Preached at Croydon Minster on the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide: Gospel reading John 15.9-17
‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…I have said these things to you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.’ (John 11.10a,11)
There are some things that go really well together. For example, ‘Love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage’, as the old song puts it.
And some things just don’t: chalk and cheese, being an obvious one.
There are two words in today’s gospel reading that seem to be more in the ‘chalk and cheese’ category and they are ‘joy’ and ‘commandment’:
I have said these things to you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. (John 11.11)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. (John 15.10a)
Joy. That little word sounds so spontaneous, free, uncomplicated, fun.
Commandment. That longer word sounds stifling, dutiful, heavy, dull.
Joy and commandment sound at odds, yet Jesus weaves them together and brings them into close proximity.
They are not poles apart, but are twin poles that, held together, enable us to share in the life of the Father and to bear fruit.
This is recognised and articulated in one of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Church which says,
It is indeed right,
it is our duty and our joy,
at all times and in all places
to give you thanks and praise,
holy Father, heavenly King,
almighty and eternal God,
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
Sometimes people think the Old Testament is all about commandments and the New Testament all about joy.
There certainly are plenty of commandments in the Old Testament, but there are commandments in the New Testament too: ‘I give you a New Commandment’ says Jesus, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15.12) and ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22.19; 1 Corinthians 11.24, 25): that’s a command!
And the Old Testament ‘does’ joy too. In the psalms for example ‘You show me the path of life. In your presence is the fullness of joy: in your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalm 16.11) and in the prophet Isaiah, ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12.3). Psalm 98 sung today is a psalm infused with joy, people breaking into music making and singing, and the whole creation sounding out with joy filled praise.
So how do joy and commandment sit together, given that both belong to the Christian life?
First, let’s acknowledge that ‘joy’ can be problematic for some: it can sound vacuous and vapid or bland and naïve, glossing over pain. Christian tradition and experience show, in a deep and sustained way, that joy can bubble up even in some of the darkest times. Joy is profoundly life-giving, directing our sight towards hope and trust in God to navigate through pain.
There is a proper ordering of joy and commandment, and that is through love: ‘I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another’ (John 15.17).
Love it is that frames joy and commandment and holds them together.
Joy-without-love is self-satisfaction, self-amusement, self-gratification; joy-with-love is generous, infectious and life-giving to self and others.
Commandment-without-love is harsh and unbending; commandment-with-love gives shape, purpose and endurance to bring abundance of life.
Love without joy will run out of steam; love without commandment will collapse.
So then, may we be people of joy, shaped by life-giving commandments and journey deeper into the love that brings us together with Christ in the communion of Our Father and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.