Glory is at the heart of John’s gospel and its promises about how Jesus reveals to us his Father. But what does “glory” mean? And, more importantly, what does it mean for us? Br. Keith Nelson uncovers the true meaning of glory in John’s gospel, and points us toward an intimate practice that can help us to discover how we participate in God’s glory.
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Br. Keith Nelson came to SSJE in February of 2014 and professed his Initial Vows in July of 2016. Raised in both southern New Jersey and central Alabama and educated at Kenyon College (B.A. 2004) and Harvard Divinity School (M.T.S 2008), Keith has lived in the Boston area since 2008. For five years he was a committed member of The Crossing at St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as a parishioner at Trinity Church, Newton Center. He has worked as a high school theology and history teacher, a teacher and director of adult English classes for recent Chinese immigrants, and most recently as the parish, building, and financial administrator at Emmanuel Church, Boston. He has had a life-long passion for drawing and is an avid reader of ascetical theology, particularly fourteenth-century Middle English. He loves being a monk and a follower of Jesus.
the manifest presence of God
Glory is at the heart of John’s gospel. In the very opening lines, we read: “And 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” (Jn 1:14). This “glory” can be understood as the visibly manifest, 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.
In the first half of John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals God’s glory – that is, he manifests and mediates God’s presence – especially through signs and symbols, semeia, those seemingly miraculous encounters in which his followers suddenly glimpse God in the realities of daily life: water becomes wine, a blind man receives sight, and we become sensibly aware and consciously engaged with the reality of God. At the Last Supper, which acts as the hinge point between John’s “Book of Signs” and “Book of Glory,” Jesus mediates God’s glory in a very physical and interpersonal way as he breaks bread with his disciples and prays these words to his Father on our behalf: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23). This glorious, glorifying prayer demarks a crucial moment of pause and clarification before the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. (In John, these events form a single arc simply referred to as Jesus’ “glorification.”) Before his glorification, Jesus ensures that his disciples will know that God’s glory belongs to them as well.
Glory is present and available to us. The glorifying energy didn’t subside as Jesus’s final supper with his friends came to an end, or even after his resurrection. The glory revealed through Jesus takes us even further into an identification with and participation in God, through Jesus. It is especially present when we pray with and for others, as Jesus did. As we partake of the glory of the Son of the Father, God’s glory takes root and blossoms wherever Christians are a praying presence. 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.”
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. It could be the prayer you didn’t even know you had in you until it was tumbling from your lips at the death of your best friend or the birth of your only child. It could be a prayer whispered over the forehead of your beloved. In such moments we feel our heartbeats quicken and our hair stand on end. We feel the bounded walls of own skin gently merge with the warm currents of the Holy Spirit on all sides. 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, there are Christians for whom this is the question that John’s gospel compels them to ask, a question with its own priorities and mission theology. Alternatively, a Christian – similarly inspired by John’s gospel and intent on sharing the glory of the Father made known in the Son – might ask a person, “May I pray for you? May I pray with you?”
The first question, “Have you…” 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. It is often a rather impersonal question. And it is not a particularly glorious question.
The second question, “May I…” in contrast, is an invitation into experience. It is open-ended. It is an offer of a gift that, like one of Jesus’s semeia, has the potential to mediate a new experience of the God who is Love. 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. We all experience moments when others pour out their hearts to us, in great joy or great sorrow, or confide in us, or ask for our guidance. In addition to offering our simple, listening presence – an inestimable gift in itself – we can offer to pray with or pray for such a companion. This is a small but missional act with the power to glorify another’s experience of life and to glorify God at work in us.
Now, this is undoubtedly risky. It can be a vulnerable experience, bringing what matters most to us into dialogue with the joy or sorrow of a fellow traveler. An e-mail or a card – “my thoughts and prayers are with you” – can feel so much safer than an offer to pray in the here and now, in the flesh, in the moment the tears are falling and all seems lost. But wasn’t that how Jesus lived, stepping boldly into one moment of open, exposed truth and courage after another, until he offered his pure vulnerability on the cross?
“We love because God first loved us,” the writer of the First Letter of John tells us (1 Jn 4:19). 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. We are called to share this glory with the world.