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