As Pentecost Draws Near: God’s Gift of Joy
by Bill Carroll
Again and again, in my work as a priest, I encounter the central importance of joy in the Christian life. Among other things, this means our joy in one another, in creation, in worship, and in loving service to others. Joy is what the Christian life is all about. This joy is more than a feeling. It is consistent with difficulty and times of spiritual dryness, as well as a felt sense of God’s absence. Joy is the fruit of deep participation in the mystery of Jesus alive.
Not all Christians display such joy. Never was there a more damning criticism than the one made by Friedrich Nietzsche: “They should look more redeemed.” What has floored me, again and again, as I’ve gotten to know followers of Jesus, is how much love and joy there is among us at our best. This is one of the most important gifts we have to share.
That brings me to one of my favorite saints, Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833). He is in many ways the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi. Like Francis, Seraphim was a humble man who spread contagious joy. I always think about him in the days leading up to Pentecost.
Seraphim lived alone in a life of extreme poverty, and yet opened his heart and his life to others in genuine hospitality. From all around, people came to him for spiritual counsel, and he found his own joy in serving others. He once wrote the following:
When the Spirit of God descends on [someone] and overshadows [them] with the fullness of his outpouring, then [their] soul overflows with a joy not to be described, for the Holy Spirit turns to joy whatever he touches. The kingdom of heaven is peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation. (See Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Revised edition. [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995], p. 89. Compare Romans 14:17)
As the Day of Pentecost draws near, I’d like to highlight this dimension of the Holy Spirit’s ministry among us. Since the neo-Pentecostal revivals and charismatic movements of the twentieth century, many Christians have emphasized the ecstatic gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy. This can leave those of us whose gifts lie elsewhere feeling left out in the cold.
And yet, the Spirit is also alive and active in those who follow a quieter, gentler way. With some notable exceptions, that’s many of us Episcopalians. According to the New Testament, the Spirit is alive and active, bearing witness to Jesus, wherever there is real love, genuine holiness, and abiding joy. The Spirit is present in how we care for each other, in our service to those in need, and whenever we gather for worship, teaching, sacraments, and fellowship. In the power of the Spirit, we become more loving, peaceful, and joyful—in a word, more Christ-like—so that we and others may find our lives transformed in Jesus.
This is very much needed in our society today. We see the problems all around us. We see the greed and self-centered behavior. We see the violence, divisions, and hatred. We feel the fear.
In this climate, we need the love of Jesus, who welcomes the stranger, shares what he has, and teaches enemies to live as friends. In the heart of Jesus, which burns with the fire of the Spirit, there is love and welcome for us all. In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Moreover, Jesus himself calls us to throw our arms wide open in love, following his teaching and example. He calls us into ministry with all sorts and conditions of people. All ages, all races, all classes. All backgrounds and life experiences. People of different political persuasions and just about every point of view. Through our life and fellowship together, our lives begin to reflect Christ’s love, and we come to experience the fullness of his joy, which God intends for all people.
For the glory of the Lord has been revealed, and ALL flesh shall see it together. And, in the last days, says God, “I will pour out my Spirit on ALL flesh.” (See Isaiah 40:5 and Joel 2:28, cited by Peter in Acts 2:17). When God says all God means it. All really does mean ALL. Not some. Not a chosen few. ALL means ALL.
How do we live this out in the midst of a world that often chooses another way? How do we live this out in a world that listens to other spirits—most often the spirit of Cain, who murders his brother and denies all responsibility.
Where do we get the strength and the resolve to choose Jesus and his Way? The secret is the Spirit of Jesus, who loves all people without exception. Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus who lives and dies for us all.
Everything his Spirit touches turns to joy. And so, through Jesus, we acquire inward peace. Our hearts expand to embrace ALL the neighbors he gives us.
We reorder our steps, so that his priorities become our priorities, and his ways our Way. So that all people might know the power of his redeeming love and share the joy of his resurrection.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: “Behold the Joy of Jesus” by Lindena Robb