A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Grace & Gratitude, Part IV: A Eucharistic Community
March 5, 2015
Every parent knows there are some things that children seem congenitally wired to say or not to say. What child doesn’t go through a “No!” phase or a “Mine!” phase? The only question is whether they will be able to outgrow them before they become adults. As pervasively as children are prone to say those words, they are averse to others, perhaps chief among them, “I’m sorry” and “thank you.” Why do we resist expressing gratitude from such an early age?
Our resistance to saying “thank you” has deep and complex roots. We don’t want to acknowledge that we are indebted to others; rather, we yearn to be self-determining and self-sufficient.
Some will say “thank you” as a way to manipulate, such as those who say “thanks in advance” for a gift they hope to elicit. Some folk give in order to make their recipients feel they must give in return as their appropriate “thanks.” Then there are those who turn against us if we don’t express thanks for their gifts or their service in the way they think we should.
Yet despite all the ways we twist thanksgiving into something perverse, “thanks” remains the core of our appropriate response to God. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” is the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. As the psalmist unfolds all the dimensions of God’s goodness to us, we are prompted to respond repeatedly with outpoured thanks for God’s steadfast love that “endures forever.” That steadfast love is the heart of grace. The only appropriate response to grace is gratitude. When we fail to grasp the fullness of the grace by which God claims us and carries us, we become thankless. Instead of gratitude, our tongues and hearts become salted with complaint, accusation, self-interest, suspicion, and cynicism.
Gratitude is less about the words on our tongue than about the ways we live. Words matter, to be sure. Words of blame – the opposite of gratitude – are corrosive and cancerous to ourselves and to our neighbors. Yet gratitude is about more than words. The later Hebrew prophets, then Jesus himself, roundly excoriated folk for singing their psalms of thanksgiving in worship, yet living by selfish calculation.
Gratitude-shaped living is a three-way posture. First, it is our fitting response to the God who has reached out to us by grace. Second, it is our committed stewardship of the creation that this God has given into our care. Third, it is our holy living with others who, like us, are created in God’s image and dependent on God’s grace. Today we consider the first of these three postures - gratitude as the center of our response to God.
Thanksgiving is the essence of Christian worship. From its very beginnings, regular Christian worship distinguished itself from other religious worship by being centered around a meal. It was at the table that the church learned to pray, to listen to God’s word, and to offer itself for the sake of the world.
Jesus’ ministry was suffused with participation in and stories about meals. There were ordinary meals at the homes of various hosts, grand feasts such as the feeding of the five thousand, social celebrations like the wedding feast at Cana, teaching-opportunity meals such as when Jesus visited with Mary while Martha busied herself with meal preparations, and meals charged with enduring significance – the Last Supper and the meal with the disciples in Emmaus on Easter evening. In most of these instances, the meals were literally graced by Jesus giving thanks, something so characteristically identified with him that the disciples in Emmaus who didn’t recognize him by his appearance or his teaching suddenly recognized him when he gave thanks for the evening meal. (Luke 24:30-31)
Gathering at table with thanksgiving is not only central to Jesus’ own activity – he specified that his disciples do the same whenever they gathered after he was gone. Whenever you gather, “Do this in remembrance of me” – give thanks, eat, drink, tell the gospel story.
The Christian table soon became known as the “Thanksgiving Place,” which is literally what “Eucharist” means. It is the core of Christian worship. Giving thanks lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and he calls us to do likewise.
In earliest Christian worship, the believers brought food to bless and share whenever they gathered, with plenty to spare that was then distributed to the needy. The thanksgiving table was also a mission table. The same is true today for those whose worship is suffused with gratitude – there is a seamless unity of our thanks to God with mission outreach to the needy around us.
Eucharist is not merely a liturgical act, but the very essence of the Christian community gathered before God. Even if we do not celebrate communion, Christian gathering is yet necessarily Eucharistic. Unfettered thanks to God and service to the needy are as inseparable as they are essential. This is the Jesus way. Is it ours too?
With gratitude to God,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters.