Sunday, 5 June 2011

Called to glory. A sermon by Anne Le Bas

Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10,32-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11, John 17. 1-11
There’s a word you’ll hear a lot in today’s prayers and hymns and bible readings – it’s the word “glory”. Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day, when we remember the story of Jesus going back to the glory of heaven. We pray in the collect to God who is the “King of Glory”. In the second reading we heard about “the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God,” and about being “called to God’s eternal glory,” and in the Gospel Jesus prays on the night before he dies for his Father to glorify him, so that God himself is glorified. He prays too that he will be glorified in us. I’ll talk about those passages in a moment, but before I do I’d like us to think a bit about this word “glory”.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word “glory”. My guess is that it conjures up images of great processions, of trumpets, of impressive displays of wealth, of cheering crowds, of mass adulation and acclaim. And what colour is glory? Well, it has to be gold, doesn’t it? There’s nothing retiring about glory – it is something bright and shiny, something that announces itself, that can’t be missed.
Our English word comes from the Latin gloria, which meant fame or renown – your reputation and image. The equivalent Greek word makes that even more obvious. It is doxa, which comes from a word that means to think or to seem – glory has to do with what people think about you, how you seem to them. This sort of glory was really important in the ancient world. Rulers were obsessed with their image, putting on grand spectacles to entertain the crowds, building vast and impressive buildings. Roman Emperors even declared themselves to be divine, and you don’t get much more of an image uplift than that. Of course, underneath it all they were no different to anyone else, subject to the same frailties and weaknesses as all human beings, but what mattered was that the image was preserved, that people were awestruck by what they saw on the surface. Later monarchs felt just the same. Think of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, as he called himself, who built the ridiculously huge palace of Versailles, with its hall of mirrors , its 700 rooms and 1400 fountains in the grounds… If you’ve ever been there you’ll know that it’s not exactly cosy or practical, but it’s very, very impressive. No one needs a house that big, and I can’t say I’d want to live there, but you don’t build something like that for comfort. You build it to show that you can. The message is clear. “If I can build like this, I can do anything – so don’t mess with me!”
That is glory in the sense that we usually think of it. An external display.
But that’s not what the Bible means when it talks about glory, and it talks about glory a lot, especially the glory of God. The Hebrew word, which comes again and again in the Old Testament, is “kabod” [pronounced kavoth] and its root meaning is “heaviness”. Kabod is a weighty word. It’s not just about image, it is about substance; what something really is, not just what it’s trying to look like. It’s about the inner essence of a thing, not just the outward appearance, however splendid. The kabod of God is often described as a shining light in the Bible, but it’s not the reflected light of a gilded statue, it is light that comes from within, pure goodness, the light of the one who is light.
So the Hebrew authors of the Old Testament were quite clear what they were talking about, and it was far more than just show or image or reputation. The problems started when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, because there was no exact equivalent for this untranslatable word in Greek, nothing that really captured its unique meaning. The nearest the translators could get was doxa, that word I told you about earlier. It wasn’t really accurate – God’s glory didn’t depend on what others thought or said about him. The New Testament writers followed their lead and use doxa too, because that was the only word they had. And when the Bible was translated from Greek into Latin, doxa became gloria, so we end up with glory, with all its rather misleading associations with bling and trumpets, worldly acclaim and wealth.
All this matters, because, as I said, the Bible talks about glory a lot. Our readings today were full of it. But if we have those glittering Greek and Latin images running around in our heads we are going to be seriously confused by them. The first letter of Peter says that “if you are reviled for the name of Christ you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” But what has being reviled and suffering got to do with glory? Nothing; not if you think of glory as a shiny, impressive thing at any rate, not if you think it is about looking good in the eyes of others. Suffering is painful; being reviled is humiliating. Calling it glorious seems to insult those who suffer.
It’s not just about getting a reward in heaven after you die either. The author says “you are blessed” not “you will be blessed”. Right here, right now, in the midst of the suffering and the shame, the spirit of glory IS resting on you he says.
In the Gospel reading we heard today, Jesus talks about being glorified, too. But he is speaking on the night before he dies. He knows what is coming, and it doesn’t sound like glory to me. He’s not going to be sitting on a golden throne in the morning; he’s going to be nailed to a cross. Those who follow him won’t have it easy either – most of his first disciples died painful deaths. How can any of this be glory?
It doesn’t seem to make sense.
But the authors of these passages aren’t thinking of glory as the Greeks and Romans thought of it, as an outward appearance of success. Their image of God has been formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, and what they have in their minds here is that untranslatable Hebrew concept of kabod, that weighty, real, substance of God, God’s presence in our lives. When we suffer and are reviled for the sake of truth, justice and love, the letter of Peter says, God is with us, working in us – we are sharing in his kabod. Jesus’ death on the cross is the clearest demonstration we could have of God’s presence with us – his kabod - in our own suffering and death. Those awful, grim times in our lives are not just a senseless waste, these passages say, but times when we can find God at work in the depths of ourselves, and reveal God to others too as they see us living in that darkness with integrity and love.
I have the privilege often of seeing that kabod – the transforming presence of God - in the people who come to talk to me at times of trouble in their lives. They may be sad, angry, confused and ashamed, but there is often a sense as we talk that we are on holy ground, that this is a place where things can change in their lives. It doesn’t feel glorious in the conventional sense of the word – far from it - but God is there, and that means that these can be times of real blessing, however painful they are.
Finding kabod isn’t automatic, though. It depends on our willingness to deal with the reality of our lives, their substance, not their image, and that is often very hard for us to do.
Human beings are very image-conscious. That’s been obvious over the last couple of weeks. The media have been full of talk of super-injunctions, attempts to block reports of misdemeanours committed by public figures. I’m not sure I need or want to know everyone else’s private business, but I do think there’s something wrong when people spend more effort on concealing what they have done than addressing why they did it, or what they need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The best way to prevent the tabloids writing about your extra-marital affairs is not to have extra-marital affairs in the first place. It’s not our image we should pay attention to, but our substance.
Then there was Sepp Blatter, whose main concern this week seems to have been that FIFA’s image might be damaged by the accusations of bribery flying around. Again, it seems to me, it isn’t the image that is the real problem, it’s the substance. If people are bribing others, there is something rotten at the heart of his organisation. A bit of clever P.R. isn’t the answer.
Whether it is problems with organisations or individuals, though, it often seems easier to tinker with the exterior appearance than tackle what is going on within. Perhaps that is because we don’t really believe that anything can be done. Perhaps we think that the healing and forgiveness we really need is impossible to find, that if the truth about our lives was known no one would love us – not even God.

So we slap on another coat of whitewash, sprinkle a bit of glitter about and hope no one looks at us too closely. That is a tragedy, because by doing that we cut ourselves off from the help and the hope we really need, the life changing kabod of God. It is a tragedy too, because it doesn’t need to be that way.

The strange story of the Ascension, reminds us that in Jesus our humanity, along with his, is taken up into the heart of God. With all our frailty and our failings we are welcome on God’s “holy ground”. We are called to dwell in God and let him dwell in us, so that the substance of our lives can be transformed to be like his - loving, honest, good and true. “Humble yourselves,” says the letter of Peter, “under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you…and the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory – to his kabod - in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

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