A Church United by Joy

It is most palpable when the call comes to partake in the Eucharist. Row by row they go up to feast, and I stay back.

I live something like a fish-out-of-water. I am an Evangelical Protestant, studying at a Jesuit school of theology and ministry. Many Protestants have come before me, and I am sure many will come later. I still find myself, however, a little bit of an outsider. And the Eucharist at weekly student Mass is when it is most hard to hide from this sense of dispossession.

In those moments of separation and distinction, instead of discomfort or embarrassment, I actually find myself possessed by overwhelming joy.

It is the same joy I have felt in the slums of Cairo while praying with Coptic Christians. It has snuck up behind me while wandering through chapels that contain the ancient iconography of the Balkans. I have felt it in Pentecostal prayer meetings and in the bellowing notes of Gospel music.

The Christian life is one of being ever more possessed by the Divine Love in Jesus. Joy bursts through the seams of such a life. In attempting to live in thankfulness and celebration of the eternal love of the Triune God, it becomes natural that joy is profoundly imminent whenever and wherever the name of Jesus is spoken. I am overcome by joy even when I hear the Name spoken by those who practice, believe, think, and look very different than myself.

St. Augustine is Christianity’s supreme commentator on joy and, naturally, helps to categorize this experience for me. He writes, “when many rejoice together, the joy of each one is the fuller in that they are incited and inflamed by one another” (Conf. VIII.4).

The admirable pursuit of greater Christian unity certainly requires firm conviction about the core of the orthodox faith. But our quest for Christian unity derives from something more fundamental: The celebratory joy that springs from the soul where ever the Trinity is worshiped.

Credit: yaquina on Flickr.

This joy is a sense of delight that supersedes every internal disposition for the preponderant placement of one’s life. It is only most fully realized outside of what is commonplace, in fact. There is a unique joy that comes in recognizing something familiar in a context that is foreign. It is not unlike the embarrassing amount of comfort I have in finding a McDonalds while in a foreign country; the sigh of relief at something that reminds me of home.

For Augustine and others who follow in this joy-tradition, joy derives from the desire for our Heavenly Home. The ecumenical joy I speak of is an expansion of this core idea. It is, is at its root, a distinct type of purifying and expanding of the heart in its in longing for Home.

The Christian mystical tradition returns often to the idea of the via negativa, the path towards a more legitimate contemplation of God through constant definition of what God is not. There is a similar via negativa by which we more clearly envision our true Home. I believe this takes place as we encounter the Christian ‘other.’

When our heart is surprised by a hint of our homeland in an unexpected place, we are able to see more clearly which pieces of the City of Man we have falsely imagined is the City of God. My flesh idolizes things of this world, such as class and race and gender and denomination. But the joy of hearing Christ’s Name, detecting whispers of Home, in the midst of the unfamiliar teaches me to let go of those fleshly fixations and open myself to a less-false vision of Home. Home becomes nearer, more imminent. In this is a renewal of and intensification of joy. An ecumenical joy is an ascetic process — that of my fleshly longings dying with Christ on the cross of split wood and split selves, and rising again in a unified and brilliant light and possessing nothing but Jesus and the joy of Jesus’ name.

My commitment to a specific tradition is by no means nullified by this ecumenical joy. In fact, I return from these moments of delight more prepared and invigorated to embrace my particular band of travelers and share with them a new vision and longing for Home, even as we walk our particular path. Christ’s pilgrims come from Samaria and from Macedonia. They come from Rome and Constantinople and Geneva and São Paulo. When our pilgrim ways coincide and even collide, there is in that place great joy for me, for I have found a stranger headed for the same homeland; and through this encounter I have renewed and reconstructed my desire for Home. They teach me something new about this home, and show me how my band has falsely idolized some image of home that needs to be toppled. The extravagance of the Catholic Mass reminds me that the relative simplicity of my tradition is not a total picture of home.

Many theological and ecclesial barriers separate Christians. But I hope and pray that joy leads Christians forward and unites us in this present age.

The West is becoming more of a foreign land for Christians. I do not mean this cynically, only in the sense that Christians are now one among many types of groups. In such a context, I believe there is opportunity for a new birth of joy. Whenever we meet a fellow sojourner, our joy should be great for we share a common longing, a common goal, a common delight and doxology.

This is distinct from the air of despair that is the temptation of a Church experiencing the decline of its cultural incubation. This is a call for us Christians takes our delight in Christ alone and not be dependent upon the comfort of our own enclave or preferences.

In short, I think that I am speaking of the joy of grace. It is the joy of gratitude for the incarnate Christ in our world, for the death and resurrection, the bread and the wine. It is the joy of gratitude in hearing the sweetness of His Name. I have too much to be thankful for to be cynical. I have too much occasion for delight to be buried by fear and tribalism.

We Christians share much orthodoxy that binds us together. More profoundly, however, we share a common joy.

An earlier version of this piece originally appeared a year ago on the author’s blog.

S. Kyle Johnson is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently a doctoral student in Theology at Boston College. He and his wife live in the Boston area where they serve in a local church. He can be found on Facebook.

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