By Lee Shelnutt
I have been asked to write on the role gratitude plays in our reflection of God’s imprint. As I do so, I am sitting in a local coffee shop with a large cup of this magic elixir we call coffee. I am looking out at the bustle of 21st century Americana alongside a shop full of chatting patrons. I am listening to some nice acoustic music. If I just pause, just slow down, just reflect for but a moment, I realize there are untold things for which to be grateful. Right? There are ears to hear. There are musicians to create and play and record the music I am hearing and the engineering marvels that make it possible. There are the gifts of the earth like coffee beans and water and the taste buds and health that enable me to recognize this goodness. There are my eyes, which view the hugs of friends as they leave, the wave and smiles exchanged between the shop workers and regular patrons who step in from a grey and cool March day. On and on I could go.
Seated beside me is one of those beautiful souls like we see at Camp Joy – and a loving, patient, and kind mother right by her side. There is goodness; there is blessing to see here. Yes, indeed. Just pause. Just slow down. Just reflect.
As I do, I realize that even in a broken world where sin has affected all, in a broken world where a beautiful young lady can not feed herself well, where snappy words of hurt and discontent are exchanged nearby, where someone sits well-practiced in the lonely art of being unnoticed – even here, if I just pause, just slow down, just reflect, I will realize that there is still much for which to be grateful. Grateful for the promise that in Christ one day these hurts will be no more. Grateful for the fact that we, the Church, proclaim by our words and actions that in nail-pierced hands of the risen and coming again King Jesus there is hope; that our King in the fullness of time stepped into this fallen world, took on human flesh, and did everything necessary for this hope – perfect obedience, the agonies of the cross, and as St. Patrick’s Breastplate so beautifully puts it, “His bursting from the spiced tomb!”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
I have much for which to be grateful. You too, right? Just pause. Just slow down. Just reflect. The coffee shop is a great place to do this. Yet, there is an even better place that helps us pause, slow down, and reflect and that place is where and when we are gathered with our brothers and sisters in Christ before the Table of the Lord.
The Apostle Paul wrote:
“The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
The word behind our English, “when he had given thanks” is the word many rightly use for the Lord’s Supper – Eucharist.
The Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, wrote this about the Lord’s Supper:
“It is both an ordinary natural meal and an extraordinary spiritual meal, in which the host, Christ, offers his own crucified body and shed blood as nourishment for our souls. Accordingly, in the meal that Christ has instituted, everything is important. Nothing in it is devoid of meaning. Everything about it is charged with deep meaning” (Reformed Dogmatics).
The Lord’s Table
Brothers and sisters, if that is so, then the words, “when he had given thanks,” are charged with deep meaning.
In this meal we give thanks. Thanks for what? We give thanks for the beauty of creation. The bread and the cup are symbols and realities of God’s creation and sustaining bounty and his goodness shown to us. They are reminders of fertile soil, sunshine, and rain. They are the fruit of fields of golden grain and vineyards of lush grapes, of plenty. Truly, they are gifts of God. Pause, slow down, reflect and give thanks.
God created all things good. Despite man’s sin there are still these divine, good gifts before our eyes – bread and wine. We struggle to understand why God would still give us, sinful though we are, good things and in our struggle we give thanks.
Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is brokenness. Yes, there is evil in this fallen world. However, evil, brokenness, sin and death are not the final words. This fallen world will be restored, made new in a glorious new heavens and new earth. Therefore, we do not yield to despair, or to cynicism. No, we receive and we take good gifts, prophetic gifts, bread and wine, again and again. We take bread and wine in a counter-cultural, this-world-system-defiant, powerful act of hope and we do what? We pause, slow down, reflect, and we give thanks!
Giving thanks is an act of certain hope. We do not engage in just wishful thinking – no! No, we give thanks because our Savior, our King has done all that is necessary to defeat evil, brokenness, sin and death. He has shed his blood. He has born the wrath of God on the cross. He has crushed the serpent’s head. He has died. He has been buried. He has bursted the bonds of hell and death. He is alive even now! He is the ascended and coming King. He is the bread and wine. We pause, slow down, reflect, and boldly give thanks.
How could we not? We who deserve this brokenness and death to the fullest? We, who instead, receive forgiveness of our sins and the perfect righteousness of Christ to cloth us in the sight of a holy God? We who receive the promise of life and life eternal with our glorious God, worshiping the Lamb? How could we not? Bread and wine. We pause, slow down, reflect and humbly give thanks. How could we not?
Until we get there, there is the gift of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. There is the glorious Bible which feeds our souls. There is prayer, our communication with the Triune God. There is the family of God, the Church. There are the waters of baptism. There is bread and there is wine. We pause, slow down, reflect, and give thanks.
Now, where should such thanksgiving lead our hearts? To that for which we are made. To what Christ came to bring his disciples, his brothers and sisters, his followers, his bride – what he came to give us – to joy! When Jesus taught his disciples that he was the vine and they were the branches and that they must abide in him, he ended with these words:
“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)
Where does thanksgiving lead? Joy. Gordon Smith writes:
A simple but powerful principle of the spiritual life is that thankful people are happy people. It is not that the church does not see the brokenness of the world and the pain that intersects so much of human life. It is not that the church is naive and does not care about the pain; the Christian community sees and feels keenly the brokenness of this world. But in celebration of the Eucharist, the church declares that in the midst of all that is wrong, God is the ruler yet, and God is good. The church believes that something bigger and more ultimate stands at the center of the mess. As Chesterton often insisted, we take joy in the deep things, those things that matter most. Yes, we grieve. But we know that one day those things will pass. When we take the larger view, when we think cosmically, the center of the universe is a throne, and on this throne sits the risen Lord Jesus Christ. This, more than anything, establishes us a people of joy.
Where then does thanksgiving in the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Supper, that place where our hearts are focused on the Lamb of God upon that throne, where does it lead? Joy! Isn’t that where the breaking of bread and giving thanks led the early church? What do we read in Acts 2?
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ….And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God!”
Here is the point. When we rejoice, when we cast our eyes upon bread and wine and see all the good signified, and in our grateful hearts say, “This is very good,” what are we doing? Aren’t we reflecting the image, bearing the imprint of the One who looked upon his creation and saw that,
“It was very good!”
Who looked down upon his Son receiving the waters of baptism and said,
“You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
Who will say one day,
“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
At the Lord’s Table, when we share bread and wine and give thanks, is not our grateful, joyful agreement with God a very reflection of the beauty of our Triune God? Oh, what a privilege and honor it is, to pause, slow down, reflect, give thanks and in the process, reveal the very imprint of our glorious, gracious, triune God!
Rev. Lee Shelnutt is the pastor of Huntersville ARP Church, Huntersville, NC.