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Gratitude in Community

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

Here at New City, we have been exploring the idea of gratitude and what it looks like expressed in community. The challenge that Zach gave us this past Sunday was to be a church, a community, where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness.” There is so much packed into those five words, and this post will attempt to explore what living out this challenge means for us, not only as individuals, but as a people called to live a life together saturated with thanksgiving. This exploration will focus on 1) seeing our individual giftings as God’s pure grace in our lives and 2) viewing the community itself as a gift, transforming our participation in the community.

1) Gratitude means that we see all things as a pure gift from God.

This principle of “gift,” both on the individual and communal level, is the heartbeat of what it means to be the people of God. If in my own heart I view my abilities as primarily my own and my skills as ones that only I developed, then I will build walls of pride and status that will lead to isolation. If I own my abilities, then I can only offer them at great cost to myself. In contrast, if we see our giftings (notice the language shift here?) as not our own, but as the result of God’s grace in our lives, then we have no need to protect them, but only to faithfully steward them for the sake of others.

This posture of seeing the whole of our lives as a gift also allows us to more readily see the gifts in others. If I take sole ownership of my talents, I will naturally see them as better and more useful than the talents of others, which leads to unhealthy comparison and envy. This can develop factions deep within and oftentimes pit us against our brothers and sisters. This animosity runs directly against the unity that Jesus prays over his Church “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

However, if I see my talents as the sole result of God’s grace in my life, I begin to notice God’s grace in all people. The walls are broken down and this deep recognition of gift in myself opens the door wide open for the practice of thankfulness, celebration, humility, collaboration, and love between members of a community. In order to have gratitude, we must see the whole of our lives as a gift from the Good Gift Giver.

2) Seeing our community as a gift necessarily transforms our relationship to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together has a convicting and powerful word for us as the Church:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together… God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship,…God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

Bonhoeffer here gives us two distinct and contrasting approaches to our life together as Christians. He says that we can be “demanders” who have our own ideas of what the community should be like, or as “thankful recipients” who see the community fundamentally as a gift from God. If I enter a community with dreams of leadership without service, of status without humility, of ownership without giving, then I am living in what Bonhoeffer calls a “wish dream,” and I am a “destroyer” of that community from the very beginning. Instead, if when I stand next to my brothers and sisters in awe of the God who placed them in my life, by that very posture I am allowing for the Spirit of God to move and work. How great is the design that God has for His people!

This is the crucial point of Bonhoeffer’s remarks: Jesus is the one who makes this kind of community possible. Through his faithfulness on the Cross, he has destroyed the need for distinctions and “dividing walls of hostility” and gives us all an invitation to a community mediated by him and his finished work (Ephesians 2:14). What a beautiful image! We now no longer have to rely on what we can offer to others, but what Christ can offer through us. The ultimate gift that we have been given is God Himself in Jesus Christ. If we neglect to live into that reality, not only will we begin to erode our own hearts with pride and envy, but we will then begin to erode the community around us. We must remember that the health of our hearts will always manifest itself externally.

Lastly, because we live in a culture so marked by the pulses of individualism, status, competition, and isolation, just think of how a robust community of gratefulness rooted in the person of Jesus Christ could witness to the world around us. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his people ends this way: “So that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Seeing our lives as gracious gift leads to gratitude; gratitude leads to unity; and unity then creates a light for the world that cannot be ignored. The world is hungry for healthy community, and truly healthy community is found only in the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Let us be that vision, that answer, for which the world hungers so that we may have the opportunity to invite others into the ever-expanding table of Jesus.

So, how do we at New City live into this challenge to be a community where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness?” We pursue Jesus together and remember that it is in His gift of Himself that we truly find ourselves and each other.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Harper, 1954, 26-28

Faithful To

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  Matthew 21:43

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor