Many of you know that my brother, Jeff, is also a pastor, and the call that he recently retired from was a congregation that he founded. As a mission developer, Jeff had occasion to be instrumental in the naming of this new congregation. He quickly settled in on this as its name: Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church.
I recall my conversations with Jeff in those early years of the development of that congregation. “Why name your church after a feeling?” I asked. “After all, feelings come and go. What happens in several years if the congregation becomes conflicted? Then you’re stuck with an ironic name for a church.” And then I concluded, “Maybe naming the church Lamentation Lutheran would be more realistic!”
But over the years of studying and teaching in the field of Christian Spirituality, a focus of which is on Christian dispositions, I’ve come to understand that joy is perhaps less a feeling, and more a theological category, a disposition or quality that more objectively characterizes Christian life and discipleship.
Thus, one might know joy without necessarily feeling happy. Or one may be happy, but in some sense joyless at deeper, theological levels.
The New Testament Greek word for joy importantly shares the same root as the words that are translated grace, generosity of spirit, thanks, thanksgiving, and even, Eucharist.
Joy, thus theologically understood and contextualized, is as much a proclamation of good news as it is a feeling.
Notice how John has Jesus say it in today’s gospel passage: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you…” Specifically, Jesus’ joy, not joy that Jesus’ followers concoct for themselves. Jesus’ joy then becomes the disciples’ joy, a joy that finds itself fulfilled. That’s what the word translated complete here means.
Moreover, Jesus’ joy is connected with what Jesus has said to the disciples: “I have said these to you so that my joy may be in you.” What things did he say?
Listen again to what immediately precedes Jesus’ talk of joy in John’s Gospel: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
Joy in John connects intimately with love. And not just any kind of love, but agape, that Greek word that is the unconditional love of God.
This love emerges from the God whom Jesus calls Father. This love is sent into the world in Jesus, the Son of this same Father, who is the word of God made flesh. God’s love flows from the Father to the Son and then, through the Son, to us, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, agape love is the energy that emanates from the Holy Trinity.
Furthermore, this divine, unconditional love is all wrapped up in the Father’s commandments that became Jesus’ commandments, that is, Jesus’ word for us.
We abide, we remain, dwell, stay steadfast with these words of commandment which are all about God’s unconditional love for us and for the world. It is this loving word into which we are baptized. It is this loving word that we eat and drink in the Holy Eucharist. It is this loving word that is available to us in scriptural proclamation.
In all of this is joy, the quality of life, the disposition, that relates intimately to God the Father and God the Son in gracious, merciful love emanating from them and known when we abide, dwell with the word, the divine teachings, the commands.
In short, joy in a Christian sense thus has substance, focus, specific theological content. Christian joy is far more than a feeling that comes and goes in fleeting and ephemeral ways.
But let’s return to more common understandings of joy and happiness and contentment for a moment. Isn’t it ironic that the pursuit of happiness can often be joyless and precisely not lead to happiness at all?
In this way, happiness and its pursuits, become a law, an expression of our striving and hard work to which we are captive, in bondage.
The harder to try to find happiness or concoct happiness, the more we fail to be happy and the more elusive it becomes for us. This is a classic expression of works righteousness from a Lutheran perspective.
And in our exhaustion of trying too hard it may be that joy will finally find us, particularly when a Christly word of grace, of mercy speaks in such a way as to cut through our striving, stopping us short in the recognition that when it’s all said and done, joy is a gift given by a God who in Christ loves us unconditionally, apart from our strivings.
Furthermore, in this gracious word that makes for the gift of joy we discover that the greatest joy is when we lovingly give ourselves away to others, serving them, our neighbors without regard to our own strivings.
Thus it is in John’s Gospel we hear this word from Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Christian joy is cruciform, it has the shape of the cross – a witness much to the chagrin of the ways of the world that seek happiness without suffering.
Moreover, Jesus sends us on a mission, an extension of the same mission on which he was sent by the Father: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15b-17)
The cross, the tree of life, bears the fruit of divine love for the world. Our cruciform mission for the world on which we are sent likewise bears this fruit of love in our service to our neighbors.
And in all of this is Christ’s joy that makes our joy complete, fulfilled.
Unlike popular pursuits of happiness full of burdensome striving, Christian joy does not ultimately have a heaviness despite its cruciform shape. Here’s what the author of 1 John says in what is today’s second reading: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:3-4)
Thus, in our joy and renewed in conquering faith, we erupt in the spirit of the song of today’s psalm: “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the king, the Lord.” (Psalm 98:4-6)
So goes the song of our graced, faith-filled hearts in this joyful Eastertide. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall occasions when your pursuit of happiness has burdened you.
- Recall times when the joy of Christ has found you as a gift in perhaps unexpected ways.