May 29, 2011 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

We sang in the psalm today, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” We do cry out with joy. Joy, along with love and faith, is one of the principle marks of a Christian. They will know we are Christians by our love and our faith and our joy. What is this joy? It is above all hope. So St. Paul says that faith, hope, and love are what will remain in the end, but we can freely substitute joy in this group: faith, joy, and love.

If we keep hope and joy together in our minds, we will be clearer about the correct definition of each. Joy is not happiness. It is more like the desire to be happy. When we consider it as the expectation of happiness, we call it hope. When we consider it simply as the desire for happiness, we call it joy. Consider a man in prison. He remembers that there is a better world outside of the prison. Perhaps he hopes to get out someday, but, on a more basic level, even the desire to get out, without definite hope, makes his life in the prison more endurable.

So it is with us Christians. We live in this world, and we are not satisfied. If this world is all there is, why not be nihilistic or hedonistic? Pleasure is not the greatest good in this world, but it is the most immediate good. Why bother building castles in the sky to see them crumble in random tragedies? Anyone who is going to live a life greater than the animals needs some kind of joy. We can tell what a person’s joy is, we can tell what hope is in them, by their actions. What are they willing to give up; in exchange for what? Every person (who is not just floating from pleasure to pleasure doing the minimal amount of work required to achieve the next high) has joy in something.

The joy of some people is the American Dream: marry, have children, buy a nice house. They are willing to deny themselves many things, even suffer, in order to achieve this hope. While they are working too many hours for insufficient pay, it is this joy that energizes them, keeps them going. Other people, especially today, find their joy in science fiction. They have an idea that the world could be a better place, could be, in short, something more like Star Trek, so they work in science or politics to do their small part toward the perfect world they call “the future”. The joy of world peace and perfect technology motivates them to continue getting signatures on petitions or to fight through the drudgery of real scientific work.

We Christians ought not have our joy in anything except the salvation of Jesus Christ. We do many of the same things as other people, but we do them differently because our joy is different. A Christian marries and has children, but their joy, their hope, their reason for existence, is not their spouse or children. It is Jesus Christ. A Christian scientist studies the world and discovers new technologies, and a Christian politician works for world peace and justice, but their joy, their hope, their reason for existence, is not some future ideal world which may never come. It is Jesus Christ.

When we put our joy in Jesus Christ, we act differently. We are not willing to study any medical advance without asking whether it is ethical. We are not willing, for instance, to use the bodies of murdered children in scientific experiments, regardless of whether people claim that embryonic stem cells will be the most magical medicine ever. We Christians act differently. We are not willing to use birth control, sterilizations, abortions, in vitro fertilizations, or other immoral techniques to achieve what we imagine is the perfect family. We Christians act differently.

They will know we are Christians by our joy. In the first reading today, Philip converts the Samaritans. Just to clarify, Samaritan is a nationality, like Italian, so there are good Samaritans but there are also bad Samaritans. Some people think that Samaritan means a good person because of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Actually, part of the point of the parable is that the people Jesus was speaking to did not expect that a Samaritan would be good. The relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans back then was a lot like the relationship now between the Jews and the Palestinians today.

So, when Philip the Deacon preaches the Gospel to the Samaritans and baptizes them, and then the Apostles Peter and John come and confirm them, we should expect that there would be problems. Most of the Christians are Jewish. There had not been all-out war between the Jews and the Samaritans for years, but there was always fighting going on. When the Jewish Christians accept these new Christians with open arms, something strange is happening, something which demands an explanation. These people were enemies. The only explanation is that they now share the same joy in Jesus Christ, and political differences do not matter anymore.

In the second reading, St. Peter tells us that our joy should be so evident that anyone who accuses us will look foolish. If we are going to suffer for Jesus Christ, it is important that people know why we are suffering. When persecutions come, if there is a good reason to put us in jail, people will not wonder. If there is a good reason to execute us, people will not wonder. If there is a good reason to take our property, people will not wonder. The only way we are going to make people wonder is if these things happen to us and the only explanation possible is that the world hates Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Commandments are inconveniences. They often tell us to do something we do not want to do or vice-versa. The only way we are going to keep his commandments in this world, with influences pulling us in every direction, is if our joy pulls us toward Jesus Christ. Joy is desire. Our desire for Jesus should pulls us toward him, overruling whatever tries to keep us away.  

With our hope and joy firmly placed in Jesus Christ, we can love our enemies, we can be so good that our persecutors will have no reason to make us suffer except our love for Jesus Christ, and we can keep the commandments of Jesus Christ. In short, if our joy is in Jesus Christ, our lives will be so different from the rest of the world that we will stand out like blackberries in whipped cream, making people wonder about the difference. Is your life, the way you are living it right now, making people wonder?