01 April 2018

Overcome by Joy

John 20:1-18

Resurrection of the Lord

They never expected joy.  Sadness, sorrow, sure.  Grief, yes, even fear.  Not joy.  The women didn’t go to the tomb expecting to see their Lord.  The disciples that arrived at Jesus’s tomb feeling lost, their lives, their hopes shattered, expected to encounter death.  Not joy.  The feeling catches them off guard.  It’s almost too good to be true.  But that’s what his joy often does, it catches us by surprise and it shows up in unlikely places, as in a cemetery; it erupts in moments that startle and overwhelm, that take our breath away, as we question our grip on reality.  

The New Testament is almost shouting that joy was a core experience associated with Jesus and his first followers. In Matthew’s Gospel we’re told that the Magi were “overwhelmed with joy,” when the star brought them to Bethlehem (Mt. 2:10).  Luke’s Gospel is loaded with references to joy.  Didn’t the angel say to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10)? Jesus’ ministry of healing, mercy, love, and grace generated joy in God’s people.  John’s Gospel loves to talk about the joy that Jesus brought into the world. We learn that the Father sent the Son into the world so that his “joy may be in [us] and that [our] joy may be complete” (Jn. 16:20).  Jesus promised that our “pain will be turned to joy” (Jn. 16:20).  Talking to disciples about his impending death, Jesus assured them, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22).  And speaking of the cross, the author of Hebrews makes the astonishing claim that it was “for the joy set before him that Christ endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Then on that first Easter morning, Matthew tells us that the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Mt. 28:8).  Fear and joy—at the same time.  Sometimes Easter joy can scare us.  Luke tells us that when the fearful disciples first encountered the resurrected Jesus, “they were in disbelief from joy” (Lk. 24:41)—I love this.[1] Disbelieving from joy. Sometimes Easter joy is disorienting, confusing, unsettling—even as its joyful!

The apostle Paul tells that joy is the one of the seven fruits of the Holy Spirit, (Gal. 5:22).  It's a sign that we are people of the resurrection.  Our life in God yields joy.  “For the kingdom of God,” Paul said, “is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Yes, Jesus and joy go together.

So what exactly is this joy?  First, we need to know that it’s something other than feeling happy.  It has little to do with happiness. The pursuit of happiness might be an inalienable right, but joy is something else.  Happiness is often a fleeting experience.  We might be happy with the return of spring, but Jesus-joy is different.  You see, this joy sits in us deeper than happiness.  

I remember when I first learned that the Greek word for “joy,” chara, is related to the Greek word for “grace,” charis. This connection, of charis-chara, tells us something about why we gather in worship today.  

Joy, like grace, can't be earned; it can't be pursued.

Joy, like grace, is a gift, a gift that we receive from somewhere else.  Joy, like grace, like resurrection comes toward us, it comes upon us, it overcomes us.  Joy was the originating experience of the early church.  In fact, the apostle Paul coined a new word to describe “the disciples’ rapturous first encounter with the risen Christ,” he called this experience synchairein, “shared joy.” [2]  This shared joy actually creates the church, making it “an altogether new social reality, one inaugurated by the joy of the resurrection.”[3] 

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945), the brilliant German theologian-pastor, executed by the Nazis at the age of 39 for his involvement in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, who argued that ecstatic joy is the essence of the gospel. It’s not only personal joy, but shared, it has a social dimension, it’s a vitality that is experienced and shared in the Church.  Joy, Bonhoeffer said, is a force, an “objective power” operating from outside us.  It’s an experience of the risen Lord let loose by the resurrection, permeating creation, he said, with “unheard-of energy” and what he called “turbulent impatience.”  This life, animated by the Holy Spirit, he said, “effervesces in joy!”[4]

And because this is the Lord’s joy—the Lord of life and death, the Alpha and the Omega (Rev. 22:13), the Lord who went to hell and back all for the joy that was set before him—because it's his joy, we’re confronted with the remarkable, astounding, irrational, unexplainable truth that this joy can be experienced even in pain or sorrow or anxiety or fear.  Easter joy sits underneath everything and gives us life, even in the face of death.  

