The Gratitude of Christ

Do you think of Jesus as a thankful person? It’s common for us to think of him as a wise and learned teacher, an able leader, a person who was clear about the truth and the truth of his relationship with God. We know from the Gospel stories that Jesus cared about those who struggled, people who were the outcasts of society, without power, voice, or political clout. He was moved by compassion and justice to improve any situations he could for people—healing the blind and lame, reassuring the widow, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger—and he urged us to care and pray and do our best to lessen the suffering we see around us as well.

Jesus was unimpressed by—and in fact had some hard words for—people who made a show of their faith without really feeling it within. They knew the prayers to recite, the rituals to perform, the laws to obey, but it was an empty practice. Jesus had a divinely reliable inner compass that helped him know the intentions at the center of the hearts of those he served. And this—in accord with his seamless relationship with God—always seemed to be at the center of his teachings. Over and over again in the parables Jesus’ offered, we are encouraged to get our hearts right with God, to learn what it means to worship in spirit and in truth, to care for one another and contribute to our world not because we’re afraid we’ll get in trouble if we don’t, but rather because we know and love God so much that our love and thanks just spills out, blessing and helping a hurting world.

Jesus is often portrayed as a “suffering servant,” one who lamented over the state of the world and when push came to shove, he suffered in silence rather than speaking in rebuke to those in power who were plotting to take his life. Those snapshots are certainly there in the stories of Jesus’ life: the struggle in the garden of Gethsemane, the angry afternoon when he overturned the tables in the temple, the day he wept with Mary and Martha about the—temporary–death of their brother Lazarus.

We also know the stories about the divine goodness and forbearance of Christ. We think of him as the “meek and mild” Jesus Charles Wesley’s lyrics so beautifully describe:

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child.
Pity my simplicity.
Suffer me to come to thee.

Loving Jesus, gentle lamb,
In thy gracious hands I am;
Make me, Savior, what thou art,
Live thyself within my heart.

It’s not hard for us, knowing what we know, to appreciate the seriousness of Jesus’ mission and ministry. We each know how it feels to care about and share the burdens of the loved ones closest to us—can you imagine feeling that same concern for all of humanity?

With such a monumental sense of purpose, we might wonder what the Jesus would be like in a simple day to day encounter. Would he be thoughtful and somber or smiling and friendly? Introverted or extroverted? If he came to have tea with us this afternoon, would he give us a private lecture on something that needs to change in our lives, or would he just smile and chat and enjoy the time and the tea? Think about it; you’re sitting there together at your kitchen table. What is he like? How do you feel, sitting there with him, hands cradling the warm cup? Would you feel uncomfortable, or awed, or tongue-tied, knowing he knows everything there is to know about you—and well, he is the presence of God, right there, before your eyes? Maybe you’d feel so loved and accepted and valued that you’d never want him to leave. You might have a good laugh together about the coin in the fish’s mouth or Peter trying to walk on water. It’s worth thinking about, what it would really feel like to sit there in a quiet moment having a cup of tea with Christ?

When I ask myself that question, the answer is a kind of warm wonderfulness that starts in my heart and spreads outward. I imagine that in that moment, all of life would feel suddenly right. Time would stop and peace would seem to envelope the whole world, maybe just because of the twinkle in his eye. I picture him smiling, and maybe laughing, telling stories with ease, enjoying the gift of the moment. Fully present. So present he makes me fully present, too. This is not a Christ who is burdened by an enormous cosmic purpose, but a free, joyful, living Christ, shining the light of God into each heart and making it glad, setting it free. This is the Christ who comes to teach his people himself.

In his book, The Humor of Christ, D. Elton Trueblood makes the case that we often focus on the tragedy of the cross and miss the moments of joy and humor in Jesus’ story along the way. Trueblood suggests that in his teachings Jesus often used irony, he encouraged laughter, he purposely included outrageous examples, and he designed many of his parables to bring smiles as well as understanding. This more light-hearted, in-the-moment Christ is all we know him to be—serious and earnest, loving and kind, playful and wise—and he possesses a full range of beautiful, complex, human qualities, just like us. That enabled him to live deeply, and truthfully, and meaningfully, even as he fulfilled the purpose that would ultimately lead to his death.

