The Grammar of Grace

In the midst of all the insanity that is on social media, especially right now, there are some fun little diversions there to enjoy in between the never-ending series of Zoom calls. Many of you won’t be surprised to know that I’ve gravitated towards the ones related to music. There’s been a renewal of an old game in which you list concerts that you actually attended and one that is made up, and others have to guess which one is fake.

I’m in the middle of a Facebook “challenge” right now to post the cover of an album that greatly influenced your taste in music once a day for ten days. And a few days ago, I saw one circulating inviting you to ruin a band’s name by changing just one letter, which is harder than it seems. My best ones so far are The Beagles, Pearl Ham, and the Rolling Stoves, but that last one is actually a pretty good band name, so I’m not sure it counts. I’m enjoying that one, in particular, because it’s a great illustration of just how radically meaning can change with just a small shift.

The “jam” in Pearl Jam immediate conjures one of the most basic motifs in rock music: extended and virtuosic music playing in a group, and the band itself is one of the icons of rock music of the last 30 years, so just hearing the name conjures up its signature sound to any rock music lover. But Pearl Ham sounds like a knock-off brand of deli meat that’s been put on special by a second-rate grocery store as it starts to turn. And the difference is only one letter.

In our Scripture lesson today, arguably the most important word is also one of the shortest. I say that because to change it, as sometimes happens when people recall this passage instead of reading it, turns the meaning of the verse into something very different than what the Scripture actually says.

This whole passage comes from the end of Paul’s relatively short first letter to the Christian church in Thessalonica, a large city in modern-day Greece. The Thessalonian Christians were suffering under persecution for their faith, and Paul is writing to encourage them in that moment. Just before our passage this morning, he has assured them that no matter what circumstances befall them, God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ are unshakable for them.

And then, in our passage, he begins answering the question of how we are to behave while awaiting our final redemption in Christ. That is what these instructions he gives are about: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” So the most important word there is “in”: Paul says that we are to give thanks in all circumstances.

What Paul most definitely did not say or even imply is that we are to give thanks for all circumstances. Do you hear the difference? Just one letter more, just one short word changed, and yet the instruction becomes something monstrous. There is all the difference in the world between giving thanks in the midst of difficult or terrible circumstances and giving thanks for them. And yet there are Christians who get confused about that sometimes, who argue that to be Christian means to be thankful for everything that comes to them, good or bad, helpful or harmful, because everything is an opportunity to grow in faith.

So let me say clearly that we are not called to be thankful for everything. We are not called to be thankful for poverty, for abuse, for violent acts of hate and fear. We are not called to be thankful for a virus that will shortly have killed over 100,000 people in the United States alone in just the past three months. In fact, to be thankful for such things or anything like them would be fundamentally opposed to the most basic truths of the Christian gospel: that God loves us and this world so much that God was willing to be born in human form in Jesus Christ, and to experience the fullness of human existence, from the greatest joys to the deepest suffering and even death itself, in order save us from death and give us abundant and eternal life.

So giving thanks for evil or tragedy is neither good nor necessary. But that is not the only way that Christian gratitude is abused. More commonly, and almost as bad, some Christians weaponize gratitude as a means to silence what we might call “righteous discontent.” Tellingly, this is often done by Christians who are in positions of social and/or economic power towards people are not in such positions, especially if they are pointing out inequities in opportunity or treatment: “You should be grateful for what you have, grateful for the opportunities you still get that people elsewhere in the world do not.” What such responses miss is that authentic gratitude and righteous discontent are not mutually exclusive.

You can be grateful for the good things in your life without giving up your concern and critique for those things you experience or witness that are opposed to God’s justice, mercy, love, and peace. It is not only possible to hold those two perspectives simultaneously, it is necessary; otherwise we are closing our eyes to some of the most important aspects of our life and faith. Either we are ignoring the blessings from God and the good things in our life for which we should be giving thanks, or we are ignoring those actions and forces and systems at work that are opposed to God’s will for this world, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is why it is so important to keep what we might call “the grammar of grace” in mind. In fact, in the case of this particular verse, it is literally the grammar of grace. The word here that is translated “give thanks” is the Greek word eucharisteo, from which we get one of the names for the sacrament of Communion: Eucharist, “thanksgiving.” That is the subject and verb of this sentence; the focus is on gratitude. “In all circumstances” is a prepositional phrase that answers an implied question: “when are we supposed to give thanks?” “In all circumstances.” The implied question is when (and maybe where) to give thanks, not why. Why is answered in the next phrase: “for this is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Giving thanks, in other words, is the will of God; not the circumstances; both of these phrases modify the initial command to give thanks. That’s crucial, because what Paul is saying is that it is God’s will for us to be able to give thanks, and to be able to do so in all circumstances. That’s because giving thanks is always the correct response to receiving God’s grace. What Paul is insisting upon is that there are no circumstances in which God’s grace cannot also be found at work somewhere, and therefore no circumstances in which there is not opportunity for gratitude, for giving thanks in response to that grace. But it God’s grace that we give thanks for, grace in the midst of all circumstances and in spite of some of them. Which is very, very different from saying that we are supposed to give thanks for the circumstances themselves.

