Our Sunday morning services, led by guest preacher Rev. Jana Childers, was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community.
I John 1:1-7
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
I have been wondering this week what you all might be thinking about the Scripture passage I selected for today – with its one, tiny reference to “joy”. ‘Maybe’, I imagined one of your kindhearted members puzzling, ‘that’s as much as they know at that seminary over there about joy’. ‘I have always heard they were a serious lot.’ The danger of asking a seminary professor to talk about joy, I suppose, is that you’ll get a thinking person’s approach to the topic. The danger of asking an Irish American seminary professor is that you’ll get a thinking person’s melancholic approach. So – in view of the risk you are taking I’m grateful indeed for this invitation.
When John invited me to be here today he explained your plans for this fruit of the Spirit series and let me know that the theme this week would be joy but, he said, choose any text you like to preach on. As he said it, of course, he would have been thinking that there are a number of profound passages in the Bible that feature the notion of joy. Perhaps he thought I might choose Psalm 30 “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” or Isaiah 55 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you and the trees of the field shall clap their hands” or the Hebrews 12 text which speaks of Jesus –“who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” …. profound texts, all.
But a funny thing happened when I sat down to survey the options. I discovered something I should surely have learned years ago — that “joy” is a big word for Isaiah, a huge word for the Psalms and very nearly a minor concept for most everybody else.
Oh yes, if you trace the word and all its related words – especially “rejoice”– certainly the notion of “joy” is woven through the Scriptures. Someone has counted 330 direct and indirect references scattered through the Bible. But there are not as many as I would have thought – and when it comes to the actual word for “joy”, fewer still.
Yes Jesus speaks of it. In the synoptic Gospels –Matthew, Mark and Luke — it shows up in three of his parables. But in none of them is it the point and in one it is no more than a passing note.
And certainly Paul uses the word – it is his text we are taking as the basis of this series, of course – but it is interesting to note that there are no further references to the word in Galatians. Just this one. And in the rest of Paul’s writings he uses the word mostly the way he uses ‘grace and peace’ as a formality or part of a commonplace.
Thank goodness it turns out that there is one writer – or school of writers – in the New Testament that is deeply interested in joy, has some experience with it and sees it as part of God’s way with us. Thank goodness that on this third Sunday of Easter — a Sunday that in the ancient church’s celebrations was called “Jubilate Sunday” – a time for celebrating Jubilation or joy – we can turn to the writings of John. For like his Old Testament counterparts Isaiah and Psalms – like his fellow Myers-Briggs “F”s – John and those who write in his name – know a good deal about joy. And not only that but they are heaven-bent on communicating it to us.
What was from the beginning
What we have seen
What we have heard
What we have looked at and touched with our hands
–concerning the word of life–
That life was made manifest and we saw it and testify to it
And declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us–
And we are writing these things that our joy may be complete
Yes, thank goodness that I John has not just a passing thought about joy – but an urgent need to talk about it. For if there is one thing the people of God need here at the start up of the third millennium it is some of what John is selling. Here where we would so often settle for a little quiet happiness. A vase of tube roses. A bite of chocolatey goodness. Something decent to watch on tv.
An exhausted friend said the other day, “it’s not a good sign, is it, when your favorite emotion is relief.” Right.
If there’s something our stressed out generation needs it’s a theology or at least an understanding of… or failing that someway/anyway to grasp onto … joy.
On our worst days, some of us think that maybe we will have to settle for what they call in some parts of the old south an “O Be Joyful”. As in, “Why how nice to see you do come in may I offer you a glass of O Be Joyful?” Maybe we will have to settle – we think – for the merloty or sauvignony joy that comes in a glass. Maybe, we will, we think.
Oh but I imagine we already know very well that that will not do. The kind of joy that can be had in a cup or pill ultimately serves only to remind us. What we really want is more. More of the real thing. More of that deep or heightened or intensely pure kind of pleasure we call joy.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, educator Susan Engel says she believes teachers of young children are being pressured these days to treat pleasure and joy as enemies of competence. She’s thinking about K-12 … and the Department of Education emphasis on teaching facts… their focus on measuring skills.
“The thing that sets children apart from adults is not their ignorance, nor their lack of skills,” she says. “It’s their enormous capacity for joy.” She goes on. “Think of a three-year-old lost in the pleasures of finding out what he can and cannot sink in the bathtub… A child’s ability to become deeply absorbed in something and derive intense pleasure from (it) is something adults spend the rest of their lives trying to return to.”
Becoming educated should not require giving up joy, she says. Because all learning, all growth — human life itself – is driven by the pursuit of joy.
She’s right of course – and on ski slopes and white water rafts, in the honeymoon suite and the L and D suite, at baseball stadiums and sugar sand beaches, in fast cars and yes with fine vintners … we prove it.
Wherever midnight oil is poured out in the name of a job well done.
Whenever lovers announce their big decision.
Wherever a woman loses herself among Monet’s lily pads.
Wherever grandfathers tussle with toddlers on the lawn.
