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God's Big Joke
April 6, 1997

1 JOHN 1:1-2:2

What is God's big joke? Any guesses? There is an ancient saying that God's big joke is the one he pulled on the devil in the resurrection! They tried to do away with Jesus, but God laughed. God laughed at the futile attempt of sin to be in charge. God laughed at the narrow understanding of God's creative power. God laughed at the devil's attempt to shut out and exclude. The devil thought he had won; but God played him for a fool. God laughed, and raised Jesus from the dead, flaunting evil in its face.

Laughter, joy, and humor have been mainstays of our faith right from the beginning. Isn't it interesting that the great patriarch of our faith, the ancestor of Judaism and Christianity, Abraham and Sarah, named their son, "He Laughs." The Hebrew name Isaac means laughter. Can't you see yourself hollering, "Laughter, come in; it's time to eat." Sarah was an old woman when she was told by a visitor that she was going to have a baby. Her reaction? She laughed! Then, she became embarrassed and tried to deny it! "Oh, I didn't laugh," she said. But, she and Abraham were so thrilled to have a son they named him Laughter.

Jesus had a terrific sense of humor. The scholars tell us that Jesus enjoyed making puns which, of course, don't translate from one language to another. Jesus was not the somber, sober, serious, puny looking figure we often see in movies and in paintings. Jesus was a happy party-goer who loved children and good humor. I noticed in the Middle School classroom the saying, "Our Creator God has a delightful sense of humor or he wouldn't have created penguins." Or a poodle, or a platypus, or people!!

In the lesson read today, John is trying to teach his readers the truth about Jesus, so that they might be united in fellowship-- fellowship with one another and with God. When we are in fellowship, he wrote, our joy will be complete. As I read the New Testament, there was a lot of fellowship and joy in the early church. The resurrection of Christ gave them joy, confidence and power. But, it didn't take long for the legalists, prudes and prunes to take over. How the devil must have rejoiced when preachers began saying that laughter comes from the devil. St. Chrysostom preached against levity in 390 AD, "We are not assembled in order to burst into peals of laughter but to weep for our sins. It is not God who gives us a chance to play, but the Devil." Oh, how the devil must have laughed. On second thought, the devil can't laugh. There is an ancient saying, "The one thing the devil cannot bear is laughter." I can imagine evil with a sinister cackle, but not a delightful chuckle or a belly laugh! But, the early church took a wrong turn and the prudes and prunes tried to banish laughter from religion. Some churches have so successfully cultivated a somber mood that their sanctuary is more like a funeral parlor than a place of celebration.

What happened in my opinion is that the church could not handle Easter! It didn't know what to do with the big joke God played on the devil. The church couldn't handle joy, victory, celebration. The church became crucifixion-centered, rather than resurrection-centered. The medieval church left Jesus on the cross and emphasized suffering, guilt, remorse, confession. "Weep for your sins," the church preached, rather than, "Rejoice in the Lord." The church preached the penitential psalms, and squelched Psalm 47:1,

"Clap your hands, all you peoples;

Shout to God with loud songs of joy."

In other words, as someone said, "If the Lord gave you a lousy singing voice, give it back to him!" The early Methodists shouted, clapped, and sang loud songs of joy, but they soon got the message that church is a place where you are quiet, somber, reflective, where you weep for your sins rather than sing loud songs.

The focus shifted from resurrection to death. Easter was relegated to one Sunday a year. How often do we sing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"? One Sunday a year, then we go back to "The Old Rugged Cross." The great music of Christianity is focused on the passion and death of Jesus, with little room, if any, for resurrection. Handel's Messiah with its "Hallelujah Chorus" is an exception; the rest are hung up on suffering and death. A minister once said to Groucho Marx, "Groucho, I want to shake your hand for all the joy you have brought into the world." Grouch responded, "Thank you. And I want to shake your hand for all the joy you have taken out of the world."

We have reason for joy and celebration in our church. Did you notice there were over 100 in Sunday School last Sunday-- 106, and that there were 103 more people in Easter Worship than a year ago! Rejoice! Our congregation is loosening up. Mt. Pisgah AME Zion helped us realize we can have fun in church, that we can clap, sing loudly, and laugh! But, I sense we are still a little uncomfortable. Especially during Communion are some people still uncomfortable. Somehow we think we are not supposed to sing loud songs of joy; that we are supposed to be quiet, contemplative and meditative. Let me give us permission to have fun in church!

Let me make a case this morning for the celebrating of Communion! There is a place for quiet, contemplative, meditative Communion, but not in a corporate worship service! The very word communion implies that Communion is not a solitary, private exercise. It is a corporate, community act. Does your family gather together occasionally, perhaps at Thanksgiving?. When aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents gather for a family celebration, can you imagine someone saying, "Now, let's be quiet. No smiling. No laughter. Let's all ponder our sins and shortcomings." Communion is not a gathering of individual sinners. Communion is the gathering of the church family, which is why we invite and welcome children. When we have Communion, we gather as God's family to rejoice in each other, to rejoice in God, to celebrate Easter, to celebrate God's victory, to celebrate God's love.

That is how Communion was celebrated in the early church until the prudes and prunes took over. How do we know? First, Jesus loved parties, and Jesus instituted Communion in the midst of a party. Secondly, Paul told the Corinthians they were harming the fellowship with their individualistic behavior. 1 Corinthians 11:20-22,

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?

That is not quite the way we celebrate Communion, is it? In the early church, Communion was a gathering of the church family where they ate, drank, feasted, and fellowshiped-- enjoying each other and their fellowship with the risen Lord. When some began making it a private, individual celebration, and ate and drank by themselves, Paul accused them of violating and breaking the fellowship. It wasn't long before the prudes and prunes took over, and the pendulum swung too far the other way. Communion changed from being a party to being a funeral for Jesus, with a Hammond organ playing "Abide With Me" with a heavy tremolo while each person individually wept for his/her sins.

I'm exaggerating because I'm trying to make the point that celebrating Communion is an Easter experience, not a Good Friday experience. Good Friday was not the last word! The cross was not the last word! Sober, somber, serious and boring are not the final words. Easter, Resurrection, Victory, Laughter and Rejoicing are the final words! Amen.

I have two addenda: This morning, we are going to do Communion differently. I would like us to broaden the fellowship of our congregation. I will be asking you to stand in a circle, call each other by name, and serve each other.

There is an old custom which, thanks again to the prudes and prunes, has long disappeared from the church, except for a few Orthodox congregations. On the Monday after Easter, churches gathered for an Easter festival. They celebrated the resurrection with a feast, folk dancing and games, and then they gathered in the sanctuary where they told jokes and humorous anecdotes. They were celebrating the "big joke" God played on the devil in the resurrection! Let's revive some of the old custom. I feel like having a party! Tomorrow evening at 7:00, you are invited to a party in the Fireside Room. Admission is one joke-- a clean joke!

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris