May 9, 2021

John 15:9-17

“The Source of our Joy”

I’ve noticed that as the Covid-19 Pandemic has dragged on and on, the usual greetings we exchange when we meet each other have changed somewhat. Of course, they’ve changed in that they don’t include handshakes or hugs. We stand at a distance as we say hello. We wave or we nod, or we try to smile with our eyes.

But many of our greetings are shared online these days as well. Our little Zoom boxes appear on our screens, we smile and say, “How are you?” And most of the time, the answer is not, “Fine, thank you” or “I’m great! How are you?” It’s most often something like, “Ummm… I’m okay, I guess.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the idea that many people are languishing, and some are really struggling with depression. If that sounds like you right now, please do reach out for help so that you can get the support and mental health care that you need.

In a way, it feels odd to be preaching about joy in this context. I mean, I remember what joy feels like, and I’m hopeful that there will be some more joy in the future. But joy just doesn’t seem very realistic for right now, and would it even be appropriate for us to be joyful in these times when so many people around the world are sick and dying?

But in the Gospel text today, Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that joy is what he wants for them. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus’ goal for them is joy, and he wants them to know how their lives may be filled up with joy.

No, the disciples who first walked with Jesus weren’t experiencing the trauma of a global pandemic, but we should remember that they were about to go through some pretty tough times. Jesus is saying these things to them on the evening of the Last Supper, after they’ve finished the meal and Jesus has washed their feet and told them to do the same for one another.

Within a few hours, Jesus will be arrested. He’ll be tried, tortured, and be killed by the next afternoon. And although his friends won’t suffer the same fate yet, their lives will be in turmoil for a while. And even as they get their heads around the idea that God has raised Jesus from death and perhaps begin to experience some gladness, their daily lives will continue to be filled with anxiety, fear, and persecution as they try to follow Jesus’ ways in a hostile world.

The early Christian community that first read the Gospel of John around the end of the first century wasn’t in much better shape than those who had come before them. John’s church was made up of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and then been kicked out of the synagogue. They also were suffering from persecution, but as they read this text, they would have been assured that Jesus’ intention for the first disciples, for them, and for us was complete joy.

If you’ve been in the Presbyterian Church for a long time, you may have learned or even memorized the Shorter Catechism when you were young. You likely don’t remember all the questions and answers that summarized basic Christian teaching, but many Presbyterians remember at least the first question and answer.

“What is the chief end of man?” You can tell that it was written a long time ago, and updated it would be “What is the chief end of human people?”

The answer is “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Notice the joy in there? The joy clearly comes from God, from knowing God and being in relationship with God. And the joy comes from living in ways that honour God. Our chief end, our main purpose, is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

And in our text today, Jesus gives his disciples an idea of how they can fulfill they purpose and experience that joy. He say to them, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Now, we already heard a lot about that idea of abiding in Jesus’ love last Sunday when we read the passage just before this one.

Jesus teaches that he is like the vine and we are like the branches. As we stay connected to him through prayer, and worship, and listening for his voice we are nourished by his love and empowered to produce abundant good fruit.

Last week I said that love flows into our hearts from God through Jesus Christ, and love flows out from us to bless the world. The first “fruit of the Spirit” named in Galatians 5:22 is love, and the second one is joy.

I do think that for many people, joy is a significant goal in life. It makes me think of that phrase from the U.S. Declaration of Independence – that all people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Most people are probably looking for happiness or joy in life, but unfortunately, we are often looking in the wrong places.

An old-fashioned sermon likely would have moved at this point into warnings against the sins and vices that people engage in as they seek pleasure and happiness. You know, things like drugs and alcohol, casual sex, gambling, or even gluttony. But even if we stay well away from those addictive, self-destructive, and relationship-wounding habits, we may yet be looking for joy in the wrong places.

I’m thinking of the way that we so often expect a rush of happiness when a package arrives for us in the mail, when we buy a new outfit that makes us look great, when we get our home set up just the way we like it, or purchase a new device with the latest technological wonders.

