Christianity, Buddhism, and the Spirituality of Joy

The following is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon. The text was John 15:9-17. The video recording of the sermon is below, along with the text.

As many of you know, we are in the Easter season. For us, Easter isn’t just a day, but a season that lasts 50 days, from Resurrection Sunday to Pentecost.

Today marks the 6th week of the Easter season, we are coming up to the beginning of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was unleashed upon the early Christian community.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus connects the Easter season readings by bringing out something that’s been present all along, but that’s often beneath the surface. Today it is clearly there. Our Gospel lesson is a continuation from last week, where Jesus taught his disciples some things about gardening and pruning the dead branches within their souls so that new branches could grow. And then he taught them to abide in him like grapes abide on branches and branches abide on vines. And it’s all metaphorical language about how we’re all connected to one another and to God who is our vine and our source of life and love. Then Jesus taught us to abide in that love.

All this abiding language can leave me scratching my head wondering what’s the point. Well, here it is. Jesus makes his meaning explicit:

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Joy. The purpose of this life is joy. Jesus came that we might have joy. We have that United Church of Christ poster at the front of our church building. It says that part of our divine mission is to enjoy this life. Jesus’ teachings are meant to give us joy.

I think this is so wonderful. After all, when people think of religion, joy probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. For them, religion is identified with oppressive rules and if you break them you are going to hell. When religion is based on fear and obsessed with rules and commandments and it can become a big monkey on your back.

This has been the state of the Christian religion for at least the last hundred years in the United States and people are leaving the church in droves because of it. And if religion were primarily about following oppressive rules and performing endless duties so we can be good people who don’t go to hell, I would leave, too. And I would take the risk of going to hell because it sounds like they have more fun there, anyway.

But the good news is that Christianity isn’t a religion that’s based on fear and rules and the avoidance of hell. As our sign says, true Christian faith is about enjoying this life now.

The truth of Jesus is found in joy. But the Christian faith doesn’t ignore the real problems of this world. And this is one of the many things that I love about Jesus. Our passage today where Jesus says the whole point of following him is about joy is found in the midst of what New Testament scholars call Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”

Jesus was saying goodbye to his followers. He knew he was about to be killed by the religious and political authorities. He knew his followers were about to abandon him. He knew that he was about to enter hell on earth as he goes to the cross and to his death.

And in the midst of it, he says, “Hey, there’s joy. Right here. Right now.”

We know that life was not easy for Jesus. Far from it. We know that he suffered on the cross. We know that he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he wouldn’t have to go through suffering and death. And we know that as we suffer today, Jesus suffered, too.

The spirituality of joy, then, is different from happiness. Happiness is an emotion that is often fleeting and depends upon the circumstances in our lives. Happiness comes and it goes.

But joy is a disposition. It’s an attitude that can be cultivated and developed no matter our circumstances.

But how can we cultivate joy? There are many ways, but I’d like to quickly explore two ways with you today.

The first example comes from one of my favorite theologians, an African American man named Howard Thurman. Thurman’s greatest student was Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman was a Christian theologian who was highly influenced by Buddhism. Thurman learned from Christianity and Buddhism that suffering is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to define our lives. We can find joy even in the midst of suffering.

Thurman claimed that what would make suffering intolerable was if we suffered alone. But we don’t suffer in isolation. Jesus suffers with us and we suffer together in community.

So the first way to cultivate joy is to be realistic about the suffering that will come our way. In my experience, one of the worst things about suffering is the thought that I’m all alone. Joy in the midst of suffering can be cultivated when we look up and see that there are compassionate people with us. That I’m not alone.

And I think Thurman was onto something important as he connected Buddhism and Christianity. Like Christianity, Buddhism teaches us about joy and suffering and desires and detachment.

Which leads to the second way to cultivate joy. Buddhist teachings about detachment and joy can be seen in the life of Jesus. For example, a rich young man came to Jesus and said that he followed all the rules of religion, but that he wanted more from life. He wanted eternal life. He wanted joy. So he went to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to attain this joy. Jesus told him that he lacked one thing. He needed to sell all of his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.

The reason that the rich young man didn’t have joy in his life was because he defined himself by his wealth and possessions. He was attached to them in an unhealthy way. He believed in what we call today the “Prosperity Gospel.” He believed that he was a good person because he followed the law and God so blessed him with wealth and material possessions.

This line of thinking is dangerous because it brings the idea that good people are blessed by God with material goods and poor people are cursed by God because they’ve been bad. So the rich young man blamed poor people for their poverty.

But Jesus doesn’t allow us to do that. Instead of blaming the poor, he said that to have eternal life we must, in some way, help and love the poor. Jesus and Buddhism teach that if you want to find eternal life, if you want to find joy, then we must detach ourselves from defining ourselves by our material possessions and love our fellow human beings.

Like the rich young man who came to Jesus, our culture tells us that the way to joy is through having more possessions. And like the rich young man, deep down we know great wealth and possessions aren’t the way to true joy. Buying more stuff might give us a temporary thrill, but it doesn’t last. Having more attachments doesn’t lead to true joy. It just leads us to becoming more attached to stuff.

If attachments don’t cultivate true joy, then what does cultivate joy? In the middle of our Gospel passage today, Jesus says that the point of his teachings was that our joy might be complete. And the passage ends with Jesus saying, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Jesus knew that he was about to suffer, and he still connected joy with love. The Buddha famously started his ministry by seeing a man suffering on the side of the road and the Buddha was moved with compassion for this other man.

According to these two great spiritual teachers, the way to cultivate joy isn’t through more wealth and possessions. Rather, it’s through relationships of compassion and love. Interestingly, compassion literally means “to suffer with.” You cultivate joy through acts of love and compassion. You cultivate joy by realizing that at some point in our lives, we will all experience suffering. And even in the midst of suffering we can find joy, for we are not alone.

And so as suffering comes our way, may we realize that we aren’t alone. Jesus is with us and we are with one another.

May we attach ourselves to the only thing that truly gives life – the love of God and the love we share with one another.

And in the midst of it all, may we find eternal life, and may our joy be complete as we follow Jesus. Amen.

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