Jesus, who is about to be denied and deserted by his disciples, is calling them friends.
Jesus, who has spent three years leading his friends into the heart of God by caring for God’s oppressed and often fearful people, is talking to them about love.
Jesus, who understands that his death will leave his friends desolate and full of doubt, is telling them to love each other the way he has loved them—fiercely, tenderly, humbly, actively, sometimes impatiently but always purposefully, and up until the very end.
Jesus, who is facing imminent betrayal, desertion, torture, and execution, is talking to his beloved friends about joy.
Of all things.
“I’m telling you all this so that my joy will be in you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy in God will become your joy, and so that your joy will be complete.”
Joy. Of all things.
Now, I’m not about to pretend to know the secret to joy. I’m not about to suggest that there are steps to follow, or that joy can be analyzed and deconstructed and boiled down to a do-it-yourself equation like x + y = joy.
Let’s not treat joy like a commodity. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
If you’re anything like me—which is to say you were (a) raised to believe that God is not really very nice, and so you’d better behave; (b) raised with a strong work ethic, and believe your worth is based on how productive you are; or (c) you’re just plain human—you may still be trying to wrap your head around last week’s message that God is love. Or maybe your head knows that, but your heart just can’t quite trust it.
And now, I expect you to believe that God wants your life to be filled with joy? What? Have I gone over to the prosperity gospel side? Have I become some sort of New Age Christian?
No, I’m still your same old Jesus-loving, (trying to be) spiritually grounded, peace and justice-seeking, hard-working, sometimes pastoral, occasionally prophetic, and always imperfect pastor.
Which is to say: I love you and I love this beautiful but broken world that God so loves. Which is to say: Many of us in the UCC, and especially here at First Church Amherst, are pretty good—no, make that really good—at the whole “doing justice” thing.
We have our fingers on the pulse of injustice. We are committed to confronting the ways in which our privileges have supported and maintained unjust laws and systems. We know we are called to love our neighbors, and that everyone, especially anyone who is oppressed or marginalized or not at all like us, is our neighbor. We know we are called to care for the earth, and that we are kin to every living thing. We understand that the realm of God is not a promise of the next life, but God’s plan for this life. We are honored to be God’s hands and feet, and we want to use our resources to make a difference for good.
I can’t help but wonder what we know about joy.
I wonder if we think of it at all when we consider the spiritual life—what it means to follow Jesus, for example, or how to be the church.
I kind of hesitate to even mention it for fear that we will add it to our to-do lists, that it will become yet another obligation: Be joyful.
Jesus seems to be saying that it’s pretty important, joy. That it’s something he really wants us to have.
It strikes me because, here he is, offering his parting words to his dear disciples, the partners he now calls friends. In his final address, Jesus does not focus on the content of Jewish law or his own teachings. He does not leave his followers with a long list of do’s and don’ts. He says nothing about organization or structure or who’s in charge.
Instead, Jesus distills his entire ministry and his final charge to his friends down to a very few basics: continuous, abiding relationship with God and God’s love; love in action for one another; unity in God; and joy.
It’s almost as if he knew that sometimes we wouldn’t be able to see the forest for the trees. It’s as if he knew that the injustice and suffering of the world would tempt us to care about no one but our own. It’s as if he knew his church would become obsessed with doctrines and rules, who was in and who was out. It’s as if he knew that even the most so-called progressive Christians would get so busy doing good works that they would all but forget about love and joy and Jesus.
And so Jesus connects the dots: abiding in God, loving one another, and joy.
Again, I’m not aware of any formula for joy, and I’m pretty sure it’s not something we can create on demand. But I suspect that there is some connection between the loving Jesus wants us to do and the joy he wants us to have.
I think about our sanctuary journey with Lucio Perez and his family. When we invited Lucio to take sanctuary in our church, we didn’t even know him. We offered him sanctuary because we believed it was the right thing to do. We took a pretty scary leap of faith because we wanted to be faithful. We put our love for God and justice into action because that is who we understand ourselves to be.
And then an interesting thing happened. Over time, all the work and organization, all the meetings and stress and details, grew into love for this humble man and his family. And when our work was done not only from a sense of duty but also from a wellspring of love, we experienced joy and solidarity and—dare I say it?—God.
It seems that joy is not so much a goal as the byproduct of a life lived in love.
Maybe, as the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “we enjoy our lives [despite all our suffering, even with all the pain in the world] because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.”
Otherwise . . . : Fill in the blank with your own personal joys.
Otherwise our hearts wouldn’t melt at a baby’s smile. Otherwise there would be no singing. Otherwise we wouldn’t know from dancing. Otherwise the spring leaves would not be so impossibly green; the red trillium would not blossom in the shade along the bike path; we wouldn’t delight in the laughter of a friend or long for a post-vaccination hug. Otherwise we wouldn’t gather around Christ’s table every single Sunday, even during a pandemic when we eat the bread and sip the cup in our own homes.
In a world that tells us we have to earn our worth, Jesus understood that we might need something close to a command to give ourselves to love. Maybe Jesus realized that, amid all the suffering in the world and our God-given desire to relieve it, we would need something like permission to give ourselves over to joy.
Maybe we get these words of Jesus in the season of Easter because love and joy are telltale elements of new, resurrected, reimagined life.
“I’ve told you these things for a purpose,” Jesus says: “that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete. This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”