15th June 2008 - "The hope of the glory of God"

Stephen Fielding - St Peter's, Tewin and St Peter's, Ayot
Romans 5:2

Give us for our hallowing, Lord, thoughts that pass into prayer, prayer that passes into love, and love that passes into life with you forever.

For some days, I have been asking myself a question, and I’d like to share that question with you. What is the glory of God? When I say the phrase ‘the glory of God’, what comes into your mind? A great sunset? The created world? Humankind? Jesus himself? CS Lewis, reflecting that Christians are promised glory, thought it either meant fame or that we would become a ‘kind of living electric light bulb’.

What do we mean by the glory of God? Let me share with you some reflections on this – reflections that are prompted by a sentence from this morning’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. ‘We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’.

What is the hope of the glory of God and why does it matter?

I wonder if you know the popular song ‘Tie a yellow ribbon’. It tells of a man who has been in prison. He’s served his time and now he is coming home on the bus. But he admits that the woman who once loved him has every right to reject him. He’s to blame. So he’s written to tell her that if she forgives him, she should ‘tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree’. If there’s no ribbon, he’ll just go riding by. And as the hours pass, all the man thinks about is that oak tree. When he gets home, will there be a yellow ribbon? The song ends in triumph with the entire busload of people cheering as the man sees not one yellow ribbon but hundreds of yellow ribbons on that old oak tree. She not only forgives him, but she enthusiastically welcomes him home.

Many Christians see heaven as the place of God’s yellow ribbons. It’s what they hope for. That is the meaning of their journey of life. Their hope of God’s glory is the hope of heaven, heaven is what it is all for. Their hope is for a life lived with God forever, a life that has already begun here and now through a union with Jesus and which journeys on through this world and into the next until at some point they reach and enjoy the vision of God in heaven. You can picture the hope of God’s glory in that way and perhaps you do – the picture of the Christian at the end of the journey face to face with God. That is the first picture of the glory of God, and hope of it is the hope of getting to heaven.

I want to paint a second picture of the hope of the glory of God. It comes from the idea that God has a purpose for the world he created and will in the end put that created world right. It is the picture of heaven or the kingdom of God as not so much a place we go to so much as a future state which God will one day bring in. It is the description of the coming reign of God, the end goal of all history, the New Jerusalem. It is the time when ‘the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea’. When you and I say the Lord’s Prayer we come back to this idea again and again. ‘Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’. On earth. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God will bring in his kingdom - that he will keep his promise to renew the world. We are praying that the earth will be filled with the glory of God. Is it not so?

Here then are two pictures of the hope of the glory of God – one, the vision of heaven to which we go; the other the picture of the world restored, creation remade, heaven brought to earth. The future brought into the present. The New Jerusalem on earth. Now I don’t myself believe that the real, final purpose of the Christian life is to get to heaven, although that is the Christian promise. Rather the end of the Christian life is to be part of that final vision of the world, the New Jerusalem, in which there is peace and justice and love, that kingdom where Jesus is King. And our purpose as Christians is to help bring in that kingdom.

The coming of Jesus into the world brought in the kingdom of God, and revealed God’s glory. The glory of God was revealed in the life of Jesus, and most especially in his death. In the passion of Jesus we see God’s glory, and the glory of God was the self-giving of Jesus, the triumph of his suffering love. It was the sovereignty of God’s way of life revealed to us in Jesus, and as St Paul says, through it we have been given access to the Father. And what St Paul teaches is that Jesus’s way of living in the world should be our way of living in the world, that to be united with him is to share in the glory of God. So we are invited to put ourselves in the way of God’s holy spirit, to enjoy a new and better way of living – the way of anticipating now the full existence that will be ours when God makes all things new. As one writer has said, it is about ‘practising in the present the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world’.

To live as a Christian, then, is to live in the assurance that God will make all things new, and because we cannot live as Christians by ourselves we need and have the power of God’s holy spirit to do this. You and I are called to be part of God’s new creation and to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by the closest possible relationship with him. The ‘hope of the glory of God’ is that we will have a transformed and transfigured existence now, ready to enjoy a full existence in the transformed world of God’s new creation.

The glory of God, wrote Irenaeus, is ‘a person fully alive’. And what makes us fully alive? The spirit of God within us. We may call it the bread of heaven. We may call it the love of God that shines in our hearts. Or the delight in us that flows from the Father. We may call it the bliss or the blessedness that comes to those who are peacemakers, or who hunger after righteousness, or those who suffer, or those who mourn. We may see God’s glory in every act of Christian prayer, in every act of Christian love, every time we put ourselves alongside our saviour in the service of others. And every time we do so, a bit of the future kingdom is seen.

The hope of the glory of God is that here and now we may enjoy the divine life, the life lived with God forever, God in us, his spirit with us, united with Jesus, guaranteeing that what we here glimpse of the divine nature will one day in God’s good time be fully realised as heaven comes to earth and we are home.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we pray that we may delight and rejoice in the assurance of your glory, as people fully alive, as citizens of heaven, as those who work and wait for the coming of your kingdom. AMEN