A dear friend told me that he experienced our worship as one long season of Lent. I think he may even have used the word “dreary.” As you may guess, that was not exactly the tone I have been aiming for. At first, I was heart-broken. Then, with a little distance and a reminder from a friend in my Positive Psychology support group, I have been able to recognize this friend as what Emerson called, “a beautiful enemy.” “In a friend,” Emerson wrote, “I’m not looking for a mush of concession, a person who will agree with everything I say. Rather, I’m looking for a person who will be a beautiful enemy, a person who will challenge me, help me in my appren-ticeship to the truth.”
“A billion sermons have been focused on Jesus’ love,” Mark Davis writes, but “I would guess few persons have ever heard a sermon on Jesus’ joy.” [Left Behind and Loving It, 5/10/15]
So, forget about the beef–Where’s the joy? What about Jesus’ joy?
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus said. “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s command-ments and abide in his love. Abide in–make your home in–my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Now, keeping commandments hardly sounds like a recipe for joy. It conjures up, rather, images of somber forebearers making sure no one danced, played cards, sang the wrong kind of songs, drank alcohol, swore, smoked, laughed too loud, or had too much of a good time. It still is many people’s image of the church. “One long, dreary season of Lent.”
But what are these “commandments” that Jesus says he received and kept from his Father, from God? Just one–love one another. Love is the commandment. Love is the sea we are to swim in. Love is the home we are to live in. Love is the air we are to breathe, so that Jesus’ joy may be in us and our joy may be complete. This living in relationship to him and each other – like a vine and its branches –is the path to true joy, not out of a dreary sense of obligation or self-denial, but out of an abundance and a fullness that overflows.
“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “than to lay down one’s life–one’s psyche, one’s breath, one’s soul–for one’s friends. You are my friends…” Again, who of us can–or even wants to–lay down our lives even for our friends the way Jesus did? Are we not back to this never-ending season of Lent, leading up to the crucifixion?
Of course, there are experiences of physically laying down one’s life for one’s friends. A Vietnam vet tells of his experience of literally risking his life for his friends, knowing they would and did the same thing for him, and in the midst of death he never felt more alive. When he returned to the States, he could hardly stand the lack of commitment of anyone to do anything for someone else–oh, if I’ve got time, I’m really busy you know. Or oh right, I forgot. That kind of attitude could get you killed in Vietnam –or Iraq or Afghanistan; and, for this vet, that kind of attitude was just as life-threatening back home. It took the fullness and power out of life, the breath, the spirit. It’s a story told by vets and aid workers and people who literally put their lives on the line for others all the time. We spend too much of our lives “phoning it in,” living on auto-pilot, in a lukewarm mush. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
But there are many ways to lay down one’s life, to give of oneself, before that final “laying down of our lives” in death. A mother waits up for a child to come home. A teacher stays long after the school day has ended to work with a student. A business owner goes out of her way to make sure her customer receives exactly what he needs. A teen gives up a chance to go to the mall to rake up the leaves of an elderly neighbor. A child gives a favorite toy to a sick friend to keep him company. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Process theologian John Cobb writes, “In the ancient world, friendship implied deep mutual commitment. Friends were materially committed, they shared a common purpose. According to Aristotle, friends sacrificed themselves for one another, even to the point of death.” [Process and Faith, 5/10/15] “I do not call you servants,” Jesus said, “but friends.”
The thing about the friendship that Jesus talks about in John’s gospel “is that it centers in mutual abiding among God, Jesus, and the disciples,” and, by extension through the presence of the Holy Spirit, among us. The late Henri Nouwen said, “The mystery of ministry[–our life and serve together–] is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” [cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 5/10/15]
This “other-centered, belonging-to-something-greater-than-yourself love” [Kate Huey, op cit.] is what our worship and our outreach and our life together are about, or should be. There is joy in discovering that when we connect to another person, even someone we had thought was very different from ourselves, that they and we are actually part of that “something-greater-than-yourself.” Our notion of ourselves expands. This “is not a sacrifice,” as Bruce Epperly writes, “but an expansion and growing of our authentic selfhood. Our willingness to go beyond self-interest opens us to the larger selfhood of Christ, whose love identifies with all creation.” [Adventurous Lectionary, 5/10/15]
This joy–is there not joy in that?– is the joy Jesus was talking about–this sense of discovering that who you are is actually one with the deepest, most essential force in the universe, which connects you to everyone else, in all times and places, and to the whole creation. That most essential force is Love, and even death–which we and our culture act as though it were the most important force in the universe–even death is not stronger than Love, cannot separate us from Love. So without denying the horror of crucifixion and “Good” Friday, without piously dismissing that experience as “Jesus’ joy,” we can still affirm the joy that emerged from it on Easter morning, the Love that had gone through that horror and that death; the Love that went to the depths of human depravity, “descended into Hell,” as the creed says, and emerged in resurrection power on Easter morning and even to this day.
I had the privilege several years ago of seeing and hearing the Dalai Lama when he came to speak at a conference at Middlebury College. Here was–and is– a man who has experienced great suffering and sorrow, has seen his homeland overrun and his countrymen/women slaughtered. Yet the joy radiating from the man was palpable. The wattage of his smile was off the charts. Desmond Tutu is the same way, after all the suffering he has witnessed and experienced.
Surely Jesus was that way–a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, but also a man of deep joy. I imagine the joy radiating from him and the wattage of his smile were also part of his “good news.”
Surely there is joy in that, deeper than all the suffering and tragedy and cruelty we see everyday; and our worship, I would hope– our music, our prayers, our sermons, the way we interact with one another– should bring us back to that joy. We are so concerned about being “proper” and reverent, so we’re not sure about clapping or laughing, but how do we experience and express joy? That is the truth that my beautiful enemy challenges me–challenges us–to apprentice ourselves to.
“Abide in me,” Jesus said, “make your home in my love.” It is the house of joy. So may our joy be complete. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark