Easter 7 / Year B
Jesus prayed, “May my followers have my joy made complete in themselves.” St. John, in one of his letters, writes, “Whoever has the Son has life.” Life and joy. Although not fully attained until the life to come, abundant life and overflowing joy are two hallmarks of every believer’s present walk with Christ.
One of the qualities I first found attractive about the Episcopal Church is our life-affirming ethos. We know how to laugh, to eat, to drink, to travel, and to just plain have a good time. We appreciate art, music, ballet, and theatre. We embrace science and the fearless pursuit of knowledge at every level. It is not like this with every Christian tradition. Some have a deep distrust of pleasure and of the things of this world; supposing self-denial, suffering, skepticism, and separation are signs of one’s commitment to Jesus.
One of the greatest lessons many of us struggle to learn in life is how to embrace life; finding a way to get the most out of every good gift God has woven into the fabric of God’s creation – a creation God deemed to be ‘good’ when God rested from the work of calling it into being. There is a goodness to life easy to miss and to miss out on if over the years you have taught yourself being miserable or miserly is good enough.
Years ago I read for you my absolute favorite poem of all time, “Grandfather’s Cars” by Robert Phillips:
Every two years he traded them in
(“As soon as the ashtrays get full,” he said with good humor);
always a sedate four-door sedan, always a Buick,
always dark as the inside of a tomb.
Then one spring Grandfather took off to trade,
returned, parked proudly in the driveway.
“Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!” blared the horn.
Grandmother emerged from the kitchen into day-
light, couldn’t believe her eyes.
Grandfather sat behind the wheel of a tomato-red Lincoln convertible,
the top down. “Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!”
“Roscoe, whatever are you thinking?”
she cried. Back into the kitchen she flew.
No matter how many times he leaned on that horn,
she wouldn’t return. So he went inside,
found her decapitating strawberries with scorn.
“Katie, what’s wrong with that automobile?
All my life I’ve wanted something sporty.”
He stood there wearing his Montgomery Ward
brown suit and saddle shoes. His face was warty.
She wiped her hands along her apron,
said words that cut like a band saw:
“What ails you? They’ll think you’ve turned fool!
All our friends are dying like flies-all!
You can’t drive that thing in a funeral procession.”
He knew she was right. He gave her one baleful
look, left, and returned in possession
of a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.
Grandfather hated that car until the day he died.
Is there anything more critical and cutting to be said about a person than he or she is joyless? Much better to live the way the short-story writer Katrina Mayer described one of her characters: “She found joy and wonder in every little thing. And joy and wonder always found her.”
Maybe what will make your heart leap isn’t a tomato-red Lincoln with a vanity horn, maybe it isn’t even something you can purchase – and that is even better – but here are a few thoughts to ponder:
If you can’t embrace the life God offers in this world, what makes you think you will be drawn toward the life God offers in the next?
What if affirming life in this world is training for accepting life in the next!
If you spend all your life in this life turning down and turning away from the life God has beautifully woven into the fabric of creation, how will you ever know how to say yes to the life to come?
Jesus wanted his followers to have the complete sense of joy he had. Did you know all the fuddy-duddy, kill-joy religious types in Jesus’ day accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard? It is right there in the bible. Apparently Jesus just had a lot more fun than they thought was appropriate. But, as our choir is fond of singing, Jesus was the Lord of the Dance and with him the dance went on. He just kept honking his horn – “Shave-and-a-Haircut, Two Bits” – while the most learned and religious people of the day went on decapitating strawberries with scorn until they could nail him to a Cross.
No wonder Jesus, on the night before he is to die, prays his followers we might live differently than the ‘religious’ people of the day; that they might come to find joy in this life. Having this life/this joy, according to the Apostle John, is a sure and certain sign you have Jesus.
I believe joy is something we receive as a gift. St. Paul says it is one of the fruits of the Spirit’s life within you. Happiness comes from several sources: from special relationships (like being with your grandchildren), from enjoyable things (such as a tomato-red convertible), and from agreeable situations (perhaps relaxing on the beach while reading a good book). If you are happy and I ask you why, chances are you can tell me specifically why. Joy is different. It is more inexplicable. It just seems to well up within us, doesn’t it! And it abides through thick and thin. There will be times when grandchildren won’t go to bed, the sporty car springs a leak, and ocean winds blow sand in your eyes. But you can be a single mother of five and scarcely getting by yet still be filled with joy because joy is not necessarily dependent on what is happening at the moment.
Why do you think Jesus does not pray we might be happy, but rather prays his joy may be made complete in us? If joy is not something we work to find, but rather receive as a gift, what implications does this hold for you? Do you sense you live and move and have your being in this world filled with a sense of joy? If so, why? And if not, why not?