by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
May 14, 2006
Scriptures: 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-11
“If you love one another God abides in you and His love is made perfect in you.” –1 John 4:
“I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full” –John 15:11
Last night I saw the classic movie “Ben Hur” for the umpteenth time. This movie marks an important memory in our family’s history because years ago when I was courting Rosemary, we went to see it in her home town of Poole, Dorset, and I passed out during the gory scene after the chariot race. So she began picking me up then and has been doing it ever since, and I am deeply grateful. I avoided that scene in subsequent viewings, by simply closing my eyes, but last night I saw it and survived. That triumph is small, however, compared to the impact the major theme of the story, – namely, that vengeance is poison to the soul and violence brings more violence, and that the way of vengeance leads nowhere leaving one desolate at the end of the road, and that, on the contrary, the way of faith in Jesus and love for ones enemies leads to joy and fulfillment, whatever the outward circumstances might turn out to be. I was curiously moved by the film’s comparatively primitive presentation of Jesus and his impact on Judah ben Hur, the vengeful soldier.
All the while I was watching I had in mind that the book was written by a soldier, Gen Lew Wallace, who saw action in the Mexican (1846-7) and Civil (1861-5) wars. Wallace was also a lawyer and presided over several notable post-civil war courts of enquiry. He condemned, for instance, the commander of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga. for the atrocities of that camp. Clearly, Wallace had seen the extremes of cruelty, suffering and violence, from the battlefield to the prison camp, and knew the futility of hatred and vengeance. On a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was surprised to learn that he had been the governor of that Territory from 1878 to 81, – where he and his wife helped found the oldest church in town, the First Presbyterian, – and wrote much of Ben Hur, published in 1880, there. I was pleased to think that such a powerful literary work was the product of our own erstwhile rough and ready American West.
The American West has given us a rich if not refined art of vengeance and violence. So many Western movies are about men controlled by one thought, revenge, on someone who killed their brother, stole their land, had them convicted and imprisoned unjustly, stole their gal. The reality underlying this fiction is of course the actual resentment and often hopelessness of the veterans of the defeated Confederate armies, who unlike the Union veterans did not take jobs building the railroads but took to banditry and lawlessness in the still open Western territories. Instead of building the railroads they robbed the trains.
In regard to revenge and resentment things have not changed, indeed, they have always been the same. Down the generations we have felt powerfully drawn to revenge, and are eaten up with resentment when we cannot satisfy the urge. The very definition of resentment is “frustrated revenge,” and resentment is a potent poison of human relations. Judah ben Hur survived usually fatal circumstances – four years as a galley slave where normal life expectancy was one – driven by his hatred. Indeed one of the characters, the Roman commander himself, says to him, “You hate. That is good. Hatred is good for us; it makes us live.” Vengeance gives us something to live for.
Judah learns from Jesus, however, that hatred is death, not life, that haters lose and lovers win. While Judah hates, his mother and sister are covered with leprosy, when he gives up hating and turns to Jesus the ones on whose behalf he bore the burden of vengeance are cured. They become clean again, healed of his illness. So hatred infects its beneficiaries as well as its bearer.
The Gospel puts the matter in terms of Joy, and it puts Joy in terms of fulfillment. Jesus says, ” I have said this to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full (John 15:11).” The Epistle puts the matter in terms of love, “If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is fulfilled in us (1John 4:12).” Let’s take the obvious step and say that to enjoy is to love, and to enjoy fully is to love utterly.
I want to look at the Gospel text first because it makes an important distinction that the Epistle text does not, namely, between own joy and the divine joy. “My joy in you and your joy fulfilled.” So there is a difference between our own natural joy and His supernatural joy. His joy completes ours. What is our own joy, apart from God? It is the gift of our own life which He gave us in the beginning of our creation. It is life itself. For example, we know that good health and good company and good food, and good adrenalin, depending on our age, can be joyous, should be joyous. We do what we do, when we are morally healthy, because we get joy from doing it.
So why do we need the divine joy to come into us? Because our natural joy is usually tainted, by anxiety or resentment, for instance, and more importantly, because it is unfulfilled in itself. Even under optimal circumstances natural joy does not fulfill us. We are so made that only the joy of God completes us. “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” wrote Augustine in the opening paragraph of his “Confessions.” So we need the divine joy first to cleanse our joy and then to complete it.
Therefore, it was not sufficient that Judah ben Hur merely hear the teaching that hatred brings death and love brings joy; he had also to witness the crucifixion of Jesus and assent to its spiritual message, and allow himself to be drawn into the saving, cleansing joy of the divine love in Jesus, there in the heart of state sponsored sadism and monstrous crime.
The metaphor of this spiritual truth is the grapevine and its branches. The vine bears grapes, and grapes bleed wine, and wine awakens joy. Wine reminds us of blood, and when we drink it we think of the blood of Jesus shed by us to slake our thirst for revenge, and we repent. The metaphor has several more meanings than this: it tells us how God expects us to bear spiritual fruit, like the vine bears grapes, how if we do not bear fruit we shall be cut off, and even if we do we shall be disciplined like a vine branch is pruned so that next season there will be place for more fruit.
In sum, the divine-human joy of abiding in Christ is joyous in its generosity and joyous in its discipline. It is not only one kind of enjoyment it is two. It is the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor and enjoyment of the labor itself, of the expansion of generosity and the contraction of discipline, of the warmth of growth and the pain of contraction, but in all it is joy, and joy realized as love. The Gospel and the Epistle describe the necessary and sufficient cause of this joyous love and loving joy – abiding in Christ as Christ abides in us.
And how do we do that? By doing what Christ tells us to do, “obeying his commandments,” and they are: to love one another, to share ones goods and life with others, to pray, especially for enemies, to meet together around the table and drink wine in memory of him, thus to enter into his joy and enjoy his supernatural love. Let it be so!