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On Being the Church: “Living out of Gratitude”

On Being the Church: “Living out of Gratitude” June 28, 2021

But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 10 And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. 11 So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. 12 For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”  (2 Corinthians 8:7-15, ESV)

One of my favorite websites is Despair.com.  Devoted to a slightly off-beat and oblique view of life, Despair. com specializes in “De-motivational posters.”  Beautiful inspirational pictures, suitable for framing, with blue and gold borders, one word inspirations to live by, and de-motivating definitions.

One such poster features a picture of the Grand Canyon, with the inspirational word, “Legacy.” Below it, the definition reads: “It took millions of years to create something this extraordinary.  You have about seventy-four.”  Another more recent poster, probably written in reaction to our social and political landscape shows an astronaut in space, facing the profile of Mars, with the inspirational words, “life goals” and the demotivating definition: “Because a frozen, lifeless hellscape bathing in radiation is looking pretty good to me right now.”

The website came to mind, because if I were going to summarize Paul’s message to the Corinthians, the motto he would be commending is something like “Live Gratefully;” a triad of words: “Grace, Gratitude, Generosity;” or, simply, the command, “Be Grateful.”  Writing to the Corinthian Christians, who were relatively prosperous, Paul was trying to explain why they should care about their impoverished brothers and sisters in the church in Jerusalem and contribute to an offering he was collecting.

The problem, of course, is that — as a one-word, life-motto — the word, “grateful,” is a tough sell.  And for all kinds of good reasons.  Unlike other words and phrases that we might live by, the word, “grateful” seems to lack any immediate goal or direction.  It sounds passive.  And it is hard to measure.

Another problem with it, of course, is that we just don’t think about gratitude in that fashion.  Being grateful is often all about a specific gesture or favor.  I do something for you.  You say, “thanks.”  I say, “You’re welcome,” and we are done.

We can all probably remember having this transactional understanding of gratitude drummed into our heads by at least one relative.  I had one who threatened to sanction her grandchildren, telling them, “If you don’t say thank you to me, I will never give you another thing.”  (It was hard to know what the right response was in that case.)

It is worth remembering, however, that this penchant for measurable life goals is a relatively recent approach to life.  And it isn’t necessarily without its limitations.  The other thing to remember about such life goals is that finite measurable goals are almost never the thing that reassures us about the reliability of another human being.

There are certain ineffable characteristics about another human being that prompts us to trust him or her, regardless of the context.  Wisdom, integrity, a commitment to the truth, honesty, trustworthiness, character, a capacity for love or compassion are the qualities that draw us to others.  And they are qualities that require a lifetime of effort, they are hard to quantify, and they are even harder to measure.

So, when Paul commends gratitude to the Corinthians, what does he have in mind?  And why does it command our attention in another day and another age, long after Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians?

The clue appears in these words: “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

You see, Paul is alluding to a deep truth about the experience of the church and the logic of its existence.  We depend upon the grace given us in Jesus Christ.  That grace, Christ’s effort to heal us, to draw us close, is a gift.  We have done nothing to earn it.  It is not the product of our effort.  And we are completely dependent upon it.

To receive a gift that incorporates our lives into the life of Christ, to let that gift fill and shape us, requires gratitude.  Not as part of a single transaction.  Saying “thank you” is not enough.  The kind of gratitude that Paul is talking about here is a lifelong disposition.  A recognition of the truth about ourselves, about our dependence upon Christ, and about the generosity of God.

And living out of gratitude is the only way that members of the body of Christ can live.  The moment that we live out of entitlement or we live as if the grace of God is our work, we cut ourselves off from that gift and we cut ourselves off from the truth about ourselves.  To put it another way, Paul is saying that the grace of God should lead to a life of gratitude and gratitude should make us generous, just as God is generous.

I can’t tell you what a life of gratitude will look like exactly.  That will vary with each individual.  But I can describe the kind of questions that the grateful ask:

  • How can I be available to the work of Christ in the world?
  • How can I make Christ more present?
  • How can I make the hope of Christ real to others?
  • What more can I give?
  • How can I come alongside those who are lost and in need?

You see, gratitude doesn’t seek to simply dispense money to people, though giving of our wealth is important.  The grateful also know that as members of Christ’s body their relationship with God and with others has been restored and healed.  And in gratitude, they seek to make the same experience – that same belonging – possible for others.

Now, if that sounds open-ended, lifelong, and hard to quantify, that is because it is.  Gratitude and generosity are not qualities that the church displays now and then.  And expressions of gratitude and generosity are not once and done.

Gratitude and the generosity in the church are qualities that shape a way of life and flow from the grace of God in Christ.  Christ’s gifts to us are not only the inspiration for our way of life, but the source of our strength and ability to live lives marked by gratitude and generosity.  And it is the work of the Holy Spirit that alerts us to fresh opportunities and new ways of giving expression to our gratitude.

As Thomas Merton puts it:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us- and He has given us everything.  Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.  Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.  For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience.  And that is what makes all the difference.

Those last words are of particular importance in identifying what it means to be the church.  In a Wednesday evening study on the book of Revelation, we have been talking about the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.  In the early chapters of the book each church is represented by an archangel and a lampstand.  And each church is addressed by Christ as having a particular spirit, a particular disposition. Some of the churches are characterized as faithful.  Some of them are characterized as rich and self-satisfied.  One is even described as dead.

Those letters should give us pause.  We Episcopalians talk a lot about church profiles and the literature on church growth talks about family-sized, pastoral-sized, and programmatic-parishes and those conversations have their place.  But I am absolutely certain that one day, when we sit with Christ in that Light that measures all things with complete and utter clarity, none of those things will matter much.

What Christ will want to know is this: Was our life together as the body of Christ marked by gratitude and generosity, grounded in his grace?

Amen, may it be so.

 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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