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God's Glorification: Our Praying Presence – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

John 17:1-11a

Driving from Boston to any location on the North Shore of Massachusetts via Route One is a unique experience with which we Brothers, and many of you, will be quite familiar. Route One is the most direct way to get back and forth between our monastery here in Cambridge and Emery House in West Newbury. Most of us – especially those living at Emery House for any length of time – have driven this route dozens, if not hundreds of times. Though I do have a soft-spot for some of Route One’s distinctively kitschy landmarks – a fiberglass orange dinosaur, a replica of the leaning tower of Pisa, a steakhouse sign in the shape of a gigantic cactus – I confess that on many days I find the barrage of retail chains and languishing motels tedious and vaguely depressing. A New England tourism website describes the Route One experience with appropriately mixed emotion: “Years have passed and Route One is still one of America’s hideous, tacky gems –with its odd charm still shining at us in its neon, kitschy glory.”

That line begs the question: What does the word glory mean? What does it mean to you?  What does it mean to glorify something or someone? Is Route One, by any stretch of the imagination, glorious? We use the word glory in our shared lexicon of prayer, scripture and liturgy almost as often as the words Amen and Allelujah. So often, in fact, that in our least attentive or impatient moments, it has the potential to become just another fiberglass dinosaur on our daily commute to God. Fortunately, we hear of glory often enough and in such varied contexts that the ears of our hearts have constant opportunity to re-awaken and to rediscover this powerful, dynamic, utterly significant and mysterious word. The great prayer that Jesus offers to his Father in John’s Gospel is a culminating moment in his life and mission, a prayer that uses the words glory or glorify eight times. This prayer is a crucial moment of pause and clarification before the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, which in John form a single arc or processual movement simply referred to as his glorification. But this final glorification simply distills and amplifies a theme that is present even in the gospel’s prologue and surfaces again and again in each chapter, the sure conviction that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”[i]

Massive books have been written about the word “glory.” My words will barely scrape the surface. For this evening, I want to share just a few thoughts about the glorifying energy of corporate prayer. God’s glory is mediated to us in a physical and interpersonal way in the presence of Jesus especially as he prays for us to his Father. As we partake of the glory of the Son of the Father, God’s glorification in us takes root and blossoms wherever Christians are a praying presence, since the glory of God is always a glory shared. Our participation in a community of prayer makes the glory hidden in the work of Christ manifest to the world, so that all who are drawn to him through us may “see and believe.”

In Christian tradition, God’s glory might be understood as the visibly manifest, revealed, interpersonally mediated presence of God. It is something physical and available to our senses that opens us to God’s loving gift of Godself, the “godliness of God.” For us, Jesus Christ is the supreme mediator and embodiment of God’s glory, and the Holy Spirit communicates and grounds us in that glory even while leading us ever further into its Truth. In Christ, we participate in glory now and are being translated into greater glory as we follow the Way. Though not from the Johannine corpus, one of my favorite passages in all of scripture conveys the irresistible adventure of this transformation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[ii]

There is an essential connection between this glory, this glorification and the life of prayer. A favorite image for this glorifying energy of prayer in the Eastern Christian tradition is the interplay of incense smoke and sunlight. Not unlike the scriptural word “glory,” liturgical objects like thuribles and liturgical practices like swinging fragrant incense smoke are powerful symbols: they silently communicate a range of potential meanings to our hearts as we draw near to the Divine Reality beyond all symbols. One traditional symbolism of incense comes from the Revelation to John, in which the elders surrounding the throne of the Lamb carry “golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”[iii] As incense smoke rises upward to fill a church’s interior, it renders shafts of light increasingly visible as they stream downward through windows. Sunlight, one of the simplest and most immaterial symbols of God’s glory, enters a worship space and is further glorified by the aroma and smoke of incense crafted by human hands. The prayers that such incense represents likewise glorify God as they rise up from the living altar of the human heart. We go forth from the liturgy into the world streaming prayer behind us, trailing its fragrance.

Recall for a moment what it feels like to stand in someone’s physical presence and offer prayer on their behalf, or to have someone pray for you in this way. It might be a memory of your grandmother saying grace, or the priest who performed your wedding, or one of the Brothers here. Or it could be a memory of teaching a child to pray, or washing a stranger’s feet on Maundy Thursday. I believe that this kind of very specific and intimate prayer for another person is an act of glorification – God’s glorification, the glorification of another, our own glorification, and the glorification of the earth. Every baptized Christian is empowered and commissioned to this ministry of glorification.

A Christian might ask a person they do not know “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Indeed, I have encountered Christians for whom this is the question, a question with its own priorities and mission theology. Alternatively, a Christian might ask a person: “May I pray for you?” or “May I pray with you?”

The first question always has a yes or no answer. It is a way of asking whether a certain doctrinal requirement has been met or whether a contractual agreement has transpired. It seeks to know if a person is an insider or an outsider, whether belief is present or absent. In most contexts in which I have encountered this question, it has also felt oddly impersonal – as if I were a potential client or customer being asked to sign up for a new service or product. It is not a particularly glorious question.

The second question is an invitation into an experience. It is open-ended. It is an offer of a gift. The gift may not be welcomed by the person to whom it is offered, but it requires nothing of the recipient other than a willing consent and an open mind. There are moments for each of us when others pour out their hearts to us, in great joy or great sorrow, or confide in us, or ask for our guidance. The offer to pray with or pray for such a companion in a moment like that is a small but missional act with the power to glorify another’s experience of life and to glorify God at work in us. The most negative reply I have received to this question is “If it makes you feel better, then go right ahead.” The most affirmative replies have opened glorifying encounters with God and my fellow human travelers that have changed my life.

“We love because God first loved us,” the writer of the First Letter of John tells us.[iv] We might also say that we glorify God because God has first glorified us. Our capacity, our impulse, our irrepressible desire to give glory to God is a function of our glory, which finds its origin in God. We are moved to give back what God has given to us.

The next time someone glorifies you by praising something you’ve done or said, how might you respond – even if only in your own heart – by letting that glory pass through you to its source in God? How might you pray, with the Psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, but to your Name give glory?”[v] I’m not suggesting that we avoid a healthy sense of pride. It is right to feel gratified in the ways that others acknowledge our contributions or talents. But Jesus, our savior and our model in all things, teaches us that anything glorious that is visible in us or any glorious work wrought by our mind or heart or hands is the manifestation of God’s glory. Since that glory is not ours, it is an unlimited supply that we can spend without counting the cost. To acknowledge this is to consent to the ongoing glorification of all, to be a person traveling the path “from one degree of glory to another.”


[i] John 1: 14.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 3: 17-18.

[iii] Revelation 5:8.

[iv] 1 John 4:19.

[v] Psalm 115:1.

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1 Comment

  1. Margo on May 17, 2016 at 15:30

    Br. Keith, This leaves me pondering the crucifixion that reveals the ‘other’ – the paradoxical glory of God revealed in accepting and bearing suffering. The look in the eyes of the tired face of a rather disheveled old women who when accepting ‘free laundry’ services to wash a bundle of old ‘tired’ jeans tells me “God is very good” before settling down to drink coffee from my almost empty thermos. Margo

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