen to enter into the temple that Solomon built for the Lord in Jerusalem.
So true, divine glory is not about reputation, which is something second hand. It’s not about what people say about you, which may or may not be true. It’s not like the celebrity of modern culture, in which people are mostly famous because everyone else says so. No, divine glory is something self-evident, something that stares you in the face. You can’t miss it.
St John himself emphasises his, and his fellow apostles’, first hand experience of Christ. At the beginning of his first epistle he says that what he’s talking about is ‘what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…’
And one of the central themes of his Gospel is that when the glory of God puts itself, as it were, in your face, you can’t just ignore it. In the person of Jesus Christ God’s glory, his great and majestic presence, his awesome love stares you in the face and demands of you a decision. This is quite different from the Greek – and the modern – idea of fame. Ordinary fame, or what we might call earthly glory, does not demand a life-changing decision from you. You can be indifferent to David Beckham, or Barack Obama, or whoever. They don’t force us to make a choice for or against them.
But Jesus does force us to make that choice, because he is the in-your-face glory of the Father. Specifically, as he talks about in today’s Gospel, he presents us with that life-altering decision when he mounts the wood of the cross, which is where he reveals God’s glory. The crucifixion is the moment of decision – a decisive moment for him, of course, when he made the choice of obedience and thus proved himself indeed to be the Word made flesh. But a decisive moment for us also, the time to choose between good and evil, light and darkness.
Christ says ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up’ – must be exalted, must be crucified – so that people had to show who they were. He is like a lantern raised on a pole in a dark place, to whom those who are of the light are drawn like moths to a flame, while those who prefer to skulk in the darkness scurry away like rats.
When God gave up his only Son, allowed him to be lifted up on the gibbet, he shone a spotlight on every evil act, however trivial, however unnoticed. Jesus’s death on the cross says to us: ‘Open your eyes. Look what you are doing!’
So when God’s glory shines in the world from the cross, revealing the true state of the world we have made, and the state of our own souls, we may well recoil. The cross is, after all, a hideous thing. But we have chosen to stare unblinkingly at that reality, however painful, rather than to cover our faces with our pillows, roll over and go back to sleep.
And indeed, St Paul says that God has raised us up with him. In our union with Christ, we are the light of the world, you and I. We are God’s torches. It is our job to go out there and shine the light of Christ in every dark corner of the world, to show up evil for what it is; to show up the darkness and call people into the light.