I did NOT decide to preach a sermon on the joy of Christ because I recently got engaged. (While I am really happy, I’d argue that the immediate inundation of “YOU MUST PLAN YOUR WEDDING THE FOLLOWING WAY” ads on all social media platforms really cuts down on the experience a bit.) I decided to do it because I am again indebted to D. Mark Davis’ lectionary/linguistic blog Left Behind and Loving It. In the post, he asks what the joy of Christ might look like, which got me thinking. I’ve talked before about how I usually steer clear of commentaries, because they tend to overshadow how I hear the text with their own opinions and framing. This blog just posits questions alongside the Koine text, which I find infinitely more helpful as a place to start a sermon.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
May 6, 2018
One of the side-effects of beginning your ordained career at a younger age than the average priest, is that you spend quite a lot of time in meetings with people trying to figure out how to speak the language of “Kids These Days.” This is fascinating for a number of reasons, among them, the assumption that an entire generation has ever been of the same mind about anything, and also—that a person who felt called to enter the priesthood as a teenager would make a particularly good spokesperson for said generation. I went to seminary at age 21! I am not the most typical of young people!
And yet, here we are. In one of those meetings, I can recall sitting with my college students when I was a chaplain, and being surprised to hear adults in the room congratulate them for attending service. “I can’t believe you come to church! Next time, we’ll make sure to reward you with lunch afterwards.” One said. Another made some mention of college students not coming to Holy Week services, because “that’s just too much for them” and probably too boring.”
I found this all quite strange. In point of fact, my particular college students had pushed for a full schedule of Holy Week services, and would have probably loved it had I given in to their demands and done a full chanted Rite 1 eucharist with incense every week. When I was introduced to one freshman in his first week of school, he shook my hand solemnly and informed me that the Hymnal 1982 was a sadly underutilized document within the Episcopal Church today.
My college students LIKED church. They liked church a lot, which was why they came, in a culture that increasingly looked askance at the openly religious. There was no peer-pressure to attend church for them; in fact, there was just the opposite. But they came to church because here, they found meaning. Here, they found joy.
The gospel today is taken from a long speech that Jesus gives in the gospel of John. At the last supper, after he washes their feet, Jesus holds forth for chapters and chapters in something called the High Priestly prayer—essentially recapping what his ministry has been about for the past few years. He’s taking these last moments with his disciples to remind them of what they need to know before he leaves them.
And so he reminds them that he has given his commands and lived his life in order that we should abide in his love, and so our joy may be complete. The language in this gospel is more complicated than really it ought to be—it’s like someone is showing off—but this section is chained together with a little word that means either “so that” or “in order that.” I have said these things to you in order that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you—and no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
These ideas are connected like dominos—Jesus is saying that if we follow this command to love one another as he does, then we will find his joy.
This, then, is what the Christian life is about: his joy, and his love. Joy that can sustain us thru everything in the world, and love that can overcome death. The joy of Christ—that’s a somewhat unfamiliar thought, but if you’ve ever seen Desmond Tutu speak, then I imagine it might be similar to the joy that shines out from his face. Because surely, someone who has experienced such suffering and human cruelty in their lifetime, yet can still beam with delight over a silly joke knows something of the joy of Christ, that persists even in the face of bleakness.
This joy isn’t denial, by the way, and it isn’t emotional manipulation. I don’t think Jesus wants us to deny or manufacture emotions—the sort of joy I speak of cannot be conjured up through force of will, really, or a key change in emotional music. It’s born of being rooted deeply and surely in the love of God for all creation, and knowing that God’s love will have the last word, no matter what. And feeling the delight of that knowledge set you free.
Oddly, this joy is not always what we associate with church—love and joy and good news. Church is frequently talked of as a somber, stale thing, filled with frozen people who must assent to a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts, and who probably don’t understand science.
But that popular conception hardly seems like the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about here. Or the sort of thing that would be lifegiving at all. Faith, he tells the disciples, is meant to be joyful. Our relationship with God is meant to be a source of freedom and joy. It is supposed to connect us to that sense of joy. By this the world will know that you are my disciples—that your joy may be complete. That you abide in my love.
How strange is it, then, that in so many places, what passes for Christianity does the exact opposite. How odd that what is called the gospel by many is such a soulless, hard thing—that so often what we hear shouted from rooftops and quoted by politicians is not the joy and love of Christ, but something else. After all, the gospel is called good news, and so good is what it should be.
And not just good news for the person proclaiming it—not just good news for the rich, the privileged, the fully-able, those of white privilege, those society already favors. but good news for everyone.
Good news for the poor, the sick, the politically oppressed, the disabled, the struggling, people of color, LGBTQ, the marginalized—if what we say is not good news for these, then it is not the gospel. If what we proclaim does not bring the life-giving love of God into the world, then it is not abiding in Christ. if It does not speak of that joy that laughs in the face of evil because it forces its coming downfall—it is not the gospel.
Because if we let it—our faith is joyful. That was the secret those college kids had discovered years ago. What could be dour or dull about what we do here? THIS IS FUN. THIS IS HAPPY. Celebrating God come among us, and the eternal triumph of love incarnate—that is incredibly joyful.
This is the joy we need to share with the world; this is the joy we need to celebrate, especially in a world so often dismal and sad.