Saturday, October 22, 2011

Always Have Joy

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on October 9, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost:  Philippians 4:1-9, Luke 22:1-14

Always Have Joy

Always have joy in your relationship with Jesus. I have to say it again, Have joy!  Be gentle and accepting of everyone.  It is not easy, but Jesus is near you, so you can do it.  Strive not to be anxious—that’s the opposite of joy.  Pray and give thanks to God always—don’t be afraid, let God know everything.  When you are open to God, you will know peace—a kind of peace that is anything beyond your understanding—and through your relationship with Jesus God will protect your heart and your mind.

            It is about joy or it is about nothing.

            Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is the letter of joy.  More than a third of the times Paul uses the word and its relatives in his letters are in Philippians.  This is in spite of the fact that Paul wrote this letter from prison, probably the imprisonment in Rome that would lead to his death.  It is also in spite of the fact that he is writing to a very troubled community, a community experiencing persecution, a community that is experiencing teachers that are trying to turn the good news into bad, and a community that is experiencing serious disagreements among members, as he mentions this morning.

            Yet Paul says to this same community, “Rejoice always.”  Always have joy.

            Back in Epiphany you may remember that I preached a series of sermons on evangelism—trying to reclaim it and redefine it for our tradition and our day.  One of the things I said was that evangelism was the “proclamation of joy.”  I quoted the great 20th century Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, and it is well worth repeating that quote.

From its very beginning, Christianity has been the proclamation of joy.  Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible.  It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.[1]

In fact, Frederick Nietzsche once said,

The reverse side of Christian compassion for the suffering of one's neighbor is a profound suspicion of all the joy of one's neighbor…[2]

            I do not know about you, but that sounds painfully familiar to me. How many people believe that Christians take all the fun out of life?  That we believe if it is fun or pleasurable, it must be sinful?  And, of course, this is not a belief that somebody made up out of whole cloth.  We have in the past been a pretty grim lot.

            And it started early on.  The letters ascribed to Paul that most scholars consider to be second or even generation letters[3] only contain the word joy once as opposed to 47 times in the undisputed letters of Paul.  We lost our joy fairly quickly it would seem.

            Indeed, joy is not a major word in The Book of Common Prayer.  As an example, on only three or four Sundays of the year will you hear the word “joy” prayed as part of the Collect of the Day (the opening prayer of the liturgy).  If Schmemann is correct and Christianity is incomprehensible without the proclamation of joy, than we should not be surprised why people keep not understanding us.

            Of course, it may be that we just got realistic.  Joy in this life is not an easy thing for a large number of people, especially the kind of consistent joy of which Paul seems to be speaking.  Isn’t it unrealistic of Paul, perhaps even cruel, to insist that we rejoice always?

            Paul is not, however, asking us to put on joy as a kind of mask over strife or sorrow.  He is not asking for false smiles and “happy clappy” religion fervor no matter what.  Paul was nothing if not realistic.

            What did he mean by joy that we could have always? What do we mean when we proclaim joy as one of, if not the, central purposes of Christian faith?

            I think we mean three things.  First of all we mean the absolute confidence that God is for us.  We call Jesus “Emmanuel,” “God with us, God for us.”  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul taught (Romans 8:39). That confidence produces joy no matter what the circumstances of our lives.

            Second, we mean freedom from anxiety and defensiveness.  That’s what Paul means when he says, “let your gentleness be known to everyone,” or, as I put it, “be gentle and accepting of everyone.”  The Greek word translated “gentleness” is a very rich word that means something like “I can let you be who you are because I am confident in who I am.”  Earlier in Philippians this is how Paul described Jesus, who “emptied himself” and did not feel the need to grasp at equality with God.  Again, this freedom produces joy.

            Third, we mean that death is simply not the last word for us.  Death does not end life, nor does it end joy.  We say at the grave of everyone who dies, “Even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” (BCP, p. 499).  This fearlessness of death produces joy.

            Joy for us is about confidence that we are loved by God, the ability to be free from anxiety and defensiveness as a way of life, and dismissal of death having any real power over us.

            We do not come together week by week in order primarily to be told how to behave, or to be reminded of how bad we are in the first place, or to have all the fun kicked out of us.  We come here to renew our joy, to be grateful for its gift to us, and equipped to pass it on to others.  We come to practice rejoicing with others.  We come to practice confidence in God’s love, we come to practice freedom from a defensive life, and we come to practice fearlessness of death.

            In my reading about joy this week I came across this great quote from a 20th century German biblical scholar named Hans Conzelmann.

Joy is the actualization of freedom, which takes concrete form in fellowship.[4]

            Without preaching another sermon, that’s what is going on with the guy without the wedding garment in Jesus’ parable this morning.  He could not put on the joy of the community that had gathered because he did not know he was free.

            You are free, and loved and you need not be defensive about who you are or afraid of even death.

            That’s the message. It does not kick all the fun out of life. It is, rather, a kick in itself.  Always have joy, my sisters and brothers!

[1] “The Proclamation of Joy: An Orthodox View,” in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 8. The article is an excerpt from Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World.
[2] Frederick Nietzche, Daybreak (or The Dawn), trans. R.J. Hollingdale, p. 80.
[3] There is a significant consensus that the following letters were not written directly by Paul:  Ephesians, Colossians, Second Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.  The undisputed Pauline letters are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon.
[4] Writing in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IX:369.

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