Philemon 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
Matthew 28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.
As we contemplate the fruit of the Spirit, it is interesting to note what didn’t make the list: thriftiness, cleanliness, independence, seriousness, success, wealth, work ethic. Yet these are values by which we are judged by the world.
The fruit of the Spirit hold us to a different standard.
Joy is rooted in our being human and in our being created in God’s image. Joy is not the same as happiness. Frederick Buechner says that happiness is man-made, that it is something we try to make.
How often have you tried to make someone happy? Have you ever tried to cheer up a friend? Have you ever given a friend a gift that you knew would delight them? Have you ever denied your own happiness to make someone else happy? Happiness is something we can conjure with some extra thought and effort. Perhaps it is easier to make someone else happy than to make ourselves happy. But we try. How many people have found ways that provide a temporary fix? Shopping for the fun of it. Eating because it feels good. Running because it energizes us. Playing cards or hanging out with friends. Going to ball games and concerts. All of these can provide happiness, when we make the effort.
Joy, on the other hand, appears without warning. Joy is not the result of trying or doing, but of knowing, of recognizing. Joy is deeper and can appear even in times of hardship and sorrow.
As you listen to me, I want you to multitask. Let memories of your own moments of joy come to you as I share mine.
We feel joy when a child is born, even in the midst of worry and pain. We feel joy when a child accomplishes something for the first time. Let me give you an example:
My grandchildren visited me, along with their parents, for a couple days this past week. One of the traditional activities is to spend the night in a tent in our backyard. Aunt Mo had bought a new tent and she left it by the front door. Charlie unpacked the tent, carried it down the stairs to the backyard and put the entire tent up all by himself. I felt such great joy in my heart watching this not-so-little-anymore kid do something so complicated. He only paused to ask for a hammer and a glass of water. He methodically pounded all the anchors into the ground and did whatever else made it possible for him, his brother and his aunt to sleep under shelter for one night That brought me joy.
A year ago, we were in the midst of a pandemic that we didn’t understand and that frightened us in so many ways. I put together a mask-making “business” simply by asking for donations and volunteers. I ended up with 240 “business partners.” Some donated fabric, some donated time, some donated prayers, some cut or sewed—we found a dozen ways to volunteer to make sure that the people who most needed masks would be able to have them. My front porch became a workshop, my dining room became a warehouse and our Facebook page became a community. The joy that project brought to me still resonates every day. When I think back to last summer, it’s with joy that strangers came together as a community to help people they would never meet. I feel joy that I have new friends who have added so much to my life, who are still my friends today. Truly, the joy from the project that was born out of panic and fear will never leave me or, I hope, those who participated.
I am telling you these personal stories because joy is personal.
That’s one of the amazing things about God—God is not remote. God is within us.
Psalm 139 expresses this beautifully:
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If God is within us, if the Spirit is within us, then the fruit of the Spirit are within us, waiting to be recognized at the right moments.
Joy might seem contradictory to the stereotype of a Christian: serious, always concentrating on the Ten Commandments—You shall not this, you shall not that. It might seem that worship is a time to be serious, solemn. No smiling, no laughing, just concentrating. Yet think of the joy we feel when we gather together. Think of the depth of that feeling when we could see each other, even if it was only on ZOOM. And the joy of being together in person—it is electric. There is something in the air that lifts us out of the ordinary and into another realm. That is joy.
The texts I chose today, from Philemon and from Matthew, give us two different settings of joy.
In Matthew, we experience with the two Marys the joy brought about by great love and knowing that the object of that love is alive. How often have we experienced a similar joy when a loved one recovers from an illness or returns after a long absence, when we can once again embrace without fear of losing that person.
In the letter to Philemon, we would not expect to find joy. Paul is writing from prison. Roman prisons in the first century were underground, hot, and dark. The prisoners were chained together. Prisoners depended on family and friends to bring them food. Yet Paul writes: 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love.
Paul writes about the joy he feels, even in these horrid conditions. That is the thing about joy—it supersedes pain, hardship, and injustice.
Have you ever participated in a Black worship service or watched a video of one? Most evident to me, as I watch Black people worship, is the joy expressed in the music, in the praying. Frankly, I haven’t seen that kind of joy in the worship services of my experience. How is it that Black people, who leave that church to go back into a world that shows them more hate than love, how is it that they can so openly express joy? Is it the Spirit? Is it the fruit of the Spirit, embraced openly and eagerly?
We white folk do find joy in worship. I think music and singing brings us the most joy. The prelude, the hymns heighten our sense of the presence of God and the community of saints.
Jesus encourages us to see the rules of the world as secondary to the rule of God, the rule of Creation. It’s not that we are encouraged to break laws. We follow manmade laws to protect ourselves and others. Ultimately, however, we are subject to and beneficiaries of the laws of Love: Love God. Love everybody. When we love, we receive joy.
Now, let us sit quietly and dwell on our joy. When, like Mary and Mary, have you been surprised by joy? When, like Paul, have you found joy in the midst of misery? Amen.