We are continuing to live through difficult and uncertain circumstances right now. And, in fact, it feels in many ways like those circumstances are growing more uncertain, not less, as we are looking at the end of the stay-at-home order that we will have been living under for almost three months by the time it is lifted on June 5. Now, we have all struggled with the burdens of staying at home during this time, and some of us have struggled much more than others: with illness ourselves, with grief for someone who died from the virus, with losing jobs and therefore healthcare coverage, and much more.

Yet even with those important caveats, it is still true that we are entering a period of even greater uncertainty as we emerge from the stay-at-home order. How long will this yellow phase of “aggressive mitigation” last, and what will it take to move to “green”?  Will the economy begin to recover, or are we in for an extended deep recession? Will people actually continue to practice the essential disciplines of social distancing to avoid stimulating a second wave of infections?

As we ask these questions and many more, I think Paul’s exhortations to the Thessalonians will be good to keep in mind. Because what Paul is essentially telling them and us is that while your circumstances may change, there are certain things for Christians that always stay the same: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. Test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. In fact, those last instructions form a kind of bookend, since he begins this section by saying. “see that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”

I think he says a version of that instruction twice for two reasons. First, it is a particularly hard one to obey; when someone does wrong to us, we often feel both tempted and justified in responding in kind. And second, it is a particularly powerful means of giving thanks to God in all circumstances, in having our behavior determined by our response to God’s grace and not to whatever circumstances befall us, no matter how unforeseen or undesirable.

This last week, a Presbyterian pastor who’s about two degrees of separation from me (he went to seminary with several pastor friends of mine) demonstrated that when he posted a video of himself in his car. In the video, he holds up a face mask to the camera and says, “so that’s a thing that just happened,” and points to a large discolored area on the front of the mask. He goes on to explain that he’s been running errands, taking his dogs to the vet and going to the grocery store, all while wearing his mask. And as he was returning to his car in the parking lot of the grocery store, someone walking by him suddenly spat in his face for wearing a mask in public. That’s what the discoloration on his mask was.

He concludes the brief video by saying that he wears the mask to protect others, but that if people are really against that, they can just decide not to wear a mask, but let’s treat each other with some kindness and at least not spit on each other. His local media soon picked up the story, and when asked why he didn’t retaliate or just file a police report, he said, “Folks are suffering right now, losing jobs, losing loved ones. All the uncertainty we’re living with, so that made it a pretty easy turn the other cheek moment for me.”

He concluded by saying that he really believes that people are just struggling to figure out how to get through the pandemic. Many people were stunned and moved by such a generous response to such an appalling event, and it quickly became an extraordinary opportunity to embody Christ’s radical love and forgiveness in a way that was immediately and powerfully real to people who have no connection to the Christian faith, and to most of the rest of us Christians who, if we’re being honest with ourselves, would have struggled to response with such compassion and grace. I know I would have.

You see, gratitude is not about paying a debt or fulfilling an obligation; it is not about covering up or ignoring or excusing the difficult or unjust realities in our lives. It is a way of life that responds to God’s grace and love by extending God’s grace and love to others. It’s why, in traditional Presbyterian worship, the congregation often recites Jesus’ “Summary of the Law” after the Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon, which inextricably links loving God with loving our neighbors as the first and greatest commandment. It’s recited there to remind the congregation how we are called to live lives of gratitude, fulfilling that commandment not as a means of acquiring God’s love but as a sign of thanks for having already received it.

So as we prepare to enter this new phase of life in the time of coronavirus, in all its uncertainty and possibility, let us dedicate ourselves anew to living out Christ’s love in the time of coronavirus in lives of faith and joy and gratitude in all circumstances, fulfilling the charge that I offer every Sunday that is based, in part, on this very passage from 1 Thessalonians: “Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil, but overcome evil with good. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor all persons. Love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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