Magazine article The Christian Century

Reasons for Joy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Reasons for Joy

Article excerpt

IF WE HAD BEEN living around the eastern Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Christian era, we might have noticed, scratched here and there on the sides of walls and houses or simply on the ground, the crude outline of a fish. We would probably have dismissed it as innocuous graffiti, for these were mainly seaport towns where fishing was a part of daily life.

Had we been Christians, however, we would have recognized these drawings as the logo for the Good News. The head of the fish would have pointed us toward the place where the local Christian group held its clandestine meetings--underground in catacombs, and in the back rooms of shops and homes. To be known as a Christian was to risk being thrown to lions or gladiators, or turned into a human torch. A cross would have been a giveaway symbol, so a fish was substituted for it, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." So the Good News was depicted in the crude outline of an ordinary fish.

The people who heard Jesus' disciples proclaiming the Good News were as impressed by what they saw as by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed--men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the enterprise everyone would like to succeed at life itself.

Specifically, there seemed to be two qualities in which their lives abounded. The first of these was mutual regard. One of the earliest observations by an outsider about Christians that we have is, "See how these Christians love one another." Integral to this mutual regard was a total absence of social barriers; it was a discipleship of equals. Here were men and women who not only said that everyone was equal in the sight of God but who lived as though they meant it. The conventional barriers of race, gender and status meant nothing to them, for in Christ there was neither Jew nor gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. As a consequence, in spite of differences in function or social position, their fellowship was marked by a sense of genuine equality.

Their second distinctive quality was happiness. When Jesus was in danger his disciples were alarmed, but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus" company. And when he told his disciples that he wanted his joy to be in them "that your joy may be complete," to a remarkable degree that objective was realized.

Outsiders found this baffling. These scattered Christians were not numerous. They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable. Perhaps radiance would be a better word. Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life, but no other word fits as well the life of these early Christians.

Paul offers a vivid example. Here was a man who had been ridiculed, driven from town to town, shipwrecked, imprisoned, flogged until his back was covered with stripes. Yet here was a life in which joy was the constant refrain: "Joy unspeakable and full of glory." "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory." "In all things we are more than conquerors." "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shined in our hearts." "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift." The joy of these early Christians was unspeakable. As the fifth chapter of Ephesians suggests, they sang not routinely but from the irrepressible overflow of their direct experience. Life was not challenges to be met; it was glory discerned.

What produced this love and joy in these early Christians? Everyone wants those qualities; the question is how to get them. The explanation, insofar as we are able to gather one from the New Testament, is that three intolerable burdens had suddenly and dramatically been lifted from their shoulders. …

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