2 Corinthians 3:17
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
In one of his books, Anthony de Mello tells the story about an Italian couple who were getting married. They had an arrangement with the parish priest to have a little reception in the parish courtyard outside the church. But it rained, and they couldn’t have the reception, so they asked the priest, “Would it be all right if we had the celebration in the church?” Now Father was not one bit too happy about having a reception in the church, but they said, “We will eat a little cake, drink a little wine, and then go home.” So Father was persuaded.
But being good, life-loving Italians, they ate a little cake and drank a little wine, sang a little song, then they ate a little more cake, drank a little more wine, sang a few more songs, and within a half an hour there was a great celebration going on in the church and everybody was having a wonderful time. But Father was very tense, pacing up and down the sacristy, wringing his hands, terribly upset about the noise they were making. The assistant pastor came in and said, “Father, I can see you are quite tense.” Father said, “Of course I am quite tense! Listen to all the noise they are making in the House of God! For Heaven’s sake!” The associate said, “Well Father, they really had no other place to go.” Father said, “I know that! But do they have to make all that racket?” The associate said, “Well, we mustn’t forget that Jesus himself was once present at a wedding.” Father said, “I know Jesus Christ was present at a wedding. YOU don’t have to tell me Jesus Christ was present at a wedding! But they didn’t have the Blessed Sacrament there, now did they?”
Sometimes that happens–when ceremony, rituals, rules, and traditions become more important than the presence of Jesus Christ himself. When doctrine and dogma become more important than life and love.
Remember the old story about the church in which one of the members was showing a visitor a plaque on the wall of the sanctuary. He said, “This is a memorial to all our members who have died in the service.” She said, “Which service? 8:45 or ll?” Lots of churches are like that—the ones that are quite tense!
I once came across an article by Erma Bombeck about a child in church, a child who was turning around and smiling at everybody. He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals and rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a whisper than could be heard a mile away said, “Stop that grinning! You’re in church!” With that she gave him a belt on his backside, and as the tears rolled down his cheeks she added, ”That’s better,” and returned to her prayers. Erma Bombeck wrote, “Suddenly, I was angry. I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about my God. The happy God. The smiling God. The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of me…I wanted to tell him he is an understanding God. One who understands little children who pick their noses in church because they are bored. He understands the man in the parking lot who reads the comics while his wife is attending church. He even understand my shallow prayers that implore, ‘if you can’t make me thin, Lord, then at least make my friends look fat.’ Here was a woman sitting in church next to the only light left in our civilization, the only hope, a little miracle himself, the promise of infinity. If he couldn’t smile in church, where was there left to go?”
Is it okay to smile in church, to laugh, to cry, to dance? And if Jesus Christ were here today, in this celebration of life and love, what would he think? In the same week in which our community suffered a devastating tornado, within 2 years of having suffered the largest natural disaster in American history, would he approve of this laughter, fun, foolishness, joy?
What would Jesus have to say about Mardi Gras? Would Jesus like Jazz? No. I don’t think he would like it. I think he would LOVE it! But maybe you have never pictured him that way. Maybe you still have this image of serious, sober, somber Jesus, looking slightly depressed, with not a hair out of place, the kind of Jesus Philip Yancey imagined to be a Star Trek’s Vulcan, Mr. Spock, incapable of emotion, who never smiled, never laughed, the kind of Jesus who is much more likely to show up at a funeral than a wedding. And yet anyone who studies the New Testament cannot help but see that this was a man who was more spontaneous, more emotional than the average person, not less. A man who was more passionate, more intense than the average person, not less. If you come in my office I’ll show you a picture of our Lord–with his head thrown back in joyous laughter. Surely he was the kind of person who walked into a room and suddenly everything was better—brighter, happier, more alive, more fun.
That’s the kind of person Jesus was: so full of life, love, and joy. Read the New Testament and see every time you turn around he is sitting down to eat with his friends and often with his enemies and always including the kind of people that nobody else would sit down at the table with, so much so that he was accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton, a friend of sinners and tax collectors.” Not only that but when he taught his disciples, “Do not be dismal, even when you fast. When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, do not be dismal.”
And how many times did he compare the kingdom of God to a banquet, a feast, a party? And what about that time when Mary so lovingly and spontaneously anointed his feet with all that expensive oil and Judas complained to Jesus about what a terrible waste it was, that the money could have been used to help the poor, and Jesus told Judas essentially to leave her alone, that there is a place for joy and extravagant celebration in our lives. That we were not created to go around in sackcloth and ashes, but we were created for life and love and joy. That’s why he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s why he said it so often, “Do not be afraid. Be of good cheer!”
That’s why when the spirit came upon the disciples at that first Pentecost, it filled them with so much joy and enthusiasm that outsiders thought they were a bunch of drunks. In fact, if you read the New Testament from cover to cover, something you simply cannot miss is that it is the most joyful book in the world. Even in the chapters where there is great suffering and sorrow, there is always still joy. Even on the last night of Jesus’ life at the last supper, knowing he is about to die, saying good by to his best friends, he tells them, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Even after he has been crucified and is no longer with them, the book of Acts tells us that at their meals together they would share their food “with glad and generous hearts, praising God.” Even when they were flogged for their faith, imprisoned for the crime of being Christian, the Bible tells us that they rejoiced, counting themselves worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus. And even when Paul was put in prison he spent the whole night singing and praying. And what was it that he wrote from a Roman jail? “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I will say it, rejoice!”
As Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote, “There is enough tragedy in the New Testament to make it the saddest book in the world. But instead it is the most joyful book in the world.” Because it’s about Jesus. And Jesus is about JOY—not to be confused with happiness, happiness which is dependent upon all conditions being conducive, comfortable, and under control. No, joy, the kind of joy that can be ours, come what may, no matter what. Indestructible, unconditional joy.
“Where the Spirit of our Lord is, there is freedom”—freedom from death, freedom from sin, freedom from fear and doubt and anxiety, and freedom for love, life, peace, hope, JOY: “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”