“Rejoice Always?” on 1 Thess. 1:1-6, 5:16-18 by Michelle Ellis - June 19, 2022
We’re continuing our series exploring the fruit of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians. There, Paul describes what kind of actions and behaviours flow out of a life lived in the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23a says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Last week, we explored Love as the first fruit of the Spirit. Today, we are going to explore Joy. I want us to look at these 2 passages from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica in our exploration of joy, because it gives a picture of two important things about joy. First, that joy is one of the main signs of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in a community. And second, that joy isn’t something that is free to come only when times are good, but instead, that joy and hard times go together way more than you would think, both in scripture and in the Christian life. We’ll explore that link together.
First, I’d like to explore how Paul writes here about joy as one of the main signs of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. In this letter that we read part of this morning, Paul is writing to new believers in a city called Thessalonica. Paul reminds them of how they came to know Jesus through his teaching, and how the experience for them of receiving the gospel came along with a powerful experience of receiving joy as a confirmation that what they were hearing was true.
Paul recalls to their memory their experience of joy as a result of the Spirit’s invasion in their lives when they first heard the gospel, as a way of knowing that what they heard Paul say was actually real and true. It’s worth noticing here that one of the first things that the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of these new believers was a powerful experience of pure joy.
Knowing joy was one of the first things they experienced about knowing God. Likely the majority of new converts to Christianity at this time were not the most affluent people. Their lives were very likely full of much hard work with little time for personal fulfillment. In God’s wisdom, it seems that the very first thing He wants these people to know about Him is overflowing joy, powerful joy. Not guilt, not shame. Not a gift of a sudden strong work ethic and not answers to big problems. The first gift that these believers received at their conversion was joy. That is the first experience God gives to them in knowing Him.
In fact, for Paul, joy is one of the certain hallmarks of genuine Christianity. It’s one of the main ways for Paul, of telling whether a community is genuine and faithful in its response to God’s work—whether there is joy in that community. Joy comes second in the list describing the fruit of the Spirit. It’s really worth noticing this, the significant place joy is given, especially for those of us who grew up in environments where following Jesus had to do with being so serious or being sombre most of the time. It’s worth noticing that joy is given much importance and emphasis in terms of what it is to be in Christ, to be in the Spirit. For Paul, it is a sure sign of the presence and action of the Spirit in a community.
It’s worth noticing this importance of joy, because it says something about who God is. There’s an extravagance to the gift of joy which is given purely for the sake of the enjoyment of the one receiving the gift. I wonder if the prominent place joy is given in this list of the fruit of the Spirit says that following God isn’t about winding yourself up to do unpleasant works of service, or constantly trying to live up to an impossible standard. It is about enjoying God forever. It is for the sake of joy. The gift of joy gives a taste of where things are headed. Joy is a gift from God that shows the trajectory of history. That history is ultimately moving in the direction of joy. Joy gives us a taste of where things are going —that God’s heart is for reconciliation and for making all things new.
Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus endured the cross for the sake of the joy that would come! He faced death for the sake of the joy that would come!
Can you imagine Jesus on the cross reminding himself of the joy that would come from his sacrifice? Maybe he imagined a feast where he would eat together with his disciples, with the solider that was hanging at his side, with you and with me, and with all those who were reconciled with him through the cross. Maybe he imagined laughing together around that table, maybe he imagined little ones being made whole and well, and coming to tell him a knock-knock joke. Maybe he imagined those who had been mentally ill or addicted all their lives on earth, sitting down at that table knowing full freedom from the darkness and confusion in their minds, getting to fully enter into the joy. Maybe he imagined the joy and richness of having all different cultures and races sitting together at the same table, enjoying the variety of food and flavours from all different lands. Maybe he imagined good music and getting to dance together with all those who had longed to get up on their feet and dance all their lives on earth, but who never could. Maybe the picture of that joy, the joy of all things being made new and all things being made right and good that gave Jesus the strength to endure what he endured. It was for the sake of joy. Jesus’ joy and our joy. The joy of all creation.
I want to move now to the second thing about joy. Joy and suffering are linked again and again and again in the New Testament. Experiences of joy are given as a gift by the Spirit to people in the midst of suffering. Often, followers of Jesus are commanded to be joyful in the Lord, or to rejoice always even in the middle of really difficult circumstances as outlined today in our reading. The Thessalonians were experiencing persecution for their faith and were experiencing hard times as a result of that. Verse 6 says they were in the midst of severe suffering. What does it look like to be faithful to a command to rejoice in God in the middle of suffering?
Does this mean followers of Jesus need to be happy all the time, to deny or suppress all that causes us to grieve or despair? I confess that I don’t fully understand what it looks like to rejoice in suffering. But I wonder if one of the things that it means is to hold suffering and joy together as a way of being witness to the reality that suffering will not have the final say. I wonder if finding ways to give expression to joy, even in pain and even when you don’t feel like it, is a way of proclaiming that pain and death do not have the final word. Joy does.
In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul describes how he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Paul holds these two things together. He says he is both sorrowful, and yet also rejoicing. Rejoicing always doesn’t mean that we are not also lamenting, grieving, hoping, longing. There must be space for these things to be held together because though our lives as humans carry many, many reasons to rejoice, they also carry many, many reasons to mourn and to grieve.
Scot McKnight talks about how each fruit of the Spirit is also an act of resistance. On the one hand, the fruit of joy can be given as pure gift, simply for the sake of experiencing that God is good, just like how God gave that gift to the new believers in Thessalonica. But on the other hand, pursuing joy can sometimes be a willful act of hope, a willful act of resistance, though all that is in us would rather despair. To be joyful in God by turning our hearts towards thankfulness is a way of resisting powers of darkness. Pursuing joy in the midst of what is painful isn’t meant to deny grief or pain. Instead, it’s a way of saying that darkness and despair aren’t the whole picture and they are not allowed to have full reign. It’s a way of being witness to the fact that in God, suffering and darkness do not have the final say. I wonder if this is a big part of what Paul is saying when he commands us to rejoice always.
Maybe “rejoicing always” means naming some of the gifts that God gives, even little ones like sunshine or a hot cup of tea in the midst of a time of pain. Or maybe “rejoicing always” means having a dance party in the middle of a long, hard season. Maybe “rejoicing always” could mean planting flowers in a weedy or ugly part of town. Maybe you have a practice of rejoicing in God, of pursuing his joy, even when it feels far away.
I want to share with you a video that I feel expresses this command to rejoice always. It’s a video of a woman in Ukraine playing piano in her home after it has been mostly destroyed because of the war. She is being a witness to the truth in God that war does not have the final say. In a way, what she is doing challenges the perceived power of this war. You’ll see that destruction is still around her. Her playing doesn’t deny that it is there. Instead, it’s a witness that joy and beauty cannot be destroyed.
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDUdK5SYa7w
She is rejoicing always, bearing witness that in the end, all will be well and all will know joy.