This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
Several years ago a German researcher studied a thousand churches of every size and denomination all over the world. His goal was to identify the essential qualities of healthy, effective churches. He came up with eight. Some of them you would expect—inspiring worship, relevant teaching, small groups, etc. But one of the surprising discoveries was that healthy, effective churches were characterized by joy. Members of these churches described going to church as "an enjoyable experience," and nearly 70% agreed with the statement: "There is a lot of laughter in our church."
I was speaking to a visitor in the lobby last Sunday. By her own admission, she was kind of surprised to have found herself here, but what surprised her even more was how much she liked it. Taking in the activity and people around her, and reflecting on the service, she said, "I really didn't expect to enjoy it so much. You know, it's church."
Now I'm sure we'd all agree there's more to church than having a few laughs and enjoying ourselves, but it turns out that joy is one of the primary things people are looking for in life, and one of the primary characteristics of a healthy, effective church.
I'd like you to pause and think of a moment in life when you've experienced real joy. And I'd like you to think of something besides When the Sox won the World Series! We're talking about joy—a moment of deep gladness, an inner sense of well-being, an experience of sheer delight. It could be something major or ordinary, recent or from the distant past. Let your imagination take you to that moment. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? Who were you with? And where did the joy come from?
That's the question we'd like to explore this morning: Where does joy come from? How can we become a community of joy? How can each of us experience more joy, not just at church, but in all arenas of life?
Let's begin with our key text for this series: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Where is the joy?
As we discovered last week, these qualities aren't just personal attributes, they're communal attributes. Paul wasn't writing to individuals, but to the church in Galatia, reminding them and us that when Christ lives his life through us, his Spirit produces these qualities, both individually and corporately.
That communal aspect is pretty obvious when it comes to the first fruit in the list: love. We defined love as acting in the interest of others, no matter who they are, how we feel, or what it costs. We said that love could be as profound as laying down your life for someone, or as simple as making them lunch. There's no question that love is a relational quality. And the same is true for the other virtues in the list: peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Except for maybe the last one, every one of them requires another person—someone to be patient with or kind toward or faithful to. But joy is a more private experience, isn't it? More internal, more subjective. Does joy really require other people?
Let's think about what joy is. The English word refers to "a condition or feeling of great pleasure or happiness." That's a good start. Joy often includes pleasure and happiness, but the word "great" suggests something more. Happiness has to do with circumstances—it's a sunny day, you got a raise, we won the game. Pleasure has to do with sensation—your first sip of coffee, a runner's high, a tender kiss. Joy is somehow deeper, higher, and truer than happiness or pleasure. The Greek word most often translated as joy adds the nuance of well-being, making it an inner quality. Joy is hard to pin down, but we know it when we see it, and we know it when we feel it.
Where does joy come from, and what does it have to do with community? Psychologists and neuroscientists have done all kinds of research into the anatomy of joy. They've mapped the pleasure centers in the brain; they've isolated "joy genes" in our DNA; they've identified the chemicals that stimulate pleasurable feelings; they've studied identical twins in order to explore environmental factors. I read one bit of research that actually involved tickling rats in order to understand the physiology of laughter. (Can a rat laugh?) There's something to be learned from all these disciplines—there are physiological factors, psychological forces, and environmental influences that affect a person's happiness. But the bottom line is that there's still a mystery about where joy comes from.
Scientists know where it doesn't come from. Numerous studies over many years have determined that joy is not linked to circumstances. Money, success, status, age, gender, ethnicity, even physical health doesn't have any significant correlation to joy. What it is linked to, most often, is relationships. Research has discovered that experiences of joy almost always involve a real or perceived relationship with someone or something. A team of psychologists from UCLA put it this way: "Joy springs from connection and communion between the joyous and another person, object, or idea." Those are their words—connection and communion. In other words, joy isn't something we attain or produce, it's something we receive.
Have you seen the bumper stickers around that read simply, "Joy Happens"? It's a nice thought, and there is something serendipitous about joy, but that message isn't quite accurate. Research and experience suggest that joy flows. It springs from somewhere and flows into our lives through some relational channel. Think of it this way: a light bulb has within it all the necessary wiring to light up, but the bulb has to be connected to some external source of power to actually produce light. In the same way, we are wired to experience joy, but some kind of connection is required for that joy to come to life.
It makes prefect sense when you think about it—this link between joy and relationships. Think about what most people consider the most joy-filled experiences in life—a wedding, the birth of a child, a family reunion, a party. What do all those experiences have in common—other people! And what do we typically say about events like that: the more the merrier! Because each person represents yet another channel through whom joy might flow into and out of our lives.
Think back to that moment of joy I asked you to remember. Bring it back to your imagination, and recreate the moment. My guess is that no matter where you are or what you're doing, there are other people there. If someone's not there, my guess is as soon as you had the chance, you told someone about that experience. If you ignored my instructions and are remembering the night the Red Sox won the series, my guess is you're watching it with someone!
Experiences of joy almost never happen alone; they almost always involve another person, directly or indirectly, and it's the connection between you that allows joy to flow.
Back to Galatians
What does all this have to do with Galatians 5:22? First of all, real joy comes from God. Remember, joy doesn't just happen; it flows from a source, and that source is God himself. When we stay connected to the vine, which is Christ, his Spirit flows freely into our lives and produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, and the rest. This means that when we do find ourselves alone, when we have no human being to whom we can turn, the Lord himself is our joy.
The second thing we learn from Galatians 5:22 is that our relationships with one another are the primary channels through which that joy flows. This is a community passage. Paul's talking to the church here, not to isolated believers. He's reminding the church that joy—like love and patience and gentleness—is a relational quality, and that when relationships aren't healthy, joy can't flow.
In Galatians 4:13, we get a little background into Paul's relationship to the churches in Galatia: "As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself." We don't know what Paul's illness was. There are indications in this letter and others that it could have been a problem with his eyes. It could be that this illness caused him to spend more time in Galatia than he had intended. In any case, it seems the believers there welcomed Paul in spite of his health issues and even ministered to him through the experience. But now listen to what he says next, in verses 15-16: "What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?"
Paul and the Galatian believers had a falling out over a doctrinal issue. Remember that Paul was the founding pastor of these churches, and during that time they were so close they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him if they could have. But now something has come between them, and their joy had vanished. "What happened to all your joy?" What happened was that an important relationship had been damaged, and the joy was gone. It seems that joy and relationships go hand in hand.
Parents understand this dynamic. It's difficult to be joyful when one of your children is struggling or suffering, isn't it? Sure, you can laugh at jokes and go to parties and watch a funny movie, but joy eludes you, because someone you love deeply is hurting or distant. Husbands and wives understand this connection. If Karen and I are at odds with each other over something, it's hard for me to enjoy anything; it just doesn't feel right. It's true professionally. Whether or not you enjoy your job depends in large part on whether or not you enjoy the people you work with. And what's true at home and in the workplace is most certainly true in the church. When we are connected to God and each other by the Holy Spirit, joy flows into and out of our lives. And the stronger the connections, the more easily it flows. And the more connections we have, the greater our experiences of joy.
What made Jesus smile?
Is this how it worked for Jesus, too? He was filled with the Holy Spirit from the very beginning of his ministry. Did he need other relationships, too, to experience joy?
Years ago someone challenged me to preach a sermon on the subject "What made Jesus smile?" The question was so intriguing to me I took him up on it. It was a challenge of course, because the gospels never tell us specifically that Jesus smiled; we have to infer it from the texts with our sanctified imaginations. But there is one time in the gospels when we're told that Jesus was "filled with joy." It's found in Luke 10: "After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go" (verse 1). Jesus is expanding the circle here beyond the 12 disciples, so he deputizes 72 of his followers to go out and minister in his name. Verse 9 tells us what they were authorized to do: "Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.'" They can heal, and they can preach. Remember that these are not religious professionals; they've never been to seminary; they're not "licensed" to preach. They're most likely peasants, with a few bureaucrats and outcasts mixed in, no doubt. But Paul sends them out for days, at least, if not weeks, to heal and preach.
Then look what happens in verse 17: "the seventy-two returned with joy and said, 'Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.'" They're so excited! And no wonder—when they prayed, people were healed; when they preached, people came to faith; when they faced off with demons, people were delivered. But it gets better.
Look at verse 21: "At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.'" That expression, "full of joy," isn't the usual Greek word for joy. This expression describes an outburst of happiness; this is a put-your-head back, laugh-out-loud kind of joy. Exultation is the closest English word we have. Now, we're told specifically it was the Holy Spirit who produced that explosion of joy. This kind of joy flows from God, but notice what, or who, precipitated that joy.
It was these followers, returning from their first ministry tour flush with success, who filled Jesus with joy. It was the sheer delight of seeing them grow right before his eyes. They weren't just hearing about the kingdom, they were experiencing it! They were becoming the men and women they were created to be, discovering and fulfilling God's good purpose for their lives. Jesus had invested months and years into these followers—explaining God's Word to them, putting up with their goofball answers, praying for them sometimes all night long. And on this day, as he listened to their stories, as he beheld the look of wonder on their faces, as he sensed them awakening to their identity as servants of the Most High God, he put his head back and laughed out loud for the sheer joy of it. He shot his arms in the air and shouted praises to his Heavenly Father. Seeing his followers grow, seeing them "get it," filled Jesus with joy.
You know what I discovered as I went through the gospels looking for what made Jesus smile? People made Jesus smile. When a pint-sized tax collector wanted to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree just to see over people's heads, Jesus said, "Zacchaeus, I want to have dinner with you." When a Roman soldier understood authority said to Jesus, "You don't need to come to my ill servant's bed side—just say the word, and he'll be healed," Jesus marveled at the man's faith. When a Gentile woman, who had no business bothering a rabbi, had such love for her sick daughter and such confidence in Jesus to heal her, Jesus replied, "You have great faith. Go, your daughter is well." And then, of course, there were the twelve—men with whom he shared three years of his life, men who messed up as often as they got it right, but men he came to call "friends." On his final night with these men, Jesus looked at them across the dinner table and said, "I want my joy to be in you, and your joy to be complete, so I give you this command: love one another." There it is, in the mouth of Jesus, the connection between love and joy.
It was people who made Jesus smile—people coming to faith; people growing in faith; people living by faith. Jesus took such delight in the spiritual growth of people around him that encounters like these became occasions for the Spirit to produce joy like a fountain in him. He wants that same joy to be in us, as well—the joy of being rightly related to God and to one another; the delight of watching God's work unfold in one another's lives; the satisfaction of helping each other become the Christ-like men and women we were created to be.
Let's look at our artwork for joy. It's a photograph called "Joy," created by Shannon Culpepper. Notice the smiles on their faces; the laughter in their eyes. If joy is "a condition of deep happiness or pleasure," as the dictionary suggests, this scene is all about that. But there's something about this photograph that takes us beyond mere happiness or pleasure. There's a connection between father and son. Shannon has captured a moment of sheer delight shared by these two—the son reveling in his father's encouragement and the father bursting with pride at his son's newfound skill. There's something welling up inside each one of them, flowing into each other and even out of the photo into our imaginations, and that something is joy. If you were to take either one of them out of the picture, you would have to change the title of the work. You could call it "Happiness," but it would fall short of "Joy," because "joy springs from connection and communion between the joyous and another." Joy is a one-another experience.
Every father, mother, aunt, uncle, coach, teacher, friend, and mentor knows the joy that this father is experiencing—the joy of seeing someone you love grow right before your eyes, being there as they make a discovery, or master a skill, conquer a fear, or become more like Jesus Christ. This kind of joy doesn't happen—it flows! It flows when we open our lives up to God's Spirit; when we let him lead us into deep and honest connections with others, and when we begin to delight in God's unfolding work in each of our lives.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.