Today is one of the major feast days of American Civil Religion. Since we have just heard the Gospel according to John, let me also read to you a portion from the “Gospel according to Thomas Jefferson”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I don’t know about you, but my pursuit of happiness hasn’t gone all that well this year. I don’t have any real complaints—at least ones that you’d want to listen to—but my candidate lost back in May, I haven’t won the lottery, and my move to Everett has taken a whole lot more effort than I planned. It’s a good thing that Jefferson didn’t say that happiness was my unalienable right, or I’d want him to take back that declaration. As it stands, I guess I can chase it forever, because pursuit is all I’m guaranteed.
But that isn’t what Paul was talking about in his letter to the church at Philippi. He didn’t say “Don’t worry, be happy,” but rather “Don’t worry, Rejoice.” Joy, in the New Testament, is an action; it isn’t a thing.
What’s even more important, joy is the action of re - membering creation, in seeing the universe as God sees it, of participating in the world being made whole. It’s not the nice warm fuzzy emotion of happiness, but the action of participating in a new creation. As Paul puts it elsewhere, God is in Christ, reconciling the universe to Godself. And that is JOY.
And Paul pounds on this action. He rings the changes on “joy” in this passage. So how do we get to this action of new creation? Last Sunday, Mother Sara explored one of my favorite phrases: basileia tou theou—the reign of God. Now, that phrase almost makes me happy all by itself.
After the last eighteen months, I am so happy (sorry, President Jefferson) that my core identity, my political allegiance, my citizenship is in God’s Kingdom (even though I have lots of work to do in this republic).
That relationship to the Kingdom is key to joy, so much so, that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament “joy” occurs almost entirely in two contexts, and the first and most important of these is Joy in the presence of the king. And Paul, being a good student of the Old Testament keeps joy and the king together: “Rejoice in the Lord.” Our joy comes when we are in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ; our joy is a result of living in the reign of God.
The Gospel reading this morning ended with “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” Jesus speaks in anticipation of a great feast, and that’s probably why that Gospel passage appointed for today.
It fits with what Paul is about, for that’s the second place for joy in the Old Testament: We are joyful at feasts, and particularly at the party that God throws when the people of God all come home to the great thanksgiving dinner in the new Jerusalem.
You see, that banquet is where Paul locates his “Rejoice in the Lord”: The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil. 4:5-6)
It’s hidden in English, but “thanksgiving” and “rejoice” were the same word when Paul wrote them. Today we are at the great feast, the great thanksgiving, or to use Paul’s own word, today we are at the eucharist. Today we are at the “extra-joyfulling.” The Talmud tells us The meal is part of the festival. There is no joy without eating and drinking. It is a duty to rejoice; it is a duty [of the host] to gladden members of the family at the feast. And how does one make them joyful? With bread and with wine. (Kittel, TDNT IX:364)
Here is bread. Here is wine. Here is the King, and here is joy. Let the Peace of God which passes all understanding make you joyous. Come to the great thanksgiving dinner, set on this table. Come, join in the appetizer course of the feast of all eternity.
Come, Enjoy. Rejoice.