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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 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. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
“Atrocious storms in Texas and Oklahoma, the commotion and emotion on Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender sex change, a terrible earthquake in Japan, cancer, violence, suicide, poverty, discrimination, apathy, ignorance, spite, abuse, injustice. Some days it’s just too much for my little heart.”
This was a Tumblr post this week by a friend that I know.
I would add to the list racism, sexism, anxiety, broken relationships, and sorrow. I
would add disillusionment, distrust, depression, and disregard. I would add questions of where and how and why any of this will matter.
It’s been that kind of month. It’s been that kind of day. It’s been that kind of time. It’s been that kind of world.
Which makes Jesus’s words of joy seem out of place. Out of sync and completely out of touch with reality. “Seriously, Jesus. Are you joking?”
What is joy doing here and now in a time and place like this? How can there be any sort of joy in this situation?
I have a feeling the disciples asked the same questions. After all, here they are in the middle of a “So, long, farewell discourse,” and Jesus’s parting words to his disciples.
What is so interesting is that it’s here and now in Jesus’ ministry that Jesus offers statements of joy.
There’s already been the acknowledgement of troubled hearts.
And the next chapters in John will be words about rejection and hatred and abandonment, yet even more joy, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (16:24); And later “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13).
What is joy, exactly? When do we know we’ve found it? And how do we go about pursuing it?
Joy appears misplaced in passages that deal primarily with Jesus’ departure and impending death. Joy seems inappropriate when you are told that the one on whom you have relied for intimacy and belonging will no longer be around. Joy is a marked juxtaposition to the realities that the disciples face — that we face. And maybe that’s the point. Because where is joy in the midst of the hardship Jesus described and in the peril that is sure to come? Where is joy when a primary source of your joy is leaving you? Where is joy when you need it the most? Jesus knows that the presence of joy needs to be heard, needs to be felt, when you face things that assume and anticipate a profound absence of joy.
I’m a United Methodist pastor, and one of the unique aspects about being a United Methodist is the gift or hardship of itinerancy. Recently, I’ve been called to serve at a different congregation which will start at the first of next month.
After two years of working at the current church where I serve, we’ve mobilized into creating many small groups and we are finally being the hands and feet of Christ serving the greater community participating in community service work. We are the face of Christ. When it was announced two Sundays ago that I would be leaving at the end of this month, people began to grunt and some began to cry — let’s just say that a range of emotions overcame the entire sanctuary. I had a church member approach me afterwards saying, “How will this church survive without you?” As flattering as this might be to hear these words, I also know that the church will completely fine without me. I also know that these new practices of the church weren’t a result of my doing. They are a result of seeing the Spirit work in mysterious ways when people are gathered to be the church. In the two years of service, I planted some seeds, and things are sprouting. These people have the motivation and drive and they will continue to lead, work, and move forward with out me. This is in a similar way as Jesus’s disciples learned to follow Jesus, learned what it looks like to lead, learning, became attached, and when it was time to leave, that’s where the joy is. There’s joy in what we’ve built together, there’s joy in the bonds created, there’s joy to witness what these groups are able to do without me around.
Joy is not abstract happiness. Joy is elusive. True joy is hard to come by and seems simply impossible when one starts down the road of real life. I’ve had some personal struggles with joy. It escaped me for a while. A long while, to be exact.
Well, many reasons, I suppose. So at one point I decided that its pursuit was essential for who I was, who I was called to be, who I wanted to be in the world. But, ironically, joy is hard. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes intention.
Hanging in my office is a large 11×16 print with the definitions of joy according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: “1. The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. 2. The expression or exhibition of such emotion. 3. A state of happiness or felicity. 4. A source or cause of delight.”
I read these definitions every day. What do you need to remind you that joy can be present? Who do you need around you to tell you that joy is here? Especially in the face of those who seek to steal your joy away? Those who seem quite determined to make sure that your joy is but a dream? That which tries to quell your joy?
Where is that place where true joy is experienced? Who are the people in your life that bring joy? And what can you do to bring joy to someone else, particularly while you may be in the midst of palpable pain?
The Greek words for grace and joy share the same root. Chara is joy, while charis means grace, kindness.
Joy may very well be a feeling of grace, the emotion of grace, even the response to grace. Joy is that indescribable sense when you find yourself experiencing abundant grace. In other words, joy amidst all that was named above, all that you can certainly name in your own life, in the life of the people in your community, both communally and individually, is not an answer. Instead, it’s an affirmation. It’s the guarantee of God’s grace when all that is good seems so far away. It’s the security of God’s love when it appears that love is nowhere to be felt, especially from those you thought would love you. It’s the hope that even in the darkest places of separation, God’s abiding and our abiding in God is promised and present. The future is God’s, a gift given, like joy, to God’s beloved children.
Let us live this in the word and promise, that while we are invited to abide and obey and choose and all of that is certainly good advice, we also hear and receive the good news that God has chosen us. US! Once and for all.
So, do you choose misery or choose joy? I choose joy. Amen.
Lead pastor of a two-point charge at Milton United Methodist Church (Milton, WA) and Whitney United Methodist Church (Puyallup, WA).