Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 2, 2006
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Jeremiah 31:31-34 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Hebrews 5:5-10 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;
as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
John 12:20-33 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
What do you think of when you think of glory? What images come to mind?
Perhaps a sunset. Perhaps a coronation or a triumphal parade. An NCAA championship? A gold medal in the Olympics?
Glory usually means some kind of praise and honor, or something of magnificence, splendor. The glory that was Rome. Glory is one of those words that sounds shiny. It’s a weird thing, but there are a lot of words in English that start with gl- and seem to have something with light and brightness: glisten, gleam, glimmer, glare, glamour, glaze, glint, glitzy, glow. Glory is one of those. Bright shining and glorious. Like the cross atop our altar table.
II. THE TEXT: THE SON OF MAN TO BE GLORIFIED
Glory is at the heart of our Gospel lesson tonight. Some Greeks come to the disciples and ask to see Jesus. When the disciples come to Jesus, he answers: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
It is a curious answer, because it doesn’t really sound like Jesus has answered the disciples concerning the Greeks. But perhaps more curious is that what he’s talking about doesn’t sound all that glorious.
Jesus keeps juxtaposing words like glory with events that sound more painful and tragic than glorious. He goes on to say,
And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’
“This hour” is clearly the Passion and the Crucifixion at hand. And yet, Jesus prays to God “Father, glorify your name” and is even answered with a voice from heaven saying “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
Jesus makes reference to when he will be “lifted up” and lest we think that he is talking about his resurrection or ascension, John steps in with an editorial comment: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
There’s just one problem with that: notwithstanding the beauty of the cross on our altar table, there is nothing glorious about the cross.
III. THE CROSS
The cross is one of the cruelest ways human beings have yet devised to kill one another. In the Roman Empire, it was a punishment reserved for non-Romans, for Jews and other subject peoples. The hands of the condemned were nailed to a cross beam that was then usually hung aloft on a vertical support or scaffold. The feet would then be nailed to the vertical support and the victim left to die.
Death was achieved slowly and could take days. The nails were often the easy part. Crucifixion worked by causing the body to collapse under its own weight. The diaphragm would collapse and the victim would suffocate. The very existence of crosses makes one shudder at the creative cruelty of humanity that we should have contrived such a death. It was a cruel, inglorious way to die.
Indeed, because of the way one died, and because of the fact that such death was reserved for non-Romans, crucifixion was a death that carried shame and stigma. In Jewish tradition, it was likewise inglorious. Paul writes to his Galatian congregants: “As it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
No, there was nothing glorious about the cross.
IV. GLORY AND SACRIFICE
Thinking back, whenever I think about the word ‘glory’ no particular image comes to my mind. Instead, I wind up thinking about the 1989 film Glory starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, and Morgan Freeman.
It tells the true story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War. It details their origins and their organization. Their painful growth as a band of untrained, often illiterate recruits, into a disciplined fighting force. It shows that despite the apparent progressivism of creating a black regiment, the U.S. Army had no intention of using them for fighting but only for back-breaking demoralizing labor. They are subjected to bigotry and outright abuse from white soldiers in the Union Army. They are treated with contempt by Army officers.
In the end they are given a chance to fight and distinguish themselves in battle. A few days after that, the 54th Massachusetts is involved in the Union’s assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston. Well, we all know how this one is going to turn out, right? I mean the movie is called Glory, isn’t it? What better ending to the film than for these black troops to storm this Confederate stronghold and turn the tide of the war? That is certainly glorious.
Except that is not how the story ends.
No, the Massachusetts 54th was destroyed at the battle of Ft. Wagner. Their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw—after whom the Shaw neighborhood in D.C. is named—and half their men were killed in the assault. Worse yet, the fort itself was not taken and the Union assault a failure.
Wherein the glory, then, without victory or fame?
The glory lay in self-sacrifice. In giving one’s life for the dignity of an entire people. In giving of oneself for a country that would not fully appreciate or respect their accomplishment for generations. A country where even in the north, they were second-class citizens, discriminated against and marginalized. Giving of themselves for a dream of freedom not only for their relatives enslaved in the South, but for their descendants and for all Americans. They emptied themselves and paid with their lives for the sake of others.That is glory. That is the glory of the cross.
The cross is a cruel instrument designed to humiliate and curse, and yet, to Christ it is glory. The Kingdom of God, for which Jesus died, is a kingdom that inverts the ways of the world.
The world respects power and force: that is, the Romans who stand at the foot of the cross. The glory of God is seen in the one hanging on the cross:
“despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2)
We are inclined to think of Christ’s resurrection as glorious, and to be sure, when we celebrate it on Easter Sunday two weeks hence, it will be. There will be lilies, and candles, and bright white chancel decorations, and lots of brass, and singing “Alleluia”. It will be glorious.
But Christ has shown us where true glory is.
It is in loving God and one another so powerfully that one is not even afraid to lose one’s own life. That one is willing to undergo humiliation, suffering, and rejection for the sake of the kingdom of God. That is glory.
And therein lies our hope. There are times when we are feeling brought low: despised, rejected. Times we are feeling humiliated and low. Times when we cry out for God to make Godself known. And it is in those times when we can realize that God is in those places of suffering and humiliation. Christ is there in the midst of our humility—giving of himself so that we might see something of the coming kingdom.
Christ did not die for his own sake—but for ours. The Greeks who asked to see Jesus received a cryptic reply about the hour arriving for Jesus’ death. Jesus, it turns out, does not ignore their question after all but answers it in a new way: we come to Jesus through his death on the cross.  We do not encounter Christ through the processional in glory into Jerusalem with palms waving, but there upon the cross, atop Calvary.
Christ suffered and died so that we might encounter him and in so doing know that that God was with us. That our places of crucifixion would be transformed into resurrection. That the humility of the cross that Christ bore for us, and that we bear for others, is the greatest glory in the Kingdom. That in our sufferings and in our humble service to one another we pray to God: “Father, glorify your name” and we hear the voice of God responding: “I have glorified it. And I will glorify it again.”