A few years back, in 1647, a group of Presbyterians composed a little instruction booklet which they called, “The Shorter Catechism.” This booklet was composed for the purpose of instructing Christian youth, as well as newer Christians of any age, in the basics of the Christian faith.
Essentially what this Presbyterian working group did was to explain the Christian faith using the construct of 107 component parts–a series of 107 questions and answers bringing clarity and definition (so they hoped) to the faith. We may agree or disagree with the whole of the Christian faith being organized in such a fashion and at such a number, but it worked for them. (And, by the way, it continues to work for Presbyterians today as this catechism remains a part of the principal teaching documents of the Presbyterian Church, enshrined still in their ‘Book of Confessions.’)
What should catch one’s attention about this particular presentation of the Christian faith is what this Presbyterian working group of 1647 chose as the preeminent component part of the faith (#1 of 107 questions & answers); it is the following: “Q: What is the chief end of being human? A: The chief end of being human is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”* In other words, the meaning of life–of our human lives–pertains to glorifying and enjoying God.
Glory as a word and concept is somewhat abstract and can often strike us as being a bit ‘up in the clouds,’ but here the takeaway is straightforward: giving glory to God is a really big deal. The ‘New Dictionary of Theology’ defines the glory of God in this way: “Excellence and praiseworthiness set forth in display.” Now, follow me to John 17 where Jesus prays for his disciples and all who would follow him. In John 17:1b, Jesus begins his prayer to the Father, saying, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” Jesus is speaking of the Cross. Thus, we can make the following and certain translation: ‘Father, make me excellent and praiseworthy in my humiliation, so that I may make you excellent and praiseworthy.’ Or: ‘Father, make me excellent and praiseworthy in my abandonment (remember, Jesus cites the psalmist, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?), so that I may make you excellent and praiseworthy.’
Our Christian faith stands on this point, on this paradox, on this upside-down truth, like a chorus of angels on the head of a pin. The power of the Gospel is concentrated here in this single point, not unlike the power of the universe being concentrated in a single point of immense and immeasurable density and heat some 13 1/2 billion years ago that proceeded to explode into Creation.
And all of this brings us to the work of Christian unity; John 17 is the biblical text of biblical texts for practically all practicing ecumenists. We shouldn’t miss that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his disciples, and for the unity of his disciples, is founded upon glory–the excellence and praiseworthiness of Jesus Christ actualized in his suffering and then in his overcoming; the glory of God in the torment, death and resurrection of Jesus being the foundation of all true Christian unity.
The glory of God was preeminent for those 1647 Presbyterians and a pretty good starting place for us as well.
Institute for Christian Unity
*I have taken the liberty here to update the text a bit, making it more gender inclusive.