By Ellen Sims
Text: John 15:9-17
Two of the hymns we sang earlier assume a relationship between joy and love—a connection our Gospel reading for today makes. Listen again to words from the ecstatic “Hymn to Joy”:
“Loving Spirit, Father, Mother, all who love belong to you.
Teach us how to love each other, by that love our joy renew.”
Now a verse from “Come, My Way”:
“Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: such a joy as none can move;
Such a love as none can part; such a heart as joys in love.”
If you return to the first page of our worship bulletin, you’ll see Open Table’s mission statement in the upper right-hand corner:
following Jesus in Christian love,
spiritual and social transformation,
biblical hospitality, grace-filled inclusion,
and joyful worship
Every Sunday these five phrases re-ground us in our common calling and re-orient us toward the hopeful ways of Jesus. It’s no accident that Open Table’s mission statement begins in “Christian love”— the selfless love Jesus demonstrated and which he experienced by abiding in God. This kind of love then culminates in “joyful worship”—an experience of union with God consciousness. Truly, if we really grasp love’s scope, we could shorten our mission statement to say simply that we’re trying to follow in Jesus’s loving way. Or maybe we could just print the word “love.” Because everything else comes from love: our inner spiritual transformation as well as social transformation spring from that love. Hospitality and inclusion likewise flow from love. Joyful worship and joy itself also can be traced to the kind of love Jesus lived. And that love-to-joy flow is recursive. A joyful soul extends loving compassion to others.
Pope Francis seems to be one such joyful soul and a conduit of love. We’ve all seen perfunctory smiles from religious leaders. But Francis seems to genuinely delight in people. His is not a smarmy smile, not a superior gloat, not an artificial grin for the camera—or so it seems to me. This past December, in making the annual address to Vatican officials, he identified “15 diseases of the Curia” –one of which was “the disease of the ‘funeral face.’”
Saint Francis, the pope’s namesake, called the members of his order “jokers and jesters of God.” But it was the Eastern Church “that produced the richest collection of such folk. Theophilus and Maria, who roamed Antioch as a jester and prostitute, outrag[ed] people with bizarre and often obscene behavior. . . . St. Symeon . . . threw walnuts at people in church. . . . St. Basil the Blessed . . . walked naked through Moscow and pelted respectable people with stones” all to conjure up glimpses of another world whose priorities are in opposition to our world. These holy fools symbolized a “rejection of worldly security by being perpetual strangers—and perpetually strange.”(Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2001, 91).
I’m not encouraging stone or walnut throwing in church or nakedness on the streets of Mobile, but we might try not taking ourselves so seriously. Nietzsche once said that he would find Christianity more convincing if Christians looked more redeemed (Oakely 92).
Thank God for religious leaders who thank God while relaxing into delight. I feel sorry that God has to listen to the prayers of spiritually constipated preachers who, squinting and grimacing, strain to produce words of petition and praise. I imagine God would like to hear earnest pray-ers holding the concerns of the world seriously without seeming to strangle God’s neck to get what they want.
That’s why it’s been refreshing to see recent pictures of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama joyfully collaborating on a new book titled The Book of Joy. It’s no wonder that their loving friendship will yield a book about “find[ing] joy in the face of life’s challenges.” One news release says, “While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, His Holiness and the Archbishop believe that joy comes from an internal state of being. They will share how joy animates our lives and leads ultimately to a life of greater meaning and purpose and greater love and contribution.” Love and joy again in tandem. (Read more on this collaboration here.)
Recent pictures of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu show them palling around, laughing impishly, and reveling in one another’s company. It’s the latest bromance! Their joy reminds me that the way I practice my religion ought to make others say—like the woman in the diner in that famous scene from “When Harry met Sally”—“I’ll have what she’s having.”
Which is not to say and you and I can’t have bad days. It’s unhealthy to suppress our sorrows. In fact, the spiritually mature feel the pain of this world intensely. They do not numb their anguish with alcohol or drugs or food; they do not distract themselves from the world’s hurts through escapist sex, entertainment, or shopping. They feel the feelings. In fact, some research suggests that those who are practiced in meditation may feel sorrow more keenly than most—at first—but also may be able to move past sadness more quickly.
But it does seem counter-intuitive to claim that compassion can lead to joy. We’d expect that the tenderhearted are bound to experience more grief in this life. Won’t those enlarging their hearts to include all God’s creatures have even more potential for hurt? Won’t people aiming for deeper compassion—which literally means the ability to suffer with another—invite more suffering into their own lives? How can we who follow Jesus all the way to the cross expect an outcome of joy?
Return now to our Gospel text to see how this paradox might be possible. Continuing what has been called his “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus tells his disciples to “abide” in his love—just as he “abides” in God’s love. He tells them to love one another just as he has loved them. The verb “abide” is key to understanding that the kind of love Jesus demonstrated when he entered into the suffering of the world can actually include joy. Jesus explains: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
You see, we don’t simply receive God’s love; we live within the Divine Love itself. It is a dwelling place, metaphorically speaking, where we in a sense are united with all others. This act of union through the Christ event means we can feel with others but also transcend individual events of sorrow. When we can feel that we reside inside the ultimate place of love and care, we trust a larger reality of “unitive consciousness” (rohr https://cac.org/dm-themes).
When we really grasp our unity—seeing that God abides in us and we in God—we share in both the suffering and joy of others in the reality we call God. We appreciate the fullest reality that is always transforming death and pain into life and love. What I lose is never finally lost because it is always held in the memory of God. What I suffer is always known and understood in the life of God. And each ending opens us to newness and growth and possibility. We can hurt keenly, can empathize with others fully, yet can joyfully imagine with the eyes of faith the love that holds us all securely and eternally. In God it’s always Easter.
Abiding in Christ should make it possible to feel as genuinely joyful for someone else’s happiness as our own. Parents may get very close to that ideal form of love. Lovers, too. I’m not sure any of us ever mature in love fully. But that is our aim: to recognize our creaturely unity so fully that I care as much about what happens to you as I care about what happens to me.
I know this talk about abiding in Christ and Christ in us is very abstract. Maybe I can make the point better with an example of the opposite of unitive love and joy. Let me introduce or reintroduce you to the joyless, loveless Duke of Ferrara. You may recall this character from Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” The setting is this: A powerful, narcissistic, sociopathic medieval duke has ordered the murder of his wife, who was probably not the first wife he’d had killed. An emissary from a foreign count, presumably unaware of the Duke’s habit of eliminating imperfect wives, arrives to arrange a marriage between their Count’s daughter and this Duke. As the Duke leads the party past various pieces of art in his lavish estate, he halts the visitors in front of a painting of his “last duchess.” Unwittingly, while the Duke criticizes the deceased duchess, he reveals her virtues and indirectly admits to her murder.
When the guests seem curious about the duchess’s charming smile, the Duke explains they’re not the first to remark on it. He complains:
“She had a heart too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech.”
“Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.”
What a contrast: The late duchess’s pure love allows her to take joy in the smallest pleasures: a simple bough of cherries or a sunset or a white mule. Her husband killed her because she “had a heart too soon made glad.” His ego and his incapacity for love—and his desire instead to own and control her very smile—cause him to miss out on joy and mistake her spiritual gifts of love and joy as deficiencies.
The wider the reach of our love, the greater our capacity for joy. The more constricted our love, the more constricted our joy.
Let this be the accusation someone makes about you: “You have a heart too soon made glad!”
PRAYER: God of the loving heart and laughing spirit, give us hearts that joy in love.