I’m thinking of the simple fact that our happiness is so closely associated with how well things are going for us – whether we have a dream job, our hoped-for family and friends, good health, opportunities to travel, or success in our endeavours.

Jesus does not promise his disciples health, wealth, or all their dreams to come true. In fact, he promises that if they take up their crosses and follow him, they’ll experience all the weight, risk, and pain that he endured for the sake of his mission of love. But in today’s passage, he also promises them joy. Complete joy.

What should they do to get that joy? Jesus says that they should keep his commandments and abide in his love. Abide in the vine, as he said before, letting the love of God flow in, and letting the love of God flow out to others. As we live out those commandments of love, that’s when the fruit of the Spirit will grow – including abundant joy.

I told the story this week (both in our newsletter, “First Things First” and on the webpage of The Presbyterian Church in Canada) about my experience of receiving my first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. As many of you know, I was surprised by how much emotion I felt at receiving that gift. I described it as relief, gratitude, and a sense of privilege. I definitely felt happy about getting vaccinated. But my joy grew exponentially when I discovered an opportunity to express my gratitude with a gift.

Nick and I participated in the “Love My Neighbour” project – a Canadian interfaith initiative towards vaccine equity that encourages people who have received vaccinations in Canada to give the gift of a vaccine to someone in the developing world where access is severely limited. A gift of $25 is enough to fully vaccinate one person, and it was when we decided to fund vaccinations for 10 people each that I really felt the joy.

I think that complete joy that Jesus is talking about doesn’t come from the particular circumstances of our lives, but it flows from our experiences of participating with Jesus in enacting love in the world. Getting a vaccine felt good, but giving vaccines felt so much better.

A little later in the farewell discourse, Jesus compares the joy to childbirth, which seems like a very appropriate example to share on this Mother’s Day. Jesus says, “When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

The SALT Lectionary Commentary declares that Jesus’ mission is for the sake of joy, but not just any joy. “Think of it, [Jesus] says, like the joy of a new mother, strong and creative, exhausted and exultant, a joy that is no stranger to anguish, and above all the joy of having brought new life into the world. From this angle, we may put the poetry this way: every Christian disciple is a mother or a midwife!”

Think about the times in your life when you have experienced that kind of joy. Perhaps at the birth of a child, or later as you watch that child (in whom you have invested your time, attention, resources, and care) as you watch them grow and flourish.

Remember your experiences of giving yourself wholeheartedly to assist another person, or to show love for someone who was struggling, or to carry out a project that made a difference in the world – whether it was a church mission, a community initiative, some part of your vocation or work, or your own creative offering of your gifts for the sake of others. When you give yourself in love, when you live by the commandments of love, that’s when your joy fill right up!

When we greet one another in these days, we will likely continue to ask, “How are you?” And it’s alright to admit it when we’re doing better than okay, when we are actually experiencing the joy that is God’s intention for every one of us. But let’s not be fooled into thinking we’ve found joy because we avoided getting sick, or received a vaccination, or didn’t lose our jobs, or appreciated the extra time with our families.

Those things are nice, and I’m happy to know that many of us are doing pretty well despite the crisis happening in our world. But the true joy grows from our abiding in the love of God, living by the commandments of love, and participating in the difficult, sacrificial, often painful work that God has for us to do in this world.

That’s why Jesus could tell his disciples that he was going to die, and they were all going to suffer, but their joy would be complete. That’s why John the Apostle could tell the persecuted Christians in his community that the fullness of joy would be theirs also.

Because Jesus had chosen them, and Jesus has chosen us also. He hasn’t chosen us to be his servants, slavishly obeying God’s difficult and burdensome commands. But he has chosen us to be his friends, enjoying an intimate connection of love and companionship, walking together through the good times and the difficult times of life, listening together for God’s voice and God’s will, and learning together how to do works of love for the sake of joy.

Friends, may you abide in Jesus’ love, live out his commandments of love, and may your joy be full – today and in the days ahead.