(2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
February is Black History Month, so it’s appropriate to look at a film that tells an important story – one that not only connects with the African-American experience in the United States, but also helps us understand an important theme in today’s epistle text from 2 Corinthians.
In 1989, Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington starred in a film that was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three of them, including Best Supporting Actor for Washington. It tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second all African-American unit in U.S. history (a development made possible by the Emancipation Proclamation), which began training in 1863 at Camp Meigs outside of Boston. The commander was a white officer, Robert Gould Shaw, about 26 years old.
When Union military authorities decided that Fort Wagner in South Carolina had to be captured, they sent in the 54th. Fort Wagner was positioned on Morris Island to defend Charleston harbor, and the attack was a frontal assault along a narrow isthmus. They knew casualties would be high – and they were. Colonel Shaw (portrayed by Broderick in the film) was killed, and the 54th lost about 40 percent of its men – either killed or missing in action and presumed dead.
And they failed to capture Fort Wagner.
Yet, the heroism, courage and sacrifice of these men inspired the North. President Lincoln commented on their bravery. African-Americans rushed to the recruiting office until more than 180,000 had joined the army, with an additional 20,000 joining the navy. Many say that influx of recruits turned the tide of the war.
The name of the movie?
This is relevant to Black History Month because these soldiers not only found glory, but also created a defining moment in black history, the Civil War and the history of the United States.
And relevant to our epistle text, too, which speaks of glory twice in the four verses of our reading: “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (v. 4) and “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Glory in both cases rests on either Jesus Christ or God – but in this latter case, God’s glory is seen in “the face of Jesus Christ.”
So what was so glorious about Jesus? What is this glory, and why do we care?
First, let me ask: Why train for the Olympics? … Glory. Olympic glory.
Clearly, however, glory is not something that is bestowed. You can’t just go to the podium and expect someone to hand you a gold medal. Glory is not something we’re born with, either. There’s no glory in being a prince or princess; a king or a queen. There’s power, but no glory.
Glory is not something we can bequeath to someone else. It is not a gift. It is not free.
Glory is earned, whether at the Olympics or on the battlefield. And it almost always is associated with suffering, pain or death. That’s why glory and war often go together.
The Olympic medal is conferred, but only after it is earned. The apostle Paul refers to this in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Paul refers to his own crown when he writes to his protégé Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” So far so good. Then he adds, “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
The apostle Peter echoes this theme as well: “And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away” (1 Peter 5:4). A few verses later, he writes: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
The “crown of glory” is bestowed, but glory is earned – by fighting the fight, finishing the race, keeping the faith, suffering in patience and training with perseverance.
Glory comes with a price tag. And, although we love glory, most of us would rather not pay the price. We’d prefer to have the ecstasy without the agony.
The movie Glory reminds us of this biblical theme. But other films echo it as well. Hope and Glory (1987) is a British war film (five Academy Award nominations) based on the experiences of the writer, producer and director, John Boorman, who grew up during the Blitz in World War II.
Paths of Glory (1957), starring Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, is set during World War I. Dax is in command of some French soldiers who balk at being sent on a suicidal mission. Perhaps they did not want to take this kind of “path to glory.”
In literature, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory comes to mind. The title is suggested by the line in the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory …” The setting is Mexico during a time when the Mexican government tried to suppress the Roman Catholic Church. This lit the fuse of war and the Cristero Rebellion lasted more than two years in the late 1920s.
Pain and suffering. Death. Glory.
Glory is born in the cradle of suffering, or shall we say the crucible of suffering – which suggests, in Christ’s case, the cross of suffering and death.
The men of the 54th died gloriously, we might say, because their sacrifice was not in vain. This is why we can speak of the glory of the cross. Not because there’s anything beautiful about it. It’s hard to romanticize a cross, an instrument of execution, just as it would be hard to romanticize an electric chair or a hangman’s noose.
