A Night of Glory

March 16th, 2017

John 13:1-7, 31b-35

Say the word glory aloud. Let it roll across the tongue and out of your mouth. The very word glory contains a sense of triumph and grandeur. On August 16th in 1976, I walked out the center aisle of the Chapel of Perkins School of Theology at S.M.U. Holding my arm was my wife. Looking back over three decades plus it is still a moment I glory in.

Or take another incident in American life and culture. On the night of November 4, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama walked out to greet the gathered crowd at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois. It was a night of triumph and glory for his supporters. It was night of glory in a larger sense because the election of the first African American to the office of the presidency represented the crashing of a racial barrier. The word glory in description of that event evokes the emotions of joy and exultant triumph.

No doubt you can come up with your own experiences of glory. It may be associated with a purely personal event such as a wedding. It may evoke a sports triumph or great social victory. Images for glory abound but almost all involve some deep sense of exultant, joyous triumph. As a diehard Chicago Cubs fan (any team can have a bad century), I still hear the legendary announcer Harry Caray shouting, “Cubs win! Cubs win!”

Contrast those emotions with the scene reported in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. “When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once’ (vv. 31-32).” Pause. Reflect. Pray. Soak in the jarring contrast between our experiences of glory and God’s glory as Jesus speaks about it. Understand that this is a night of glory, true glory, God’s glory.

Typical understandings of this passage land quickly on the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It is an appealing, evocative demonstration of the depth of Christ’s love. A common sermon appeal urges us to wash the feet of others, mimicking Jesus in our actions. It fits nicely with the close of the passage containing the admonition of verse 35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” What is missing is the full impact of the teaching from Jesus.

The assigned text moves from verse 7, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” to the verses of glory and glorification. In this night, this sacred meal decisively changed from a Passover supper into the Lord’s Supper. Through this action we are called to embrace the glory of Christ. Biblically, glory denotes worship. To glorify someone is to worship them! The supper and the service (footwashing) are declarations of Jesus as the incarnate God. Jesus is the glory of God—God present and in action to us and for us. The act of footwashing, far from being merely an example of dedicated service that we are to emulate, reveals how God is present with us and for us. God is present as a servant among us. Glory and glorification are the revealed presence of God.

How then do we twenty-first-century people know and experience God? We encounter God in embracing God’s glory. The sacrament begun this night so long ago invites us again to the table to encounter Christ. Acts of love poured out in sacrificial service for others (even and especially for those who desert us or betray us) lead us to an encounter with the gloried (revealed presence) of God in Christ.

The understanding of this text must do far more than just call us into sacrificial service for others. Faithfulness in proclamation requires an invocation of who Jesus really is. Jesus as the Christ is the revealed presence (the glory) of God. Augustine writes: “But the glorifying of the Son of man is the glorifying of God in him” (Joel C. Elowsky, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IVb: John 11–21 [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2007], 110).

Once in Sunday school a little boy was determinedly drawing a picture on a piece of paper. The teacher asked him, “What are you drawing?” Confidently he replied, “A picture of God.” Kindly, with laughter in her voice, the patient teacher responded, “Oh, nobody knows what God looks like.” Even more confidently the young boy retorts, “They will when I’m done.”

On this night of glory we learn again what God looks like; we encounter God in the flesh at the table with Jesus. Let the faithful revel in the glory of God on this night of glory. Let us not stop at the footwashing or rush too quickly ahead to the great verse 35. We invite our congregation to glorify God in Christ through our worship.

Then, and only then, may we properly move to the second element of the lesson. In encountering God, we come to understand the nature of God. In the example of Christ we learn again that it is God’s nature to sacrificially love. “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

Do not be afraid to live in silence and awe in our worship and our lesson. The presence of God should bring us, like those of old, to stillness in adoration and praise. There will be time for sacrificial service later. The sacrificial love of Christ, the giving of himself, and the washing of their feet; all these may and should inspire us to action. The source of such action springs first from a recognition of God’s glory, God’s very presence in Christ sitting at the table with us and for us. Let this be a night of glory.

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