It was pure Easter joy! No foolin! Babies… children … youth … adults … Pastor Craig Ferguson … all filled with the joy of new life in Christ. Yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching at Johnston River of Life United Methodist Church (JROL) and participating in the formal chartering of the congregation. JROL began in 2011 as an outreach ministry of New Hope UMC in Des Moines. By 2012, Saturday evening and Sunday morning services were held at a local elementary school.
From the very beginning, JROL’s mission has been “Being Christ in Community.” Their primary purpose is to connect with and serve the community through worship, outreach, evangelism, and mission. JROL meets at an elementary school, and yesterday the room was filled to capacity with energy, enthusiasm, commitment, and love for the Lord.
It was a beautiful day, filled with hope! And it was fun to listen to the stories of how people who found JROL made it their church home: through word of mouth, Pastor Craig’s presence in the community, small groups, children’s ministry, a casual atmosphere, opportunities to serve, and more. Most of all, I experienced Easter joy!
Have you noticed how the Holy Week and Easter narratives in the gospel of John are bookended by joy? As Jesus shares a last supper with his disciples, he says, “When a woman gives birth, she has pain because her time has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers her distress because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. In the same way, you have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and you will be overjoyed. No one takes away your joy.” (John 16:21-22, CEB)
After the Last Supper, there was no joy, only sorrow. Jesus was arrested, appeared before the high priest Caiaphas and Pilate, was sentenced to death, and was crucified and buried. Then John tells us about Sunday. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.” (John 20:19-20 CEB)
Sorrow turned into joy. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) It’s the story of our faith, isn’t it? Has that ever been your experience?
Holy Week was a challenging time for me, filled with a deep and abiding faith as well as uncertainty, disappointment, and sadness. By the time Maundy Thursday arrived, I was drained, and my spirit was weary. I imagined myself among the disciples, frantic with worry, wondering what was going to happen to my Lord – and to me! I pictured myself in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the courtyard of the high priest, and at the foot of the cross. Would I have stayed, or would I have run away? Would I have gone to the tomb Sunday morning with the women, or would I have remained hidden? Would I have believed Jesus when he said at the Last Supper that my sorrow would somehow turn to joy? I found the answer in music.
One of my very favorite pieces of choral music is J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I often listen to it during Lent. I remember the first time I ever sang the piece as a 19-year old college student studying music at the Spandauer Kirchenmusikschule in West Berlin, Germany. I was also part of a German choir, the Spandauer Kantorei, which sang the Mass in B Minor in the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, (Burgundy, France), among other places. The Mass in B Minor is arguably the finest and most transformative work of music ever created by a human soul. You can access a stunning performance of the Mass in B Minor with period instruments here.
I remember how my heart broke open as we sang the Crucifixus, “For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried.” Then my heart overflowed with joy as we followed with Et Resurrexit, “On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.”
For J.S. Bach, music was meant to glorify God, bring joy to the soul, and edify one’s neighbor. To that end, in most of his compositions Bach would initial J.J. at the beginning, standing for Jesu Juva (Jesus, help me). And at the end of his work, he would write the initials S.D.G., Soli Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone).
If one were to look at Bach’s life, it would be easy to understand why he might have become cynical or depressed rather than filled with joy. Bach lost both of his parents by the age of ten and went to live with an older brother. His first wife died after she gave birth to seven children, several of whom died as infants. Bach then remarried and had thirteen more children, more than half of whom died as children. He suffered from vision problems later in life and died of a stroke at age 65.
One time the great Swedish film director Ingman Bergman described a period in his career when his health was poor and his spirits low. At the time, he confessed to a friend, “I’m about to lose my joy. I can feel it physically. It’s running out. I’m just drying up inside.” He recalled to a friend that after J.S. Bach had discovered that his first wife and two of their children had died while he was away on a trip, he wrote in his diary, “Dear Lord, may my joy not leave me.”
In his autobiography, Ingmar Bergman wrote, “All through my conscious life, I lived with what Bach called his joy. It carried me through crisis and misery and functioned as faithfully as my heart, sometimes overwhelming and difficult to handle, but never antagonistic or destructive. Bach called this state his joy, a joy in God. Dear Lord, may my joy not leave me.”
As I listened to the B Minor Mass on Holy Saturday, I could feel the joy returning, a joy that on Easter became like a cup running over at River of Life in Johnston. It is a joy that is not naïve, out of touch, or oblivious to the burning issues of our time. It is a joy that does not gloss over the depths of pain, hopelessness, and anxiety. Rather, it is a joy that courageously lifts up the broken-hearted, reaches out to the very least among us, and risks all to embody the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives.
J.S. Bach’s experience of joy continues with us through his music. In the same way, Ingmar Bergman’s constant struggle between the experience of grace and despair is permanently available in his films. Both Bach and Bergman testify that holding on to joy is no easy assignment. Yet the words of the Psalmist remain, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Dear Lord, may our Easter joy not leave us. Jesus, help us. To God alone be the glory.