Near the end of his gospel, John ‘breaks the fourth wall,’ so to speak, and addresses his readers:
Now Jesus did many other sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Jesus did a total of seven signs in this gospel, ‘signs’ being John’s word for what the other gospel writers call ‘miracles.’ (But that’s a distinction for another blog post.) Very likely, you remember Jesus’ first sign. He turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. (Jn.2:1-11) Do you remember what the gospel author wrote at the conclusion of that story?
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory. They show he has real power. He has power over disease. He can heal sick people — healing the royal official’s son (sign 2) Jn. 4:46-54; healing the paralytic at Bethesda (sign 3) Jn. 5:1-15; and healing the man blind from birth (sign 6) Jn. 6:16-24. He has power over nature. He can walk on water, as he did in Jn. 6:16-24 (sign 5). He can multiply some fish and a few barley loaves and feed a multitude; John 6:5-14 (sign 6). Speaking of the feeding of the 5,000, it’s fascinating that John’s gospel doesn’t give us a Last Supper with bread and wine, but what this gospel does is expand our understanding of God’s sacramental presence in the world. After all, Jesus’ first sign is wine (Jn. 2) and his fourth sign is bread (Jn. 6). The whole of Jesus’ life, and our whole life in Jesus, is a great big, never-ending eucharistic fellowship. Lastly, Jesus even has power over death. His seventh, and final sign is when he brings back to life his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-45).
Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory. At first glimpse, Jesus’ glory sounds like our dictionary definition. glo-ry: High renown or honor won by notable achievements.
But that’s all going to change.
We hear about glory in the gospel appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week, John 12:20-36. This time it’s on Jesus’ lips: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said. (Jn.12:23) Given that you’ve already read about glory in this gospel, you may be thinking that Jesus must be preparing to do something amazing — show his power, reveal his strength, overcome an obstacle, knock down barriers. But then he says a weird, counter-intuitive thing about seeds and death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn.12:24) Wait? What?! Wasn’t your glory just shown to conquer death? Why are you talking about death?
As it turns out, glory and glorification, in the gospel, are not about things we define as ‘might’ and ‘strength.’ Glory, for God, is not about great achievements and notable praise. Glory, for God, is about love — sacrificial, abundant love at that.
New Testament scholars have traditionally broken John’s gospel into two books — the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31). With our Holy Week gospel, we’re at a transition point between those books, the threshold in which we’re leaving one and entering another. We don’t know what we’re preparing to enter. We do know that something has changed. We caught a glimpse — the meaning of ‘glory’ alone just changed — but we don’t fully know what is different, what is new, and why everything feels like it’s turned over, upside down. That’s part of the anxiety of reading this gospel. Indeed, that’s part of the anxiety of living this life.
Stick with it, however, and we soon learn why everything changed.
A few chapters later, we have the opportunity to pray alongside Jesus. John 17 is one long prayer: “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…” (Jn. 17:1). In this prayer, we finally learn what glory, God’s glory is all about.
First, glory is the power of the Ultimate Source of life. Jesus prays that He may glorify the Father (17:1). Jesus rejoices that He has brought God’s people more closely to God’s heart. In 7:4, Jesus says: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” Glory is God’s power, and when all things are restored to God all is well, all is right, all if glorified.
Second, glory is living as though we are already redeemed, already God’s own. Glory is God’s power, and it is a further point of God’s nature that God imparts what is God’s own. Thus Jesus said: I am asking “on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” (17:9) And 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Did you hear that? We are given God’s glory.
What a gift, that God would give us God’s glory! But in order to receive it, we must first understand it. And, thus, one of the greatest gifts of John’s gospel, taken from beginning to end, is that we understand that, and understand why the word ‘glory‘ changes. This is a lesson we also learn (or need to learn) from life.
We start off thinking in elementary terms. At first, we think that glory is about amazing deeds of power, high renown, notable achievements. But at some point we face difficulties and challenges, not only in John’s gospel but in life. That’s the moment we start to disbelieve everything we were once told: “Phooey!” we say, “That’s just bible talk. Jesus might’ve walked on water back then, but he can’t save me now.” Perhaps we forget that God’s glory is manifested most clearly on the Cross. Perhaps we just don’t want to look for God in the suffering and pain, the anxiety.
Cross-shaped moments are precisely those in our lives in which Jesus is most present.
We just don’t want to look for him there. We hardly want to recognize it ourselves.
Turns out, that the problem was our own heart, our own stubbornness and refusal. All along, we wanted life to be carefree, and we didn’t know there was anything on the other side of pain or challenge.
Stick with Jesus through John’s story and, like a sign itself, glory changes for you! Like a sacramental transformation, glory changes. Not only does the meaning of the word change right before your very eyes, but you change. You grow into God’s glory — which is more than we could ever ask or imagine.