What's Tony Thinking

Rejoice with those who rejoice


“Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Paul encourages us in Romans 12: 15. Sounds like a slam-dunk. You’re happy, I’m happy. But is it? Perhaps this is not so easy as it sounds. In fact, “rejoicing with those who rejoice” may require a transformation of our inner being.

How come?

Well, sometimes when others rejoice, we have thoughts we would rather not admit — even to ourselves. “Why her, not me?” “What’s he done to deserve this?” “When is my ship, so to speak, going to come in?”

That’s the shadow side that lurks at events like weddings, awards ceremonies, and other occasions of general rejoicing.

In these matters I have noticed a change in myself over the years. My “rejoicing with those who rejoice” is no longer, it seems, shadowed by comparison or envy. To admit to having such feelings in the past is embarrassing. I do because I am fairly confident that I am not the only one.

But this change, the freedom to cleanly rejoice with those those who rejoice, also feels like a gift. I attribute it, in part, to aging and being, for the most part, at peace with myself. But still it is grace.

That is, it does not feel like something I’ve done or accomplished through my own earnest effort. Truly, I haven’t. Rather, it is like a gift I’ve received.

A look at the context of these words in Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome gives this even more meaning. Paul’s injunction rests in that section of this extraordinary letter that follows his long exploration of what God has done to reconcile humankind with himself, roughly the first eleven chapters of Romans.

With Chapter 12 things turn. Chapter 12, in which our verse lies, begins with a “therefore.” To be more precise, it begins with these words, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God . . .” As some wag put it, “What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” Answer: our ethics (chapter 12 and those that follow) are our response to what God has done, to God’s grace towards us. Hence the “therefore.”

Here are verses 14 – 16 in which this counsel about rejoicing is set. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

These things don’t happen in us because we try really, really hard. They aren’t achievements, so much as they are a transformation God works in us by his grace. And sometimes that work can take a long time! But is God’s work, God’s work in us.

Now, Easter approaches, on April Fool’s Day no less! Easter can be a challenge to preachers whose stock-in-trade is moralism, to those who neglect the “therefore.”  Moralistic sermons are all about us. They urge us to do this and not do that. They focus on our human potential or our human failure. They ask us to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps.

Easter is not, however, about us.

Easter — resurrection — is the announcement of the new and totally unexpected thing that God has done, is doing and continues to do — breaking the powers of sin and death at work in us and in the world. Here God, not us, is the subject of the verbs.

To rejoice freely with those who rejoice, and to do so without shadow of envy or invidious comparison, seems to me a little (or perhaps not so little) resurrection victory.

So Easter . . . may the God who will not be held captive by the tomb, work resurrection victories in your life and mine, and throughout our weary beautiful world.

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