The old man and the cats…

“Glorify Thy Name: A Sermon on John 17: 1-11Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, May 21, 2023

The answer, of course, is that God doesn’t need to be glorified by his creation, and Jesus, who is no longer in the world, as he puts it, also does not himself need to be glorified—in fact, at this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus is about to be arrested, tried, and crucified, an experience that is as far away from any kind of glorification we can imagine.  Execution on a cross was meant to be shameful, a destruction of the victim’s dignity and his very self.

Thanks to streaming services, in particular Paramount Plus, Star Trek is back.  In fact, it’s more than just back, it’s cool again, which I don’t think it’s been since the 70s.  Now there are Star Trek television shows that are definitely cool—Strange New WorldsPicard (at least in its third and final season) and more contentious shows like Star Trek: Discovery which, like college education in Florida, is vehemently denounced by some as being “woke” because it stars Sonequa Martin-Green as the Captain of the eponymous starship.  Apparently some people didn’t get the message that the original program took very seriously: Racism and sexism are just plain evil.  They are the antithesis of goodness.

There’s a reason that in 1967 the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King urged Nichelle Nichols to stay on the original show when she was fed up with her lines being cut.  When Nichols told Dr. King that she was planning to leave, his face got very, very serious.  Nichols told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that King told her “You cannot do that…Don’t you understand what this man—Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek—has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.  Nichols stayed on the show all the way until its cancellation.

And she stayed on for all the movies featuring the original cast from the series.  Now, in case you’re not a geek, allow this geek to guide you. The odd numbered Star Trek movies are, well, not bad, but, um, less good.  So 1979’s Star Trek, the Motionless Picture, as fans called it for its glacial pace, might make you fall asleep in the theater.

Star Trek IIThe Wrath of Khan? Action, character development, laughs, and tragedy? It still holds up.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock? Captain Kirk beats up Reverend Jim from Taxi? Mezza mezza, to be honest.

Star Trek IV; The Voyage Home? Yeah, it’s a hoot.  The Enterprise Crew messing around in 1980s San Francisco.  What could go wrong?  Pretty much everything, because this is the film version of the annual comedy episode they always made for TV.

Star Trek V—What did I just watch? ok, The Final Frontier—is the film that today’s Gospel brings to my mind.  In this movie, we meet Spock’s long hidden half-brother—Kirk and Spock get into a comic riff overlapping each other’s lines as Shatner’s Kirk does a slow burn—and that half-brother takes over the Enterprise, taking the ship and her crew to meet. . . God.  

No, I’m not making that up.  Really.  

As Sybok pilots the ship closer to “God” Kirk wakes up and asks the obvious question: “What does God want with a starship?”

Kirk presses for an answer and the alien being that Sybok thinks is God kills Sybok, while the Enterprise crew retake the ship and get out of Dodge.  Too bad, Sybok.  

But Kirk’s question—which I hadn’t thought about since 1989—what does God want with a starship?—brought me to today’s Gospel reading. 

In the reading, Jesus looks up to heaven and says: “Father, the hour has come; glorifyyour Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 

That’s five invocations of glory or glorify in three sentences.  And, a bit later, Jesus adds a sixth, as he prays for the disciples, he says that he “has been glorified in them.”  

         The revelations—the apocalypses—grow in impact, leading the disciples to go out into the world, and to tell their story, tell their truth.  The glory is not in any deed, it’s in seeing Jesus as he truly is, and understanding from that sight, the nature of God’s love for us.  Sacrificial, kind, patient—even when we fail.  

And that’s what raises a question not entirely like that of Captain Kirk: What does God need glory, or glorification for?

So what is all this talk about glory and glorifying?

The reiteration of “glory” and “glorifying” works to heavily underscore these words, and if we don’t pay attention, we are missing something integral to the passage.  On this Sunday after the Ascension, we should be able to grapple with it.  

Here’s where I think we can start: the Transfiguration.  What happens when Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, John and James to pray, and then something unearthly happens.  As Luke recounts it, “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Peter, John and James are desperately tired, but they stay awake, and “they saw his glory—Jesus’s glory—and the two men who stood with him.”

See, it’s nothing too much to worry about, it’s just an apocalypse.  

         Don’t panic—the word  “Apocalypse” has come to be used popularly as a synonym for catastrophe, but the Greek word apokálypsis, from which it is derived, means a revelation.  Biblical scholar John J. Collins describes an apocalypse as “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality that impacts space and time.

         More simply, an apocalypse reveals the cosmic truth underlying the acts and words of Jesus.  In the Transfiguration, the three discples are able to see Jesus in his true form, wholly man and wholly God—the glory isn’t something put on for their benefit, it’s inherent in the person of Jesus, just not normally seen or perceived by those who walk alongside of him.

         And I think that is what is happening in today’s Gospel reading.  The disciples are about to enter the most difficult, traumatic experience of their time with Jesus—they are going to see him arrested, tortured, and killed.  So Jesus prays for them to see him, once more, as he truly is.  Allowing them once more to see Jesus “with the glory that I had in your own presence before the world existed.”  

         He also asks the Father to protect the disciples, as they will be without him.  As Jesus readies himself for his death and resurrection, he knows that the ordeal will be terrible for them, and in his prayer, which they hear, he reminds them that they are specially in God’s care, and he invokes the memory of the apocalypse that Jesus has opened up to them previously.

         It’s not entirely surprising that the disciples cut and run as Jesus’s ordeal with the powers of the world take place, but Jesus’s reminder that they are part of a movement that defies those powers, and intends to surmount and defeat them.  

         And, to some extent it works.  As we have followed Jesus and the disciples in this Easter season, we have seen that the disciples clung together in the upper room, and that when Jesus came among them, they rejoiced.  Before that, the two Marys met and heard the angel reveal Jesus’s resurrection.  Then Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden, and afterward Thomas reasserts his faith in Jesus.  On the road to Emmaus, Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread and in his teaching.

         So as we move toward Pentecost, we have reason to believe that the nature of God is love, and that we, his creations, are granted a share in that love.  

         Actually, that’s pretty glorious, when you think about it.

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