Sixth Sunday of Easter
This South African song was written in 1984- a time when one might think it absurd to sing “All our hearts are filled with gladness.” But the people of God sing on with conviction, defiance, and joy knowing that God’s love is still present in midst of great suffering and sadness.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Are you kidding me? Joy? Now? In the middle of this? Jesus, you are nuts, delusional, and maybe a bit disconnected. How can you be telling us to have “joy” when there doesn’t seem to be much to rejoice about?
The readers of John’s Gospel certainly didn’t have much to rejoice about. The Christian Church started off as a religious community within Judaism, but by the time John was written, they had been kicked out of the synagogues. This had a couple of really terrible effects. First, it removed Christians from their established places of worship and cut them off from their established communities of people. They were alone. Second, it put their very lives in jeopardy. Rome had, more or less, a list of recognized religions of which Judaism was one. Anyone who practiced a non-recognized religion and refused to worship the emperor was deemed an “atheist.” Being an atheist was punishable by death. Being kicked out of the synagogues, Christians could no longer call themselves Jews and were therefore classified as atheists. By the time when I John was written the church is already being actively persecuted. Christians are being hunted and killed by the Roman government.
And Jesus is telling them to have “joy.”
And Jesus is telling us to have joy.
How can you rejoice when you’ve lost your job and you are wondering how you are going to scrape together enough money to put food on the table, pay the rent, and pay your family’s medical bills?
How can you rejoice when you’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and you don’t know whether or not you’ll live another day and who will take care of your loved ones when you are gone?
How can you rejoice when a son or daughter is killed in a war abroad or a war on the streets?
How can you rejoice in that?
Maybe we are getting it wrong. Maybe we are mixing up “happiness” and “joy.”
Happiness, to me, seems to be mostly a feeling. It is a lightness of heart. It is the opposite of sadness. Joy is more than a feeling. Joy still exists when sadness is present and maybe even thrives in the midst of sadness. Joy is knowing that a relationship exists. Joy is a type of faith that trusts God’s love to be present even when we don’t have anything else to hold onto but the joy itself. Joy is hearing God promise to love you and to be with you to the end of the age, and actually believing it.Happiness (and maybe even joy) is found in the love of a mother or in knowing the love of being a mother.
Happiness is found in money. I know the idiom, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but that’s just not true. Money can buy happiness when you have enough of it to pay for your medical bills, to keep a roof over your head, and to keep food on the table. Money can keep the sadness and pain at bay.
Happiness is found in having your health. You can be happy when your body is not in pain and you are fairly certain that you will wake up the next morning.
But what happens when you lose those things?
What happens when you lose a mother or a child? What happens if your mother had been hurtful or if you wanted to be a mother, but were not able to be one?
What happens when you lose your job and don’t know if you’ll have enough money to make it?
What happens when you get diagnosed with a debilitating or terminal disease?
What happens when the happiness is gone?
Even when the happiness is gone, joy can still remain. Even when we are buried in sadness and pain, joy can still be given by the grace of God as we believe that God still has us in our sadness- as we believe in God’s abundant and unconditional love given freely for us and our new life.
When I attended the Unity Walk last week, I and many other people of faith, visited the sites where Darryl Ford and Anthony “Skeet” Jones were killed. There we heard their loved ones share memories of these men and lift up prayers to God. They were not happy. They could not be happy knowing that their son, father, friend, cousin, uncle, or nephew were taken away from them when they were murdered. But I did hear joy. These mourning children of God gave thanks for the community of their family and their city who showed the love of God to them. They expressed their conviction that God would be there to see them through another day- to be with them as they grapple with their deep sadness while trying to take care of their families, go to work, and just go on living. They prayed with conviction that God has Darryl and Skeet in death just as surely as God had them in life. They belong to God and not even death could change that.
I met a woman in a hospital whom I’ll call, “Sally.” Sally was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while in her mid 40s and had undergone painful chemotherapy treatments three times. She had recently found out that the cancer had returned for a fourth time and the doctors were doubtful that another round of chemo would eliminate the disease. Sally was not happy. She could not be happy knowing that her days were numbered and any day now might be the day that she doesn’t wake up. She was not happy knowing that she would be leaving her husband behind in this life. But Sally had an unbelievable joy. Sally had the great gift of faith to believe that when she closed her eyes for the last time she would still be with her God. She had such joy knowing that God has claimed her and even cancer couldn’t loose her from God’s grip.
Happiness comes from ourselves and sometimes it might even come from other people, but joy only comes from God. We have joy because God has promised to be with us and that no sin, pain, or death can separate us from that unconditional and incredible love. By the gift of faith we have joy knowing that God is with us always. We have joy because we know God has us.