HOMILY at the MASSES for the SIXTH SUNDAY of EASTER (B) 2018
Joy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and in the passage of S. John’s Gospel which we have just heard for today, Jesus expresses the wish that his own joy may be in his disciples and that their joy be complete. And whilst joy is sometimes confused with other things, such as happiness, it is a distinguishing mark of Christian faith. It is particularly a Paschal hallmark, a mark of Easter – stemming as it does from the experience of cross, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit.
Unfortunately, we Christians are not always very good at joy! I remember some years back coming across something which I read at the time with a mixture of pity, anger and laughter. It was all to do with the Free Church of Scotland in part of my former parish in Sutherland. And they were saying goodbye to the their minister at the time, who was leaving for new work – overseas, as it happened. They did this with a celebration at which there was music and a cake. Innocent enough, you might think – as would I. But, oh dear! The Free Presbyterian Magazine then laid in to the Free Church in a great way. The ‘instruments of the devil’ were in evidence in the shape of the bagpipes, a Free Church minister played the guitar, and the specially decorated cake had a text from the Bible upon it. All of this added up, the FP Magazine said, and I quote, “to a mixture of religious worship and worldliness…which confirms the fact that the level of spirituality within the church is far from what it ought to be.” I could scarce believe my eyes! But then I realised that this kind of po-faced piety is alas far from being a rarity in the Highlands of Scotland – though it is not only there that one may find it. But wherever one finds it, it saddens me greatly, for, to reiterate joy is a distinguishing mark of Christian faith. And joylessness is a mark of its absence.
It is, of course, very easy to trivialise joy. To turn it into a kind of effervescence, with all the substance of the fizz in tonic water. Nice while it lasts – though better when mixed with gin – but of no real substance. Joy, on the other hand, is a lasting characteristic. Robert Runcie once wrote that joy is a biblical insight which holds together opposites. This certainly distinguishes it from happiness. Happiness depends – as Aristotle argued – on neat harmonies in life. A sense of things all fitting together – the body working harmoniously in health, the bits of one’s life all-of-a-piece, relationships with others without friction. And there are these experiences for all of us. The trouble is that there are not so many of these harmonies, and where they are found they have a habit of being rather short-lived. The most enriching and fulfilling experiences for us come through situations and relationships which initially are full of tension. Where things are definitely not harmonious in any sense, and where we have to put in a lot of time and energy in the creative work of transfiguration. A transfiguration which affects both ourselves and the other element – be it a person or situation in life. A transfiguration which is profoundly life-giving and life-enhancing. And one which is very much a gift of the Spirit.
Sometimes, of course, integrity demands that there can be no coming to an accommodation with someone with whom we are at variance, or a situation with which we find ourselves in conflict. If we are truly human, of course, there will be plenty of searching of conscience about this. We shall question ourselves deeply, ask what our real motives are, and whether, ultimately, they are of God. And if we can answer ourselves that question with a “yes” – after much heart-searching – then we know that the judgement we receive from our fellow human beings is nothing in comparison with that from the one who judges truly the secrets of our hearts. With that knowledge, despite the continuing pain of disharmony around us, we can begin to experience a most profound joy and peace. It is certainly not the same thing as “happiness” and it has a great deal more to it than the fizz of tonic water.
When it comes to joy, I have discovered time and again the importance of language. Language can be, of course, a terrible barrier but when it is shared and understood, a wonderfully uniting force. When it comes to the Holy Scriptures, it is often a most terrible barrier. For they were not written in English – and however beautiful the English of the Authorised Version is, it is an even worse barrier than that of some of the more modern translations. But even they fail to capture the sense of so many of Jesus’ sayings. When he spoke about Pharisees trying to strain a gnat out of their wine and swallowing a camel instead, do you think that his hearers had solemn faces? Of course they didn’t. They would be in helpless laughter. And time and again in the Gospels it is clear that Jesus is making use of humour to emphasise the point. But there was more to it than that. He was actually saying something here about joy and certainly something about not taking oneself too seriously. To quote Robert Runcie again on this subject, somewhere else he wrote, “humour on the outskirts of faith is the best safeguard against fanatical nonsense”. I would certainly wish that the Free Presbyterian minister who wrote that dreadful diatribe against the Free Church celebrations had thought about that! But then, he wouldn’t, would he. A humourless faith is joyless. And joylessness is an absence of faith. No matter what is said.
Joy helps us to handle both laughter and tears. When Jesus criticised some people by saying that they were like children who complained we piped for you and you would not dance, we mourned and you would not lament he was saying something about this. He was saying that they were the kind of people who could neither dance nor cry because both come out of the same sensitivity. The ability to handle both laughter and tears is born of joy. We learn to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. We know when to speak, when to be silent, when to reach out a hand and when to be still.
The life which is – by God’s grace – being transfigured from the self-centred one with which we set out as a baby, to one which lets go of self and learns to love, knows the true meaning of joy. It also knows the meaning of pain. Pain won’t be less as joy increases. We carry pain because we love – as parents, or friends, or carers for someone who is sick. As Christians we do that in the knowledge that ultimately pain and suffering do not have the last word. This liberates us to love more, because in loving more we shall bear more pain. We can do this joyfully, because ours is a faith which has at its heart the greatest of all paradoxes. That of Cross and Resurrection. Ours is a paschal faith, an Easter faith, and the joy promised to Jesus’ disciples the night before his crucifixion is one which is begun here and now as we share in his victory – the victory of his risen life. It is a joy which cannot be taken from us, and which enables us both to laugh and to cry in the midst of life’s paradoxes. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, whose work is always to bring us close to the crucified and risen Christ, as sons and daughters of the Father. To whom now be ascribed, as is most justly due, all praise, honour, glory and might, and joy without end. Amen.