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A Strange Glorification

What does glorification look like? Does it look like doing something worthy of praise, doing something deserving of a reward, such as an accomplished athlete stepping up to receive a gold medal, a musician or an actor receiving an award and giving an acceptance speech? Does glorification smell like fine perfume or expensive cologne mingled with the scent of wine and fine foods, the assurance that one has truly “made it” in the world? Does glorification look like mentions or likes on social media?

Is this what glorification is? Perhaps these are ways we would define it. The Scripture readings we have just read and heard this morning have a lot to tell us about glorification, but somehow it sounds different from what we’d expect.

Jesus tells his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It seems like Jesus would be talking about something good and pleasant, like a royal coronation with beautiful music and guests of honor and fine robes. You’d think this would be the part when Jesus starts explaining to his disciples what they should wear, how they should behave. But no, instead Jesus immediately starts talking about a grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying in order to bear fruit. What kind of glorification is he talking about?

The reading from Hebrews spells it out for us, about what kind of glorification Jesus will experience. The very short section we’ve read today, only six verses from chapter five, gives us quotes from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, from the Psalms, which we hold in the light of Christ, looking for meaning about who Christ is and what his presence will mean.

First we hear “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,”[1] a quote from the second Psalm, which comes from the ceremony of the enthronement of a king. In the time of Israel’s kings, there was the understanding that God adopts the king as a son.

Then we hear another quote, this time from Psalm one-hundred and ten: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”[2] We don’t know a whole lot about Melchizedek, but he is not a priest in the order of the Levites, that ancient tribe of the priests of Israel, established by Aaron, the brother of Moses. Instead, Melchizedek is both a priest, with sacred duties, as well as a king, with royal and political power. This is how the New Testament book of Hebrews understands Melchizedek, with both priestly and kingly power.

Now we are probably familiar, at least somewhat familiar, with the story of Jesus. Do we ever hear about Jesus wearing priestly robes, or going around in the Temple behaving like a priest? We know that Jesus would occasionally teach or discuss the Torah with scholars in the Temple, but we don’t get the idea he ever passed himself off as a priest. So at what point in his life does he behave like a priest, offering sacrifices on behalf of sinful people, praying for people’s forgiveness?

And also, when does Jesus parade around like a king with an entourage, or sit in the halls of power making judgments, or ruling over people? When in his entire life does Jesus wear a crown? Jesus does indeed become a priest, offering sacrifices, as well as a king, with kingly power, but he doesn’t arrive at this power in the ways we would expect him to.

There are no purifying rituals to make his sacrifice holy—he is accused, he is beaten and bloodied, and he himself becomes the sacrifice. There is no holy place where his blood is sprinkled to indicate forgiveness for the people who have offered the sacrifice—he is crucified far away from the Temple, outside the city, near the city’s garbage dump.

Similarly, Jesus experiences no royal coronation—the only crown he wears is made of thorns, mocking him. He is not surrounded by a crowd bowing down to him; instead he is surrounded by a crowd of people hissing and spitting, yelling at him.

“When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus tells his disciples, “I will draw all people to myself.” As it turns out, Jesus is lifted up on a cross, drawing attention, though not admirers. The way Jesus achieves this glorification is through his suffering and death. Just what kind of glorification is that?

Hebrews has a lot to say about this, and it’s all packed into a few short verses, so if you’ll stick with me, we can unpack these and begin to understand the significance of what Jesus’s crucifixion and death mean. Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers…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.”[3] Offering prayers would be in line with Jesus’s priestly identity, and mentioning that Jesus is in the flesh is a reminder that he is indeed fully human.

The next verse continues, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”[4] Why would Jesus need to “learn” obedience? This sounds a similar to Paul’s understanding of obedience in the letter to the Romans: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”[5] Paul is talking about all of humanity becoming victims by way of Adam’s sin, the sin of disobedience, which was not trusting God, and through Jesus’s sacrifice and obedience, all of humanity is restored in relationship with God and made righteous.

