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The Beauty of Pentecost – Collective Joy

Reflections from Dr. Howell

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate Holy Communion – via computer. Get your bread and grape juice or wine organized ahead of time so we can share in our Lord’s table together – virtually, which is precisely as together as we are with Jesus and the disciples over there and back then. At that Last Supper, Jesus mystically said, “I have told you these things that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). This on the heels of saying he is the vine and we’re his branches, and right before a long dissertation about love.

You can’t be a branch alone, or if you’re alone you’re dead. You can’t love alone, there must be others. How interesting then when I stumbled upon my morning Scripture reading recently in Deuteronomy 12. Moses, exceedingly old, days before dying, perched on towering Mt. Nebo looking over into the promised land, invites the Israelites into a life of obedience to God and faithful living in the land – and he keeps bringing up joy. Not happiness, or a good mood, or a chipper disposition, but joy, which runs deep, and rears its head most noticeably when times are rough.

Joy is a settled trust in God despite the facts, a hopeful rest in the thick of trouble. As you know, I rely much these days on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Noticing Moses’ surprising emphasis on joy, he points out that the Hebrew word, simcha, does not mean a private emotion. “It means joy shared. It is a social state, a predicate of ‘we,’ not ‘I.’ There is no such thing as feeling simcha alone.” He goes on to explain how simcha being for y’all, not just you, works: it is “deeply moral. It is social inclusion. No one was to be left out.” Fascinating: you might try to work up joy in your head or heart, but the Hebrews knew it was something that only happened among people, together.

And all the people. Missing joy? Ask the question: who’s left out? Who’s not joyful? I think about the old axiom that you are never happier than your unhappiest child. Frederick Buechner, ruminating on turning 80, suggested that if you apply this to grandchildren or great grandchildren, it’s recipe for sorrow. The theological question for Jews, and those who are grafted onto the vine that is Jesus, is: who’s not included?

Weirdly, we think work for the poor, or advocacy for those treated unjustly, is an option in the Christian life. Someone in the church should do this! Or not… And yet God has so wired us and the world that you’re never free and joyful until the others are being brought along, and until you share in that work of bringing them along. Martin Luther King said “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be; you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” This is the moral dimension to joy. Simcha isn’t a feeling you can relish in the seclusion of your nice home, or in the inner circle of people like you. Simcha is God’s gift that realizes itself in y’all when we join in God’s moral work of including everyone.

Melissa Thompson, in The Me Disease, speaks of the joy in making the “me2WE” shift, moving from being fixated on me to us, recalling that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that his people would be “one” (John 17:21). Joy happens, not in me, but among us, as I discover the image of God in me when I discover it in you, and in the others who aren’t yet included in us. Joy is collective, joy is moral, joy is inclusive or it’s not joy at all. Simcha.

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