How do you make time for renewal and re-creation? Do you go for a walk? Bake a cake? Garden? Watch television? Go tinker in the garage? Browse the web or facebook? Sit down with a good book? Have a glass of wine?
A favorite author of mine, Lauren Winner, explains in her book, Girl Meets God, how she was using her spare time. One year when Ash Wednesday rolled around, Lauren decided that she wanted to give to God her love of food. She was determined to spend time fasting during Lent. Except her priest challenged her. He asked her to instead give up reading for all of Lent. And you might be thinking, why would a priest ask a parishioner to give up reading? It’s good for you! Except Lauren loved to read. So much so that she had 3,000 books crammed into her graduate student apartment. When her priest suggested she move the books out of the apartment so she wouldn’t be tempted, she simply laughed. But what happened to Lauren during those 40 days was pretty interesting. She found that the times when she wanted to relax, or needed some comfort, she would turn to her favorite activity: read a good book. And now that she couldn’t do that, she turned to God in prayer when she needed comfort. She realized she wasn’t spending nearly enough time with God in prayer. And that reading- albeit a very healthy practice- was actually keeping her from having a more intimate relationship with God.
Sometimes our beloved hobbies keep us from sitting with our real feelings. They keep us from delving into a deeper relationship with Christ. And when we strip away the activities we love, and we find ourselves with one of those quiet moments, how do we feel? What do we notice in our hearts? Do we find loneliness? Do we find sorrow? I hope the one feeling that we will all find, when we slow down long enough, is a sense of joy.
In the gospel today Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
What is joy? And for that matter, what does it mean to have joy dwelling within us? The English language tends to intertwine words like joy, happiness, pleasure, and bliss as one word with the same meaning. But they have different meanings. They have different realities. When we experience happiness, a good feeling bubbles up unexpectedly, usually brought on by some external event. It’s often noticeable by others-- a smile, a laugh, a pleasant disposition. Happiness though is a mood, and it can come as quickly as it can go.
Joy is a completely different matter. When we experience joy, we have a delightful happiness. Yet this delightful happiness comes from within. Joy is something constant. Joy is a way of being, a way of living. I like to think about joy as a rock at the center of our being. A rock, keeping us firmly grounded so we don’t drift away during times of great sorrow and pain. And yet there are others times, when joy is a rock preparing to explode within us. Sort of like when the Grinch’s heart triples in size. We literally can’t help but spread that goodness to those around us. Joy is something you can see in another person’s eyes, the gateway to their soul. And we know from today’s gospel that the joy that we have experienced, comes from following Christ. When we choose to follow Jesus, to be baptized into this new life, Christ’s joy abides in us. Christ’s joy dwells within us.
Henri Nouwen once said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” We wake up each day with the chance to follow Christ. And when we follow Christ, we will experience that joy. I’ve yet to meet someone who truly gave their life over to God and didn’t experience that radically, life changing joy. Because joy isn’t a simple happiness, of things going the way we want. Joy is Christ dwelling within us. Joy is that feeling of wholeness that we experience as we receive the bread and the wine at communion. No matter how badly things are going, no one can take away the joy that Christ gives us. And we wake up each day with the chance to choose that joy when we choose to follow Christ.
There is a prayer that I say regularly for my children. That God might continue to keep them safe, healthy, and full of the joy that comes from knowing Christ. And today that is my prayer for all of you. When the joy of Christ dwells within us, we’re going to be okay. Even if we’re not safe from harm, even if we’re not healthy. The joy of knowing Christ will guide us, it will carry us. And once we’ve experienced that kind of radical, life changing joy, we can’t keep it to ourselves. We must share it. In fact Jesus commands us to share this joy. To love one another as he has loved us.
Each of us has the power to help someone else’s life be forever changed by joy of Christ. We live in a hurting world, a world where there is so much danger, there is so much hurt, there is so much darkness and emptiness. We are called to share this joy, to share this light that dwells within us. The question is how will we share this joy. It goes back to evangelism. How do we spread the Good News of Christ?
A friend of mine is a missionary on a college campus. He’s a young man, working in a more evangelical tradition. And most of the ministry he does is through small group ministries and one on one conversations. But occasionally, they do what he describes as, “Cold Turkey Evangelism”. They ask people if they know Christ. It’s actually pretty hard work, and it’s not meant for everyone. But there are people that can do cold turkey evangelism, and it works, it changes lives.
On the other side of the spectrum is lifestyle evangelism. As Lauren Winner puts it in Girl Meets God, “Being a lifestyle-evangelist doesn’t require handing out tracts; it just requires living a good, God-fearing, Gospel exuding life. I like to assume that most people know I am a Christian and when they see that I am sometimes joyful and sometimes peaceful when they are not, they will want to know my secret.”
I think that many Episcopalians would consider themselves Lifestyle Evangelists. We are a tradition that likes to respect people’s beliefs and allow others enough space to come to their own conclusions. We truly seek to live our lives in such a way that those who don’t know God, can come to know God through us. And when we are in touch with the joy we experience from knowing Christ, I believe others will meet God in us.
As we go about our lives, there will be times when the Holy Spirit will call us to spread this good news to others. Often in a way that might surprises us. May we embrace those unexpected moments, and risk the transformation that is possible within each of us and our neighbor, when we share the joy of Christ dwelling within us.
Let us pray: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding. Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.