Sermon text: 1 John 1:1:-2:2 and John 20: 19-31
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about joy. There’s two lines of scripture that really caught my eye in this week’s readings, and both of them have to do with joy.
The first is from 1 John. John writes, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” The second verse is from the John’s Gospel. It says, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” So, let’s talk about joy.
“To miss joy is to miss all.” That’s a great quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author of Treasure Island. I find that to be interesting. To miss joy is to miss all. That means that no matter what we possess, no matter what we experience, no matter how we act, no matter where we live—if we miss out on joy then we have missed out on it all.
Joy is one of those words that’s also really hard to pinpoint. It’s an ambiguous word that is used frequently but defined sparingly. What exactly is joy? Webster’s says that it is:
- The emotion evoked by well-being, success, good fortune, or the prospect of possessing what one desires: Delight
- A state of happiness or felicity: Bliss
- A source or cause for delight
I find those definitions to be interesting and true. However, the definitions for joy sounds awfully similar to happiness, don’t they? In fact, let’s go back to Webster’s to see how they define happiness.
Webster’s says that happiness is:
- A state of well-being and contentment: Joy
- A pleasurable or satisfying experience
- Felicity, aptness
Basically, the dictionary is labeling these two words as synonyms. But both the Gospel of John and the epistle of 1 John talk of joy, not happiness. So what’s the difference? And why, as followers of Christ in this Easter season, should we care about joy?
As I’ve been ruminating on joy this week, I’ve had a philosophical thought or two, but I’ve also done some field research. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, despite the fact that joy is a feeling that ranks close to the top in the hierarchy of emotions, it is also the least studied. Psychologists and philosophers don’t bother with it; religious scholars mention it in passing; even Wikipedia, which is the online encyclopedia with entries of EVERYTHING, redirects you to an article on happiness instead of an article on joy.
I find that fascinating, especially when you consider that the disciples experienced the emotion of joy when they saw Jesus raised from the dead on Easter. Joy is the emotion that the community of Christ experienced when it shared the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection with others. Joy is the emotional substance of the good life, and yet we can’t even get a good working definition.
I guess part of the problem is the definition. Defining joy as a “state of well-being or contentment” is like defining chocolate as a brown food substance, and forgetting all about how chocolate melts in your mouth, and the aroma that instantly surrounds you, and the taste, which is so excellent on its own, ask my chocolate Easter bunny, but is often enhanced with salt or caramel or fruit…
What are some of the smells and flavors of joy? How have you experienced joy? What moments of life do you think of when you think of joy?
I’ve been hearing a lot of joy in the past weeks as I’ve been listening to people. I hear joy when people talk about the birth of a child and holding them in your arms or bringing home the new family puppy. I heard stories of joy with grandparents getting to visit and hug their grandchildren or meeting together with close friends for the first time in a year. Joy is expressed when we share something with other people and everybody benefits. Joy when long hoped for dreams come true.
On Tuesday afternoon as I was completing my fifteen-minute-after-vaccine-observation-period I was filled with quiet joy and thankfulness about what had just happened. Sure, I got my jab, but I was also filled with joy at all of the people who were working and volunteering to make people safe, and for the people of the Jaffa Mosque who were coordinating and executing this seemingly flawless clinic. Across the room from me I spotted a young woman wiping tears out of her eyes as she sat in recovery…and I don’t think they were tears of pain, I think they were tears of relief and joy.
In our gospel we see how the disciples are filled with joy when Jesus shows up three days after he had been put to death on a cross. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearful for their own safety. And Jesus, the risen Lord, walks right into their midst, and immediately the disciples rejoice. Their joy was renewed as they encountered Jesus.
Later, Thomas squashes this joy because he was not present. He did not share in the encounter with Christ. He did not experience the same emotions. But a week later, Jesus shows up again and the disciples’ joy is made complete as everyone in their circle experiences the presence of the risen Christ.
The same is true for the writers of 1 John. They write this letter to share the good news of Jesus Christ to their church community. They are writing to share what they have heard, what they have seen, what they have touched with their own hands—that is the good news of God and Jesus Christ. They write this letter so that everyone can share in the fellowship of God, because they know that when everyone shares in this one fellowship, then their joy will be made complete. When everyone belongs, there is joy.
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Joy is a response to having been united with what we love.”
As Christians, joy, in its purest form, is experienced when we are united to Jesus Christ: when we worship him, when we meet him in unexpected places, when we share in his ministry, and when we spread the good news of Christ with others.
Joy is the emotion we share when we hear of the empty tomb. Joy is the emotion we feel when we know God watches over us in the same way that he watched over Jesus. Joy is what we experience when we live and worship together in communion. Our body’s react with joy when we share this wonderful news of Jesus Christ with a friend, and that friend accepts an invitation to join us in worship.
This joy that we have transcends happiness. It transcends sorrow and suffering. It is the foundation of the good life.
And it is with joy that we can shout:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!