A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.

The Holy Spirit: No Ashleigh Keister!

The great people don’t need to act great. They understand that what they are (what we perceive as their greatness) comes not from what they do but from who they are. I saw this in action the other day among people none of you would know, so suffice it to say that one up-and-comer (who we will simply call Ashe Keister) was trying to do great stuff (and therefore getting in the way and mucking up the process) while the other person was perfectly content to be ordered around by the secretary, and managed to get a lot done (and save the day), not by announcing the fact that he was the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, but rather by obeying the secretary.

It reminded me of the Holy Spirit and his relationship to the Father and the Son. Scripture tells us that the Son is begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, two phrases that are also enshrined in the Nicene Creed. This is about all that we know about the Trinity. The eternal movement of Divine Life is outward to the Son and Spirit (and beyond), and the eternal movement of Divine Love is to flow back inward as an expression of their true union and unity.

This is their being: three equal persons in eternal dynamic relationship, flowing out and flowing in. Thus God is not a static entity, but a dynamic entity of love.

In contrast to their being, there is they’re work. I have in mind particularly John 15:26 (which I will quote from the KJV, since it uses the word “procession”) where Jesus says, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.”

In terms of God’s work in the world, the Son will send the Spirit for the purpose of testifying of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the “economy” of God (that is, how God works in the world), the Son sends the Spirit. But in the “being” of God, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (not “from the Father and the Son,” as the Latin translation of the Nicene Creed incorrectly says, if it is referencing John 15:26). This is why Jesus says, “I will send the Spirit to you “from the Father.”

Of course the Son has already been sent into the world by the Father, so in their work, one might go so far as to say that the Spirit is playing third trombone. If the Spirit was anything like Ashe Keister, he might get a bit huffy about this. He is, after all, of the same essence as the Father and Son, he is equal to the Father and the Son, and just as the Son is begotten of the Father, so the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

But like the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, the Spirit is perfectly willing and glad to take orders from the secretary (or the Son, in this case), and it is through this invisibleness of person and willingness to work for the greater good, that the true glory and honor of the Holy Spirit is revealed.

Is the Christian Life All About Knowing God?

My brother called me a couple of months ago and asked, “What is Gnosticism?” Well, that’s an open-ended question, given the diffuse character of the Gnostic mindset, and so I gave a rather diffuse and open-ended answer. I should have questioned him further because it turns out that a speaker at his church had accused contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic. That’s something that is far easier to nail down. This essay deals with the side that’s easier to nail down and leaves the question of the vaguely gnostic mindset that permeates our society for another time.

In the context of contemporary Evangelicalism, it is simplest to say that one of the main things that made Gnosticism a heresy was its assumption that salvation was a form of knowledge. (By the way, if you didn’t make the connection, the English word “know” is something of a transliteration of the Greek word gnosis. A “Gnostic” is literally a “knowledge person.”) It is therefore easy to accuse Protestantism of the Gnostic heresy because in Protestant (and especially Evangelical) shorthand, salvation is knowing. (Remember J.I. Packer’s runaway best-seller, Knowing God?) Salvation is believing Jesus Christ and accepting his message by faith. Protestantism, because of it’s emphasis on the Bible, and because it matured alongside the Enlightenment, is a very rational sort of approach to Christianity. The simplistic approach is to say that since Gnosticism is a heresy, and Protestantism is a lot like Gnosticism, Protestantism is therefore a heresy.

And let’s face it, that’s overly simplistic … and simplistic is usually dangerous.

Accusing some denomination or flavor of contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic (very popular at the moment) is sort of like accusing a political movement of being Fascist. First and foremost, both are emotional rather than rational arguments because the actual meaning of either “Gnostic” of “Fascist” is rather vague but fraught with emotional freight.. Second, both are anachronistic, because the things that made Fascism what is was were specific to the the time between the two wars, just as the things that made Gnosticism what is was were specific to the intersection of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian thought of the second and third centuries C.E.

But back to the original issue: How is knowledge of Jesus Christ related to the Christian life? there is a beautiful passage in Philippians 3 where Paul piles image upon image, indicating some of the faces of the multifaceted jewel that is our goal in the Christian life:.

