John 17:1-11, (Acts 1:6-14)
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
During my last holiday I took two of my nephews to a fun museum, which nearly bankrupted me. That’s how fancy it was! And one attraction was a labyrinth of mirrors, where visitors could walk through a kind of a long-winded tunnel the walls of which consisted in mirrors. Suddenly I could see the three of us and other people all over the place and while I had some inkling that if I saw myself that must be my reflection it was a dazzling and dizzying experience and quite disconcerting. My nephews loved it and I had to walk or rather stumble three times through that thing.
I feel a similar kind of dizziness when reading our Gospel. The Father glorifies the Son, so that the Son may glorify the Father.
Jesus has glorified the Father on earth by finishing his work. The Father glorifies the Son in his presence with the glory that he had in his presence before the world existed.
It just seems there is glory all around, reflected as in an endless hall of mirrors.
But what does it mean that the Son glorifies the Father and the Father the Son?
‘Glory’ has of cause an everyday meaning. Some scholars track the Greek word doxa back to originally meaning ‘appearance’, what something or somebody seems to be.
It then took on the meaning of reputation, opinion and further on prestige. You could say doxa is what makes somebody impressive, the status, money and power they have. Such status can be recognized and ascribed, whether through flag-waving and cheering or – in our day and age – through likes and followers.
To glorify means to give such recognition perhaps in the hope to bathe in some reflected glory, whether that is fame or power.
The problem is that sometimes – not always – the appearance is just that, an appearance. A façade with not much behind it. The people who attract glory, praise and honour are not always worthy of it.
This is radically different with God’s glory. When doxa is used in the Bible it describes the divine splendour and radiance, what is visible of God in God’s world. God’s glory is substantial and weighty. It is not just the acknowledgment given by followers or subjects – it is a truthful expression of God’s majesty.
We see a similar glory in a rose or a peony bud, when it bursts into a fully formed flower, expressing and making visible what is in it. This bursting forth of life with all its colours and scents is what makes spring such a glorious season.
To acknowledge such glory, to glorify God is not to say ‘well done God’ as if God needed some nice compliments every day to be kept in a good mood.
It means simply to acknowledge God as being God, the source of every good thing, the source of life itself. It is an act of awe, gratitude and praise.
And now we have the Gospel of John telling us that God’s innermost being, God’s character became fully expressed and visible in his Son, in a human life. In acts of power and healing. In words of life. In a death of love. In a victorious resurrection.
‘The word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld his glory – a glory as of the only-begotten Son of God – full of grace and truth’ as the prologue puts it (John 1:14).
But throughout the gospel we see that this is a glory which will often be misread and misunderstood. A glory which not everybody can see, which is often veiled and hidden, most of all in that darkest place of all, the cross.
When Jesus asks the Father to glorify him so that he may glorify him he is not striking a deal along the lines of ‘if you like my posts I follow you on Twitter’. He does not pray for a promotion either. Jesus shares in God’s glory ‘before the world existed’ (11:5) as the gospel puts it. It cannot be increased or diminished. But Jesus prays that his identity as the Father’s beloved Son may be vindicated, acknowledged, brought into the open, so that the Son may in turn acknowledge and reveal the Father to the world.
But where does this leave us? Are we just dazzled spectators, stumbling through a labyrinth of mirrors?
Well, Jesus says that the Son will glorify the Father ‘since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him’ (11:2).
We could almost say that Jesus showers all his god-given glory on us by giving us eternal life.
But this eternal life is not a commodity which God has handed over to Jesus, so he can give it to us.
Jesus continues to say that:
‘This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (11:3).
The Gospel of John is saying in ever new words:
Jesus is not just a teacher, but the truth.
Not just a guide but the way.
Not just a provider but indeed food.
Not just a life-giver but life itself.
Not just a prophet but the unique, eternal Son of God.
To know him, to know the Father is eternal life.
But what is this eternal life?
I remember how I once lay in bed as a child and tried to imagine eternity. Yes, there were early warning signs of weirdness in my life… And as I tried to imagine it, I nearly fell out of my bed because I got so frightened. It seemed to be a terrifying idea, this never-ending time.
Thankfully the Gospel of John does not use ‘eternal life’ in that sense.
It is not the endless continuation of our biological lives on a linear timeline but the taking up of our lives into the life of God already here, in this earthly life. It is the full expression, the blossoming of what God has put into each one of us, the desire to be fully alive, in him and with him and for him in this life and beyond.
‘This is the eternal life that they may know you, the only true God and the one you sent, Jesus Christ.’
To know God and the one he sent is the intimate knowledge of a lover. It is seeing and knowing God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6) as Paul puts it, it is knowing because we have been known, fully, deeply known; it is loving, because we have been loved fully and deeply, with the same love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father.
And this is how the Son is glorified in the believers. Not just in their obedience, though that is of course an important part: ‘If you love me you keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). But there is more to glorifying God than being a good boy or a good girl.
To glorify God is to mirror and reflect something of that undiluted, indestructible life which is in God and in Jesus.
As Ireneus of Lyon puts it so beautifully: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’
God is glorious in the first steps of a small child. God is glorious in the old couple holding hands. God is glorious in the science nerd finding new treatments for cancer. God is glorious in the tears shed for the sake of love. God is glorious in the raptured focus of a musician.
God is glorious in lives being made alive, restored and sanctified in Christ.
The earth is indeed full of God’s glory.
All this is not said naively in our gospel, as if life as a disciple was a kind of heavenly Chelsea flower show. It is said into a world which has its dark abysses, a world which often rejects God and is hostile against God’s messengers.
Jesus therefore prays for the protection of his own not least for protection from the evil and divisiveness they find in themselves: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17:11).
The reading from Acts shows us the church at prayer. The Gospel of John shows us the church being prayed for.
As we lift our eyes to heaven we see him, Jesus, once crucified and now glorified, forever Lord of all.
Before we pray we are prayed for.
Before we come together we are joined together.
Before we heed the invitation we are already made welcome.
Before we know anything about God we are already known, known in the depth of our being, fully and truly known as we, too, will one day fully know.
Alleluja, Christ is risen!