-by Beth Turner
“As Christians, we hear a lot about joy. We are, in fact, commanded to rejoice. That being the case, we cannot understand joy to be a mere feeling, because we cannot command our feelings. However, after we have grieved and known sorrow, we are commanded to return to the reality which overcomes our pain: the resurrection of Christ. He, too, grieved and knew sorrow when looking out upon the sin of the world. But he conquered these pains by rising from the dead, and gives us the gift of such rising again through repentance and baptism.
When we look around at the state of Christian disunity, we are rightly sorrowful. This sorrow is not opposed to joy, however, because it is the sorrow of the blessed. “Blessed are those who mourn” over Christian disunity. “Blessed are the pure in heart” who long for a perfect communion that they have glimpsed in friendship with other Christians, but not fully known. “Blessed are the peacemakers” who work for Christian unity in careful, painstaking dialogue and prayer. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” because their Christian brothers and sisters slander them and the sacred things dear to them. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” because they long to see God worshipped truly.
We sin against joy when we become embittered. From our sorrow, instead of heeding the call to joy, we sometimes turn instead to cynicism, mockery, and despair. We may suppose that people will never change and that unity is not possible. Our bitterness comes out of hearts that have longed for unity but no longer believe it can or will happen. It proceeds from our hearts to our lips in the form of insults about other Christians, scornful jokes about other Christians, apathy in prayer for Christian unity. The command to joy asks us to turn from our place of sorrow not to cynicism, but to the Man of Sorrows (what a name!). Rejoice that God has allowed you to taste the longing of his very own heart. Believe that your pain is blessed when you long for Christian unity, and you will have joy. Pray that what you long for may be seen in your lifetime, or in the lives of your children, or your children’s children.
Another impediment to our joy is shame. From our sorrow, we may doubt whether joy is truly appropriate in light of the circumstances. We see that people of other faiths may not understand us, or think we are strange, or awkward, or weird. We are afraid to become the butt of a joke. We are afraid to take the social risk of speaking of our joy in Christ. However, it should be the case that these social risks are not so great with our Christian brothers and sisters, and we should make space for others to share their joys and sorrows with us. By proclaiming our Christian joy to one another, we are strengthened to proclaim it to an unbaptized world.
A final obstacle to joy is our anxiety. We worry that we cannot do enough, that we will not do enough, or that God will not be pleased with our efforts to share fellowship with other Christians. As with all anxieties, we must do our best to trust our loving Father’s desire to do good to us and His power to multiply of our efforts, just as he took the meager offerings of the disciples, the loaves and the fishes, and of all the saints to make His glories known throughout the world.
In addition to the joy that comes from the sorrow of the blessed, Christian fellowship itself can be a source of joy. It is joy that can be hard to enter when worship is different from one Christian community to another. It is a joy that can be hard to achieve because we have many questions, concerns, and fears about the beliefs and practices of other Christians. It is a joy that will only be full in heaven, because what little unity we have now is a hard work, a toiling, and a fragile peace. But Christian fellowship across traditions can, itself, be a joy to us. Jesus promises that our joy will be complete when we live in unity with one another.
Dear Lord Jesus, may we rejoice that you have chosen us to sorrow over Christian disunity and toil for peace with our brothers and sisters. May we never give up hope for Christian unity, may we see it in our day, and may we pray always for the fulfillment of our longing and yours.”