John 15:9-17; I John 5:1-6; Acts 10:44-48
What are the things that bring you joy in this life? That is a question that is raised by our gospel lesson for today as Jesus informs his disciples that he has told them these things so that his joy may be in them and their joy may be complete. So, what are these things to which Jesus refers that will evoke so much joy in his disciples’ lives as well as in ours? The answer to this question is pretty simple. Love one another as Jesus has loved us with the same love that God has loved Jesus, and keep Jesus’ commandments just as Jesus has kept God’s commandments in order to abide in God’s love.
Whenever this topic of joy comes up, those of you who are of my generation will remember the popular book entitled “The Joy of Sex” that captured the imagination of an entire culture. I doubt that Jesus would dispute the joy that can be experienced as the result of a good, healthy, and loving sexual relationship. However, his desire for joy in our lives encompasses so much more than this one facet of our human experience. Jesus emphasizes the joy that comes as the result of our love for one another—not the erotic love that is experienced in a sexual encounter, but rather the agape form of love that can be experienced in any and all of our human relationships.
The Gospel of John is the only gospel of the 4 gospels in the Bible that talks about this joy that we can have as a result of our love for one another and our willingness to keep the commandments of Jesus. In the other 3 gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the only statement by Jesus that comes close to this teaching in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ identification of the two greatest commandments on which all of the law and the prophets depend. According to Jesus, these two commandments that were taken directly from two different portions of the Hebrew Scriptures involve loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as we ourselves have been loved by God. If we keep these two commandments, then we will know the joy that Jesus desires for all human beings.
I don’t know about you, but I want this joy in my life. No, that’s not exactly true! Actually, I long for this joy in my life, and in all of our lives. If that is the case, then what prevents us from experiencing this joy in all of its fullness? I think that the answer to this question has something to do with the commandments that we are unable—and, in some cases, unwilling—to keep. Anytime that we sin and do something that is contrary to the will of God, we are not loving God with our entire being and we deny ourselves the complete joy that Jesus desires for us. Anytime that we do not love our neighbors as completely as God has loved each and every one of us, we are not going to experience the complete joy that Jesus desires for us, even though he was willing to lay down his life for us so that we would know the truth about how to experience this joy, not only for ourselves, but also for all of our neighbors.
If you notice the choice of words in this saying by Jesus, he specifically talks about the joy that he desires for us and not about our happiness. The joy about which Jesus speaks is not the same as the happiness that seems to be the ideal for most everyone in our culture. One of the most common questions that people ask each other in this regard is, “What makes you happy?” not “What brings joy to your life?” Commercials often are designed to convince us how happy we can be in this life and how to feel good about ourselves if only we would buy this or buy that for ourselves. An exception to this generalization might be the Hallmark Card or Kay Jewelry commercials that attempt to persuade us to buy something in order to make someone else happy in this life as we often do on this Mother’s Day.
Joy is something that is much greater and goes much deeper in our human psyche or soul than happiness will ever be felt. Joy comes when we are living in a right relationship with God and with all of our neighbors because we know that God is pleased with us for the way that we have love for one another and are making sure that everyone has their essential needs met in their daily life. For example, if any child goes to bed hungry every night, our joy will not be complete. If we remain silent while so many women are being battered and violated in so many different ways, our joy will not be complete. If we continue to wage war against our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world for whatever reason, our joy will not be complete. Shall I go on?
Perhaps another way to draw this distinction between joy and happiness has to do with timing. Jesus talks about the fruit that we bear as something that will last. Whereas our joy is directly linked with bearing fruit that will last, happiness often is associated with something that brings immediate and short term gratification for the individual. Mind you, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be happy and doing all that we can to bring about this happiness in our lives. However, happiness as a heartfelt emotion can come and go as quickly as a candle blowing in the wind, while joy is an experience that is meant to last for a long while and often is associated with a communal experience of sharing or demonstrating our love for one another.
In this regard, I want to be very clear that we are not to love one another just so we can experience this joy in our lives. If this was the case, then our narcissism could very well backfire on us. No, the joy that Jesus promises to his disciples if they keep his commandments is not something that they can achieve, attain, or acquire on their own, but rather is a gift that is a natural outcome of such faithfulness and obedience on the part of Jesus’ disciples, and comes only as the result of their being in a right relationship with someone else—be it God or their neighbor. So, the natural question that follows this assertion is not how we can experience this complete joy in our lives, but rather how we can be in the right relationships that will invite such joy into our lives.
Here is where we turn to God’s commandments in order to learn how to be in right relationship with one another as well as with God. I won’t bore you this morning by going through all ten of the commandments that have been exemplary of God’s covenant with humanity for the past three millennia. Suffice it to say that if we would view these commandments as a prescription for how we can be in right relationships with one another according to God’s design rather than as a description of what we have to do in order to get into heaven after we die, we might find greater inspiration and motivation to keep these commandments of God, because in so doing, so many more people will benefit and know the salvation of our God that will bring complete joy into our lives.
I can only assume that Jesus kept these commandments of God in order to reveal to all the world the complete joy and salvation that we all could experience if we all would keep the commandments that Jesus has given to us and love one another just as God in Christ Jesus has loved all of us. In this regard, Jesus laid down his life so that we might know such joy and salvation in our lives. In so doing, Jesus had to endure a lot of pain as a result of being mocked, tortured, and hung on a cross to die. However, Jesus also knew the joy of completing his mission in this life as he revealed to all the world the way of non-violent resistance and offered his final prayer of forgiveness and reconciliation that could save the people of this world from their own self-destruction. Nothing could have been more joyfully fulfilling to Jesus than knowing that he had given his all to reveal this way of God’s justice and peace in this world as he cried out, “It is finished!”
Now the rest is left up to us as Jesus chooses us in our baptism and appoints us to go and bear fruit—fruit that will have a lasting impact in bringing peace to this world by making sure that we choose love as our primary way of being and relating with one another in this world. Nothing could be more central to our love for one another than striving for God’s justice and righteousness in all the earth—a justice and righteousness that ensures the equitable distribution of the world’s resources so that everyone has enough food to eat, a roof over their head, clothes on their back, and adequate healthcare in time of need. Anytime that we move in this direction, we have every reason to rejoice because we have taken one more step in keeping God’s commandments and following in the way of Jesus according to the Spirit of truth that Jesus has given to us.
So, based upon this testimony and witness of Jesus, the question is not, “What are the things that bring you joy in this life?” but rather, “What are the things that bring the joy of Jesus into our lives so that our joy may be complete?” If we read through the rest of the New Testament with the lens of this question in mind, we will discover for the most part that whenever there is a reference to the experience of joy among the members of the early church, it usually followed some experience of pain associated with being faithful and obedient to the will of God as revealed in Jesus, our Christ, and with having gone out of their way to love their neighbors as they had experienced the love of Jesus in their own lives.
I would hope that not every joyful experience in our lives would have to follow some experience of pain. However, if loving all of our neighbors, including our enemies, means laying down our lives in order to make our enemies our friends as Jesus did, then the pain may be worth it so that our corporate joy would be complete as we all learn how to be reconciled with one another just as God through the final witness of Jesus was reconciled with us. Nothing could bring us more joy in our lives than experiencing this freedom that we have been given as the result of God’s forgiveness that Jesus chose to offer to all of us while he was laying down his life for the salvation of the whole world. As we rejoice in this freedom and salvation once more today as we come to this table to partake of this holy meal, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus Christ, our Friend and the Source of complete joy in our lives. Amen.