This is what we declare this Sunday and every Lord's Day: there is a deeper grace, a deeper power at work in our lives and in the world stronger than pain and sorrow and fear and even death, and this is the source of our joy! 

Bonhoeffer certainly knew this.  We could even say he was a theologian of joy.  I believe that we have much to learn from him today about being faithful to the gospel, and the cost of Christian discipleship. You see, when Bonhoeffer talks about joy he’s writing from his own experience.  He’s not writing as a detached academic, but as a pastor.  In his final circular letter to his friends, written on 29 November 1942, before his arrest by the Gestapo in 1943, Bonhoeffer said, “Joy abides with God, and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body; and where this joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries one away, there it burst opens closed doors....  The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable.”  The joy of God,” he says, “looks death straight in the eye, and finds life precisely within it.” “What matters,” Bonhoeffer said, “is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals.” [5] 

And then, remarkably, Bonhoeffer’s joy was transformed after his arrest, in Tegel Prison in Berlin.  It was in the brutal conditions of that Nazi prison, while reading (once they allowed him to read) another theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), that Bonhoeffer experienced the gospel in a new way, he began to feel the resurrection as God’s “Yes and Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing!” This “rediscovery” of the gospel released a cheerful audacity in him, which he called hilaritas, hilarity.  He said it almost lept off the page at him.[6]  Now, hilaritas doesn’t mean “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”  And he didn’t mean that Christians should be happy 24/7, never depressed or sad or scared. His letters from prison tell us he was depressed and scared. Instead, hilaritas is a cheerful conviction,  it's boldness, audacity to live from joy, despite what the world says or believes.  It means living from that good and bringing good into the world.  He “discerned hilaritas shimmering and sparkling in all of humanity’s beautiful and good creations; in the triumph of grace.”[7] Then Bonhoeffer started spreading hilaritas.  In his letters from prison he encouraged his friends to “Spread hilaritas!”  And even as his interrogations intensified, Bonhoeffer was determined to spread hilaritas.  He was a pastor to the other prisoners who were scared to death, offering comfort and cheer.  He used to write little notes of comfort and hope and slipped them into the hands of fellow-prisoners.[8]  Spread hilaritas!

How does this happen?  How is this possible? How incredible, and odd, and wonderful!  But where does the capacity to live from and share such joy, even in the face of death, come from? To me, this is an extraordinary testimony to the power and truth of the gospel.  Easter joy in a prison cell, behind closed doors. Easter joy emerging from death.  Easter joy overcoming the women at the tomb.  Easter joy erupting in surprising places and people.  In you and me and countless others.  We are here to bear witness to that same joy, aren’t we?  You and I are here, together sharing joy, called as his disciples to live from it, to spread it and offer it to the world, especially today that—God knows—needs to be overcome with joy. In 1942, during the chaos of the war, Bonhoeffer asked, “How are we going to be able to help those who have become joyless and discouraged if we ourselves are not borne along by courage and joy?”[9]

This is our question too.
The world needs to know what we have.
The world needs need to have what you have.
The world needs to know what you know.
Therefore, make sure no one robs you of your rob!
Spread hilaritas.
Share the joy of God!
For Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! 

Image: Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516).

[1] This is David Bentley Hart’s rendering of Luke 24:41, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
[2] Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2014), 51-51.
[3] Marsh, 51-52. Marsh is citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essay “Joy in Early Christianity,” from 1926, a work of “truly luminous insight and astonishing promise,” says Marsh.  The essay was written in honor Bonhoffer’s teacher, the esteemed theologian and historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), for his seventy-fifth birthday.  The full text of the essay may be found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 9 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Joy in Early Christianity,” DBW, 9:148-149.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1942 Finkenwalde Circular Letter may be found here.
[6] Recounted in Marsh, 365-366.
[7] Marsh, 366.
[8] Recounted in Marsh, 383.
[9] Bonhoeffer, 1942 Finkenwalde Circular Letter