We prove the theorists right. We are driven by the desire for joy – of course if your name is Billy Morgan you are driven to pursue your joy on whatever Italian slope it is where you can pull off a Quad Cork 1800 – 4 axis flips and 5 full rotations — playing now on a you tube screen near you and sponsored by – who else? – Red Bull.
Human beings are driven by a desire for joy. Something the writer of 1 John knows a good deal about.
The term “joy” occurs nine times in the Gospel of John and once in each of John’s Epistles – if you add to that the number of times the verb form of the word appears – you get a grand total of 25 occurrences. That’s great and –as we’ve been saying – miles ahead of any other NT writer. But the key to understanding John’s use of “joy” is found in chapter 15 of his Gospel – in poignant passage where the words occur – all clumped near the end of Jesus’ story. Here you might say Jesus sums it all up – sums everything up – when he says, “I have said these things that my joy might be in you and that your joy may be complete.” With this verse (11) he links the notion of joy to the vine and branches picture of union with God that he has been talking about. (Note: John 15:11 could be another John 3:16 – a single verse that sums up so much of the Christian faith.) And “abide in me and I in you” (v.4) to “my joy in you and your joy complete” (v.11).
In, in, in, in, in. In is a very big word in John’s theology. Joy is a product of being in – a product of union or communion with God. It’s a gift of the Spirit as far as John is concerned – yes – the word for gift and the word for joy are related in the Greek — but John has even a bit more to say about it than that. His picture of the vine and branches’ union – its intimacy, interdependence, and given-ness — is the first half of his theology of joy.
For John, joy is a gift – the product of all those in’s – our being in God and God being in us – a product of union or communion with God.
It is a gift that flows out of our union with God. In other words when you are talking about joy you are talking about pure gift-ness. Joy is a benefit we get by virtue of the fact that God is in us and we are in God. Pure gift. Nothing we can do to make it happen. When God gives us joy God give us something we cannot do or make for ourselves. And… something that is patently unpredictable.
One theologian says ‘yes, notoriously unpredictable – as unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it’.
One of the reasons we have a hard time with the unpredictability of joy is that we often misunderstand the way the Holy Spirit operates. The Holy Spirit is not a creature of cause and effect. Human beings are. We organize our lives chronologically, from a to b to c, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Creatures of time and space. But the Holy Spirit is neither. The Spirit operates outside and time and so it is that we say the Holy Spirit operates in simultaneity, not sequentiality. No cause and effect, no coherence, virtually nothing about the Spirit’s gifts or the Spirit’s movement is logical-rational-linear. What the Spirit gives happens apart from linearity and predictability and when we are talking about the gift of joy — often – paradoxically — in the context of sorrow.
You know this, right? Joy –paradoxically – in sorrow?
No one can tell you how it happens. But there are plenty of us here this morning that can absolutely tell you that it does. There are any number of people sitting in every pew here this morning…Yes, in this room there will be any number of folks who could tell you about the moment when, at the very bottom of their life, calm fell and happiness welled up. About how standing at the bedside or at the car door or on the hospital stair they found themselves suddenly suffused. How peace like a river gave way to joy like a fountain. How they shook their heads, could not believe it.
As one of the Inklings put it, “Where Christ is cheerfulness has a way of breaking in.” Cheerfulness, yes – and more than that.
Joy is a gracious, unpredictable gift. And a powerful one. That’s the first half of John’s theology of joy. But the thing we really want to know comes from that unlikely little text we read a few minutes ago.
Is there any way we can increase our chances for joy? Oh yes, John says.
Joy is a gift but the flowering of the gift is achieved through living in community.
What – what did he say? The flowering of the gift is achieved through … contemplation? No. Through… hair shirts and self denial? No. Through… ecstatic experience? No. The flowering of the gift is achieved by living in community.
Living in community. .. with God, Christ, the Spirit…and each other.
We declare what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us and we are writing these things that our joy may be complete.
And we are reaching out to you and trying to pull you back in
that our joy may be complete
And we are arguing with you this way so that we can agree again
And our joy may be complete
And we are hoping to restore fellowship with you over all these important things that we believe about God…
So that our joy may be complete.
Joy drives community, seeks community, creates community, constitutes community. Were you ever so full of joy you hugged somebody you didn’t know? Didn’t like? Something about what joy is – by its very nature it will drive you to share it. It’s the kind of thing I heard an old preacher say “will cause you to empty your pockets for somebody else’s tomb”.
Is there any way we can increase our chances for joy? Oh lots. And they all have to do with the urgent need to share it. With calling up someone who is lonely. Picking up sushi for someone who can’t get out. Giving money away. Visiting a nursing home.
Want to increase your chances for joy? Throw parties. Stage celebrations.
Host festivities.Toast happiness.
Oh, you say, you’re not a Martha Stewart? Fine.
Come to church. Sing the hymns. Sing in the choir.
Persuade a teenager back into the family.
May you know the joy of God in so doing. And may your joy be complete.