“Following the Joyful Path”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Reading: John 15:1-12
For those of us who lived through the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, the loss this week of F.W. de Klerk has reminded us of those times (I have been online with many friends across Southern Africa). Our prayers go out to the de Klerk family and to the nation of South Africa. There are mixed emotions at a time like this; memories of apartheid causing many to pause and to reflect, even knowing de Klerk helped free Nelson Mandela and bring about change. It caused us to think about things and to reminisce about moments that were so salient, so powerful that we couldn’t forget them.
There’s one moment I want to share with you this morning, and I do so because I really do believe it is pertinent to everything that we’re looking at and talking about today. It was in 1980, while I was at divinity school at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. I was asked by Fred Hufkie, a classmate, to do an exceptional thing. Fred later in his life became a Congregational minister. He’d been a teacher in the Eastern Cape for twenty-six years and had gone to the great Fort Hare University, which at that time was restricted only to people of colour. He was there with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, and was not a young man, even in 1980.
He had to go for an ordination interview in Cape Town. The problem was that Fred was known as an opponent of apartheid; he was someone who had to live with certain geographical restrictions, so getting to Cape Town was problematic; he couldn’t do it without breaking South African law. He asked me if I would be willing – because my parents lived in Cape Town – to drive him. There was only one caveat; we had to do it at night. It is some 870 kilometres from Grahamstown to Cape Town, and to make matters even more dangerous, the gas pumps were closed from 9 PM to 6 AM so that people couldn’t travel at night, so we had to take extra gasoline in the trunk of the car.
We piled into my Austin Mini and through the night we drove. All the time I knew that I was with someone who was suspect by the South African Police Force. Just as we were arriving near Cape Town the car started to shudder. I went to the tank in the trunk and realised it too was empty. We’d run out of gas, with about forty miles to go. What on earth were we going to do? Suddenly, a Land Rover pulled by, full of military soldiers from the South African Defence Force, and my heart nearly stopped with fear. What happens if they recognise Pa Hufkie, as we called him?
These wonderful soldiers got out, didn’t ask us any questions, they just said, “Oh, you’ve run out of petrol. This is a normal thing, we see it all the time, don’t worry about it.” And one of them got on his knees with a hose and siphoned gasoline out of the Land Rover and put it into the Mini giving us enough gasoline to drive off. Fred and I drove at the dawn over the hills, down the Garden Route, into Cape Town. He made his ordination examination, but not without the two of us nearly having heart attacks.
I thought to myself at that moment, what incredible courage Fred had. To trust himself to me, but to do so because he wanted above all to serve his God, his Lord, and his people. He believed in his heart, you see, that the transformation of his nation was also dependent on God’s activity, God’s grace, and God’s prayer, and he wanted to be part of it.
I also realised then just how important gasoline was to keep a car going. You take these things for granted, don’t you? I know in the light of COP26, gasoline is maybe not the most popular substance that we want to talk about, nevertheless, you need it to keep the car going.
Which brought me, believe it or not, to our passage today, and to a wonderful quote by the great C.S. Lewis. I address this to our confirmands: “God made us, invented us as a person invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now, God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about our faith. God cannot give us a happiness and a peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.”
In our passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus is saying the same thing, but in ancient language. Jesus has some parting words to the disciples, and it’s part of a prayer near the end of John’s Gospel, before the crucifixion and the resurrection story. It’s the intimate moment when Jesus is with his disciples. He says to them something magnificent, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” This is rich in theological thought. Jesus talking about his relationship with the Father – “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” in such meaningful and powerful terms.
This passage talks about discipleship, how Jesus and the Church is the vine, and we are the branches. We are connected through our Lord Jesus Christ. It talks about obedience, that if we follow the Commandments of Christ, if we’re obedient to Christ, we will abide in him, and he will abide in us. Then there’s one line, and I really want the confirmands to get this one: “I say these things that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Joy is the fuel of the Christian life; joy is the thing that drives our experience and our life within the Christian church. Joy is central to everything that we have and that we believe in. What could be more joyful than a day like this, when we celebrate our new members, and welcome them into our church?
But the joy that Jesus is talking about is more than a feeling, it’s more than an emotion that we have, it’s more than sheer happiness. It is more than a retrospective or a sense of nostalgia for things past. A lot of people think of the Christian life as something that is not joyful, but once was in our history. There is no nostalgia here, Jesus is not talking about the past in terms of his relationship with the disciples. He talks about “my joy”. This is not the joy, if I dare quote Drake here in this church, not the “hotline bling” that he talks about in his music, where you look back fondly to a moment in your past and say, “Ah, there was joy, that was joy.” No, joy is rooted and founded in Christ and in a living relationship with Christ, in a living and a vibrant faith. The joy that Jesus is talking about is that “my joy” may be in you, and your joy may be full.