8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Notice that “knowing Christ” is emphasized twice in this passage: “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” But “knowing” is not the goal. Paul not only wants to know him, he wants to “be found in him” (v 9). He wants a “righteousness from God” (v 9). Verse 10 sounds like building blocks, beginning with knowledge and then moving beyond that to “the power of his resurrection,” sharing in his suffering,” and “becoming like him in his death,” all of these building blocks leading to a specific kind of life: “that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

It’s the last part of the passage that gets at what I suspect makes it so easy to accuse Protestantism, and Evangelicalism  in particular, of Gnosticism. Paul is working hard; he’s an apostle, and he’s not even sure he will attain the resurrection. In other words, the Christian life is hard; it’s expensive; it’s action oriented.

From the beginning the Protestant movement has had a weakness toward what Bonhoeffer (a WWII Protestant pastor killed by the Nazis) called “cheap grace” and what is often called “easy believism” today. (I mention Bonhoeffer to remind us that this is not a brand new phenomenon.) It also needs to be noted that easy believism is rampant all across the Christianity of the wealthy, industrialized Western world. Orthodox priests rail against it regularly. The lack of life-changing commitment in the Roman Catholic church is scandalous. But conservative Protestantism, with its unique emphasis on empirical knowledge in conjunction with easy believism, almost always takes the brunt of the Gnostic accusation.

True salvation, the real Christian life, is not knowledge, it’s experience or activity. It’s “gaining” Christ and then being “in him” (to borrow Paul’s phrase from vv. 9-10. It is knowledge, but it is knowledge that leads to suffering, death, and resurrection. It is not bringing the message of God down into my head, it is moving upward toward God (v. 14).

Of course this message is not foreign to mainstream Evangelicalism at all. The particular way that Evangelicals (especially those with some Reformed sensibilities) emphasize Christ alone, scripture alone, and faith alone can obscure the the Apostle Paul’s strong emphasis on “the obedience of faith” (Romans) and pressing on toward the prize of Jesus Christ (Philippians) as well as the more mystical sense of being “in Christ” (or as John puts it, being “one with Christ” and Peter’s “partaking in the divine nature”). But let’s be honest, that’s rather different than being an outright Gnostic.

In review: What was Gnosticism? In this context, it was a world view and eventually a Christian heresy that believed in a special knowledge (in contrast to activity or transformation) that was salvific. Is Evangelicalism Gnostic?  No. But since much of contemporary society has many Gnostic tendencies and Protestantism and Evangelicalism have a particularly knowledge-oriented relation to the Bible and their understanding of salvation, it is certainly easy to understand why the accusation pops up so frequently.

Like Mary, We Should Trust and Obey

Since writing this essay in which I observe that the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) is a bit self-centered, some folks have accused me of taking the question out of context. Question 2 (What rule teaches us this? A: The scripture) and Question 3 (What do the scriptures principally teach? A: What we are to believe about God and what duty we have toward God) address this specific issue. The three questions must be taken as a whole, and when understood as a whole, there is nothing self-centered about the first question.

But this line of argument misses my point. While it is certainly true that the WSC does get around to duty and obedience, all those things that are required of God are subsidiary to the primary question, “How do I enjoy God?” The context is my pleasure. My point is that the questions are turned around.

At this point I could quote the fathers, the various kontakia of the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox theology in general, but instead I’ll turn to a favorite Protestant hymn, which gets this relationship right: Trust and Obey, by John Sammis.

When we walk with the Lord / in the light of his word, / what a glory he sheds on our way. / While we do his good will, / he abides with us still, / and with all who will trust and obey. Refrain: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way / to be happy in Jesus, / but to trust and obey.

The third verse possibly expresses it best of all:

But we never can prove / the delights of his love / until all on the altar we lay; / for the favor he shows, / for the joy he bestows, / are for them who will trust and obey.

I would argue that this hymn says the same thing as the WSC, except it gets it in the correct order. “What is the chief end of man?” The Orthodox answer to that question is that we were created in the image of God, which made it possible for us to be conformed to and transformed into God’s likeness. We are clay and the chief end of this clay is not to be “happy clay” but to be shaped and molded to look like God so that God can be happy. That necessarily begins with obedience and, if God so pleases, will result in our eternal joy.

Our enjoyment of God is the effect, not the goal.

Obedience

I’m reading Moby Dick right now. Herman Melville is not the place I would normally go to receive spiritual advice, but the following, from ch. 9, “The Sermon,” is pretty good:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.