What do we mean when we speak of glory? Sometimes we mean the adulation and honour that come with winning a contest, like an athlete in competition. Sometimes when we say something was glorious we mean it was a particularly fine example of a craft, like a glorious meal or musical performance. A glorious sunrise is usually one full of colours and dramatic changes.
When St John discusses the glory of God and the glorification of Jesus, he means all of these things, and a little bit more. In St John’s time, speaking and writing in Greek, the word we translate as glory describes something worthy of honour, something beautiful, something exceptional, but also something that reveals. When St John speaks of the Father glorifying the Son, he means all of these things. Honouring and exalting, but also revealing the truth of the Son’s nature. The nature of God is, indeed, glorious. It is beautiful and awesome and even a little bit frightening, like seeing a powerful natural wonder up close. St John is very concerned, not only with reminding us that God is glorious, but that this glory is the destination for which we are bound; eternal glory in the presence of God is where we are, all of us, headed.
It is fitting that in today’s gospel passage we have a portion of Jesus’s farewell dialogue. Jesus is praying that the disciples, having had the truth of his nature revealed to them, they will be protected by God to continue the work of Jesus in his own name. This is paired with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the Ascension, which we celebrated in its fullness on Thursday. The passage from the gospel talks at length about the consequences of revealed glory, while the reading from the Acts talks a bit about what to do with it.
After Jesus ascends, the people left on the plain are staring into the sky, awestruck by what they have just witnessed. After a moment, two men in dazzling white robes ask them why they are staring up into the sky when it is known that Jesus, who has gone in this way, will also return? We hear an echo of the two men in dazzling white robes at the empty tomb, questioning why those looking for Jesus would search for the living among the dead. In both cases, the people looking have witnessed something of God’s glory and are stunned by it.
We might read the angels’ words both on the plain and at the tomb and hear them as chiding the disciples for being foolish. Why are you looking for the living in a place where there are only dead? Why are you staring up at the sky when Jesus is gone and has promised to come back? While the disciples are often foolish, I do not think this is one of those times, nor do I think the angel is chiding them. Rather, I think we would do better to hear the angels’ words as a question meant to encourage. You have seen God’s glory revealed in this moment and you know what God intends for you to do; why do you stand staring at the echo of God’s glory when you know what work you have to do next?
The response of the disciples to the Ascension is to devote themselves constantly to prayer for some time, before setting out on their apostolic journeys. I think we could assume that their staring at the sky was also an act of devotion, awestruck by what God had revealed to them. The encouragement of the angels to get going with the work Jesus has given them brings us to one of the greatest theological questions of the last 500 years: That of the relationship between faith and works.
Our brothers in faith, Ss James and Paul disagree on the order of procession of these two phenomena, but they do agree that both are important. I am not so concerned about whether faith or works ought to be understood as coming first—this is, for me, a bit like the chicken and egg question—but what is true is that our faith draws us toward God. As we inch closer to God, we get a better sense, a better view, of what has been revealed by God about God’s self. And, as we see more of the truth about God, we are moved to act in response.
Our reaction might be prayer, worship, telling others what we have seen, responding to God’s love for us by sharing that love with our neighbour, or many other works. When we act in response to the revelations given to us in faith, we find that our faith deepens and grows. As it does so, we are drawn closer still to God whose nature is revealed to us in new ways. With new revelation in faith comes new and different and more works in response. And so goes the pattern of our life in God. If it’s all faith and no works, like a planted garden bed that is never worked or tended, little grows as it is meant to. But if the garden bed is always being poked, prodded, and fussed over, the plants don’t have a chance to root, sprout, and grow properly. It is a careful balance of work and faith that produces a fruitful garden.
We gather as the people of God in this place in response to our faith. We believe we have been called by God to be a community, to be part of the Body of Christ, in this neighbourhood in this city. To care for one another, to work as disciples on the road together, and to share with our parish—our neighbours within and without these walls—something of the glory of God that has been revealed to us.
Through our faith, we are drawn to the cross to see the glory of God in total self-sacrifice. We are drawn to the tomb to see the glory of God in resurrection and the destruction of death’s power over us. We are drawn to the plain to see the glory of God in the ascension of human and divine natures to the right hand of God. In these revelations, we are called by God to works and lives of self-sacrifice for the sake of our neighbour, to show them what it is to live the new life without fear of death, to extend our hands to lift them up to where they might meet Christ.
Our faith has called us to these revelations. Like the disciples, we know the work that is set before us. Will we stand in the prairie, staring at the sky, or have we faith enough to follow our calling and get to work in Jesus’s name?