This is not something new Jesus is saying. He’s not making something up on the fly. This has been from the very beginning. Interestingly, the oldest book in the Bible, written in the second millennium before Christ, was the Book Job. You're probably familiar with the story of Job, and if you're not, I encourage you to look it up. It makes fascinating reading. Job was someone who lost everything, and felt his life was decimated and he had nothing. Yet Job maintained his faith, and at the very end of his life, when things were restored to him, God reminded him of his grace in his life. This is from Job 38: “Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations? Tell me, Job, if you understand, who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know who stretched a measuring line across it, on what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy.”
God is reminding Job that at the very beginning, it was the purpose of humanity and the purpose of this wonderful creation that we might have joy, and that joy may be complete. Think about it, at the beginning of the New Testament, and when we have our Christmas pageant, we always hear the words of the angels, do we not? “I come to bring you great news of…” what? “Great joy.” That the essence, the purpose of our life is joy. The very cornerstone of what we have is joy.
I read a fascinating statistic, and I must admit, I haven’t gone back to verify these numbers, so just a caveat here. I'm trusting somebody else, who is a biblical scholar from Yale, so I will give him that. He said: “In the scriptures the word sorrow is used in the New Testament eight times, but joy is used fifty-seven times. The cross is mentioned twenty-seven times, but rejoicing is mentioned forty-five times. The word crucify is mentioned twelve times, but the word resurrection is mentioned forty-one times.” His argument is that the prevailing spirit of scripture, the prevailing spirit of the New Testament, is one of joy of the faith.
I think we need to reaffirm this once again. Look, I know how people, particularly during the last two years, have felt beaten down, and how so many feel the anguished and uncertain right now. I know how hard it has been and continues to be for so many people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, to come through all of this. The fact that our young confirmands are masked this morning, speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I know that. I know that those of you who are listening, wherever you may be, on the radio or on the livestream, I'm sure you must be feeling it yourself, that you're not free to even come back into a place of worship. But let us not lose our purpose and our ultimate reality, our joy in the Lord. And our recognition that the joy and the love of God our Creator and of Jesus Christ his Son, can be in our lives. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. I pray that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”
This is what C.S. Lewis was getting at; the joy that comes into our lives regardless of our circumstances. Think about it for a moment; the disciples to whom he was speaking at that time, were just about to lose their Lord. Jesus was leaving them during those parting words. Still, knowing everything that would come, Jesus said, “I want your joy to be full.” Why? Because “the joy is always,” as C.S. Lewis said, “from the Lord.” It is a gift, and it needs to be treasured. Jesus also says in this passage, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in My love.” He then says, “This is my commandment now, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
It’s not just about our own joy and, “Oh, isn’t it great that I’ve got this wonderful faith.” Rather, it is the way we interrelate with one another, the way we support and encourage one another. It’s also sacrificially how like Christ and his love, and at the heart of his joy and his mission, he laid down his life for his friends.
The joy of the Christian faith is always a joy of service, of giving of oneself in the same way that Christ gave himself to us. The joy and the happiness of the Christian faith is not an extension of utilitarian idea, “the greatest good or the greatest happiness for the greatest number” as said by John Stuart Mill. It’s not that kind of happiness we’re talking about here, it is richer and deeper than that. It goes right to the heart of our commitment, our service, and our love for one another. “As the Father has loved me, so I love you.” And as he has loved us, he has loved us sacrificially.
When I think back on that drive to Cape Town with Fred Hufkie, I’m reminded of the years once he was ordained, that he spent serving the people of Graaff Reinet, helping negotiate the lives of young people through the end of apartheid and into a new future. I think of the courage of this man to stand before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. By the way his testimony is available online. You can learn about what Hufkie had to deal with as a pastor during the waning days of apartheid. It kind of makes you crumble because here is someone who was willing to put his life on the line, for his love for people and because of his faith, because of his abhorrence to apartheid, and his passionate love for his country.
I think back on those days, and the time I spent with him in that Mini, and how I probably learned more in those hours with Fred Hufkie about what it means to be a courageous Christian, than I learned in probably the rest of my life. I know that he, above all, wanted to be a disciple and the joy and the passion and the love that he brought to that was infectious.
C.S. Lewis said it this way: “This is why it’s just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way, without bothering about our faith. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself because it is not there, but with God, and with Christ in our lives, may we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our world.”
You, confirmands have a joyful, but a high calling. Amen.