Hebrews takes this idea a step further by saying that obedience and trust in God was so far gone that it had to be relearned, and that is what Jesus did through his suffering.[6] It seems that the writer of Hebrews understands suffering as the thing which is most characteristic of human life. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because he continued to trust in God’s goodness and mercy even while suffering.

We are human, too, like Jesus, and we also know suffering—maybe not to the same physically agonizing degree as Jesus knew suffering, but we know what it is like to feel pain. We know what it is like to feel helpless and vulnerable. We know what it’s like to suffer with a friend or loved one, to grieve the loss of someone gone too soon, to worry about our own health and face our own mortality.

The past year of pandemic has laid bare for us just how broad our suffering can be, and just how vulnerable we really are. This pandemic has brought out some of humanity’s best, caring for neighbors and sacrificing comfort, but it has also brought out some of our worst human impulses: to blame, to listen to only what we want to hear, to take out our anger on others. We are vulnerable, and we struggle against it.

However, the good news for us is that this vulnerability is not the thing that makes us weak—our own vulnerability can be the thing that makes us strong, when we dare to trust in God.

Brene Brown is a researcher who studies vulnerability. Her academic work has taught her, and many others, that “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness but it is also the birthplace of joy and creativity, of belonging, and of love.”[7] Without embracing vulnerability, we’ll never understand gratitude or joy. As humans, we do all sorts of things to avoid vulnerability: we numb it, with drugs, relationships, entertainment; we want to put our faith in certainty; we want to become perfect and to appear perfect; and also to avoid vulnerability, we pretend our actions are of no consequence.

A researcher can identify these things in academic terms, but we as Christians can recognize these behaviors and these impulses and name them for what they are: sin. Left to ourselves, this is where we’ll end up: avoiding vulnerability, disconnecting from relationships even though that is what we want more than anything, and isolating ourselves even if that means we’re building our own personal hell.

Jesus sets us free from all of this. Through his own vulnerability and sacrifice, through his obedience, his death and resurrection, Jesus sets us free. We are still human and we will still suffer, but Jesus points the way to something more, and that is redemption, eternal life beyond suffering. And it starts here and now.

Word is getting out, just as some Greeks at the Passover festival approach the disciples, saying, “We wish to see Jesus.” We may not even know what exactly it is that we’re looking for, but we will find it, and more than we ever imagined: here in Jesus there is humanity, divinity, suffering, obedience, glorification, perfection, redemption.

Soon we’ll be facing Holy Week and looking directly at the truth of Christ’s ascent to his priestly and kingly status, and it’s not pretty. But we won’t turn away, because here we will see what glorification really looks like, and what perfect love looks like.

There’s power in being lifted up, even on a cross. There’s power in glorification, even when it means death. Jesus says it again: unless a seed falls in the earth and dies, it remains solitary. But a seed that goes into the ground and dies brings forth so much more.

Years ago at a stewardship event, I heard this idea explained well, beginning with this question: what is the natural fruit of an apple? Sure, the one apple, it IS a fruit. But what can naturally come from this one fruit? Another apple? Well, think about it—each apple has several seeds inside, each of which grows not just one apple but a whole tree, with many apples, and many more seeds inside each of those apples. The natural fruit to come from an apple isn’t a single apple but a whole orchard.

Imagine what could happen if many seeds together put themselves in the ground, if, say, a group of people, faithful to God, decided to die to themselves every day—to feed their neighbors, to stand against racism, to embrace vulnerability and mourn with those who mourn. Gethsemane Lutheran Church, can you imagine this?

May our actions continue to glorify God, to glorify the crucified and risen Christ. The gift of faith and reconciliation with God, as sacred and as regal as entering into any great royal hall—it starts here and now, dying and rising with Christ. Amen.

Pastor Cheryl


[1] Psalm 2: 7 [2] Psalm 110: 4 [3] Hebrews 5: 7 [4] Hebrews 5: 8 [5] Romans 5: 19 [6] Erik Heen, Commentary on Hebrews 5: 5-10, 03/22/2015, [7], quote also found in Brene Brown’s 2010 TED talk:

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