The glory of the cross – another way of saying the death of Jesus – is that it achieved so much. Had Jesus’ death not accomplished something, it would have been just another death. Instead, the fountain of blood flowing from Calvary generated rivers of salvation, forgiveness, eternal life, victory over sin, death and the devil. And more.
This is the glory of Jesus. His death.
The glory of Jesus was not His life.
Jesus, the itinerant rabbi and master teacher, was a nice man. The people liked Him. He healed their diseases. He had compassion and empathy for the people. He seemed to stand with the people on their side against religious hypocrites and political oppressors.
The establishment didn’t like Him, but the people did.
But had Jesus lived with the people, and had the years gone by, and had Jesus died the death of an old man, surrounded by His children and grandchildren – no glory. A nice man. A wise teacher. An example, par excellence. A life that certainly is worthy of emulation.
No glory, however.
Jesus died. And in that death is the glory of Jesus, which, the Bible says, is also the “light of the gospel” (v. 4). The light of the good news is the glory of Christ, that is, His suffering and death.
The apostle Paul thinks that there’s a problem seeing the glory of Jesus. The death of Jesus – its glory and meaning – seems “hidden” to a lot of people. And since he’s writing to the church at Corinth, it’s possible he believes that these bickering believers themselves have lost sight of the glory of Christ and lost sight “of the light of the knowledge” of God in Christ Jesus.
He describes this inability to see, this blindness, as a veil. In fact, chapter 3 of this letter to the Corinthian church is all about glory and veils. The historical reference is to Moses, who, after leaving the presence of God on Mount Sinai, had to put on a veil so that the people would not see his face. The prophet’s face was dangerously bright – like he’d just been hit by a directed-energy ray gun – and so he drops a veil over his face.
A similar thing happens in the Transfiguration story we read from our Gospel lesson in Mark. The glory of God in Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John and the light is so blindingly bright that the disciples are too frightened to know what to say. Of course, Peter says something anyway, because … Peter.
The apostle Paul says that the unbelievers of the present age, however, have a veil over their eyes, so opaque that they’re unable to see the glory of Christ. He suggests that this veil has been placed there by the “god of this world” (v. 4). In Paul’s thinking, this might be Satan, or it could be worldly passions and desires.
In any case, Paul believes that these people are missing out. They’re not blinded by the light, rather they are blind to the light, blind to the good news of the gospel and blind to the knowledge of the glory of God. Indeed, one has to wonder what they’re not blind to. What do these people see?
We’ve just spent an entire year (2020) in which we’ve put masks over our noses and mouths. And, as 2021 opens, we’re still wearing masks in public. But, we don’t need to put a mask over our eyes, figuratively speaking. Yet, it is easy to do so, isn’t it? Have we lost sight of the glory of Christ? It can happen without notice, like lowering the lights by means of a rheostat. One moment we’re in light, and then, imperceptibly, the light disappears.
The apostle Paul urges the Corinthian church to remove the veil. He wants them to understand the connection between suffering and glory. He wants them to see the good news of Christ’s glory.
When the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment went down in bloody defeat, those who survived the contest probably didn’t realize that from the blood in the sands would soon spring the flower of hope that would inspire thousands of black soldiers to enlist in the cause of liberty for all. They could not have understood how their suffering and pain and the deaths of their buddies could possibly change anything.
Today’s Bible reading is part of a larger passage, the purpose of which is to offer hope. Our reading begins at verse 3. But look at verse 1: “We do not lose heart,” Paul writes. Now skip down to verses 8 and 9: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
And what does Paul conclude? “We do not lose heart” (v. 18). He repeats what he said in verse 1.
Driving his point home, he says: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (v. 17).
So we, too, have hope.
In a world beset by pandemic threats and titanic fears, we have hope.
In a country torn into screaming political factions, we have hope.
At a time when racism and other -isms divide and humiliate us, we have hope.
When our “outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is renewed day by day” (v. 16) since, we have hope.
When we suffer setbacks and opposition, still, we have hope and “we do not lose heart.”
This is the good news of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (v. 4). We do not lose heart. We have hope.
Thanks be to God.