One of the most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard was on the glory of the risen, ascended, and coming-again Jesus. Usually, the preacher observed, we picture Christ in the garb of his earthly ministry. We imagine his sandaled feet caked with dust, his tunic drab, and his beard perhaps a bit unkempt. We picture how he needed to eat and sleep and, occasionally, retreat from the crowds to rest. We think, above all, of his willingness to go all the way to death on our behalf.
All those things have a proper—and central—place in the Christian imagination, the preacher said, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that’s how Jesus looks and behaves now. He pointed us to the so-called high priestly prayer in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus asks his Father to clothe him once again with the glory he had lost in his earthly humiliation, and John the Seer’s vision, in which a radiant Jesus looks like nothing so much as a towering angelic warrior (Rev. 1:16). The preacher urged us to contemplate Jesus in his present glory—a glory that outshines the itinerant simplicity of his pre-resurrection ministry as fireworks outshine a candle.
In her 2019 Lenten meditation The Merciful Humility of God, theologian Jane Williams urges something similar. Keeping company with Jesus during Lent’s forty days of fasting, we should learn to look beneath the surface of his humble actions—touching the lepers, feeding the hungry, washing his disciples’ feet, even or especially dying through imperial torture—and see the unconquerable glory and power of God working out the salvation of the world. Humility may be the mode of Jesus’s action, but unstoppable divine energy suffuses it all and explains its efficacy.
But Williams insists on the converse movement too: We should be equally ready to have our understanding of divine “glory” upended by Jesus’s meekness and self-giving. Williams points, for example, to St. Paul’s vision of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Jesus appeared in a blaze of light with a voice like thunder, but contrary to what Paul may have expected (did he imagine he was about to suffer a bolt of divine fury, as when God struck Uzzah dead for daring to touch the ark of the covenant?), Jesus speaks to underscore his solidarity with the suffering: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Williams says of this scene that Jesus “has not removed himself from the memory of suffering, now that his glorious resurrection body is beyond pain and death.” Put simply: “The resurrection undoes nothing of what Jesus has been up to his death; instead, the resurrection confirms the life of Jesus as the way of God in the world.”
It strikes me now, in reflecting on the sermon I so vividly remember, that one reason it made such an impression on me is because of the understanding of “glory” I brought to it. Like most citizens of a prosperous and powerful nation, I have definite, well-formed ideas about what “glory” and “power” look like. I remember as a child watching the Blue Angels squadron corkscrew across the sky, ripping the air with the screech of a giant metal claw on a sky-length blackboard. I remember feeling their sonic boom in my chest, looking up to see my Army veteran father’s face beam with pride, and thinking, “This is power.”
When it comes to imagining Jesus’s post-resurrection enthronement, through which he receives “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and from which he will return to “judge and make war” (Rev. 19:11), I think I already have a pretty good idea of what that entails. It means that the one whom a popular evangelical preacher once called the “hippy, diaper, halo Christ” is gone for good, and someone more like a morally outraged Superman with an inexhaustible arsenal has taken his place. In short, when I heard a preacher urging me to picture Jesus as no longer the humiliated one, I knew immediately what I ought to picture instead.
But if we can’t rightly understand Jesus’s humility unless we discern in it the powerful working of God, then we shouldn’t think that we can understand the risen splendor and might of Jesus rightly unless we see them through the lens of his humiliation. It’s not as though “glory” is a term we all understand and all that’s left to do is see how Jesus fits himself to its contours, rewriting our understanding of “humility” in the process. Rather, it’s the reverse: We look to Jesus—above all, to his self-giving in life and death—and find our notions of “glory” and “power” transformed completely. (As a colleague of mine likes to tell our seminarians, if you think you know in advance what Jesus’s second coming is going to look like, prepare to be as scandalized as the scribes and Pharisees were at his first coming.)
Jesus will return in glory and power and will call the whole world to account. We do well to ponder that eventuality, as the sermon I’ll never forget reminded me to do. But equally worth pondering is that even in his risen glory, Jesus remains the Crucified One. Even when he comes to judge the living and the dead, he remains the One who was judged on their behalf.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.