You may think that living with joy, gratitude, and purpose is impossible when we are nearing the ends of our lives, but I can tell you from my experience in hospice that the opposite is often true. There is something freeing about knowing time is short, realizing that each moment really and truly matters. We stop spending time on things that aren’t important and focus on what matters most. Priorities become clear. People often live their last months and weeks with a heightened sense of purpose, clarity, truth, and love because they’ve given themselves permission to let go of the lesser things, the things that sap their energy and eat up their time.

It’s no longer most important to get the gutters cleaned and the fence fixed. Now what matters is having that cup of tea with a dear friend. Or watching the birds at the feeder. Or marveling at the stars or the clouds, the trees or our loved one’s eyes. Precious things—sometimes brushed aside in the crush of a busy life—have our permission now to be the precious things they are. Moments matter to an exquisite degree. We recognize them as gifts from God. Our grateful hearts open.

In the New Testament story we heard today, Jesus demonstrated the importance of saying thank you for whatever blessing we find in a situation—no matter how small it may be. In this story, Jesus has gone out on a boat to get a break from the crowds. Different theologians have different theories about why he needed a break just then: some say he’d just heard that John the Baptist has been killed, Matthew Henry’s commentary says that Jesus has heard that Herod now thinks he is the reincarnation of John the Baptist, which puts him and his ministry at risk, so he wanted to move outside Herod’s reach.

So Jesus gets in a boat and heads across the lake and then sees the massive crowds following him on foot along the shore. His heart is stirred with compassion for them. He knows the importance of their need and yearning. Even though he needs rest, Jesus comes back and joins the people, curing the sick and no doubt healing hearts.

The crowds continue to stay as evening approaches; As it begins to get dark, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him to send the crowds away so they can go into nearby villages and buy food. It seems like a reasonable suggestion; they feel they’ve done a full day’s work and they don’t want folks to go hungry. But Jesus, still feeling tender toward the people, has another suggestion. “You give them something to eat,” he says.

Can you imagine the faces of the disciples when Jesus says that? They must have been dumbfounded. Where will we find food for all these people? They probably asked each other. They had only the five loaves of bread and two fish they had brought for their own supper—surely that would not feed the thousands of people around them.

Jesus tells them to bring the loaves and fishes to him and has the people sit down on the grass. At this point in the story, Matthew Henry’s commentary says, “Here is not so much as a cloth spread, no plates or napkins laid, no knives or forks, nor so much as a bench to sit down on; but, as if Christ intended indeed to reduce the world to the plainness and simplicity, and so to the innocency and happiness, of Adam in paradise, he commanded them to sit down on the grass.” Nothing more is needed, Jesus demonstrates, than you and me and God.

Jesus took the loaves and the fish and looked up to heaven—acknowledging God as the source of this present goodness—and he gave thanks. It’s important to note here that Jesus was giving thanks for what he had, right there in that precise moment, even though it looked like much less than what they actually needed. This is a good reminder for us that in every situation—even the most difficult ones—there is always something to thank God for, always a place where God is already working, and that’s where we need to start. Are we hoping to grow our meeting? We can begin by thanking God for each precious person here today. Are we praying to heal an illness? We can thank God for where we feel well and whole and strong right now. Do we want to experience more love in the world? Let’s celebrate and thank God for every single glimmer of Light we discover in our days. When we can feel grateful for what we have right now—whatever our starting point is, no matter what we need down the road—that becomes a creative moment. Our recognition and thanks for what’s here opens our hearts and minds to the reality of God’s presence—and when that happens, anything is possible. We are suddenly able to focus on God and God’s goodness instead of clinging tenaciously to what we think we lack.

After Jesus gave thanks he broke the bread and he gave the broken pieces to the disciples to share with the people. And somewhere in there, a miracle happened and kept happening, spreading itself through the crowd and multiplying the blessing. Don’t you wonder what Jesus was thinking as he held up the bread and looked to heaven? Was there a silent prayer going on in his heart? Or was he simply affirming inwardly what he already knew: That God truly meets every need, and that just by asking (“Ask and it shall be given you,” remember), he was sure to receive.

Matthew tells us that all told, every one of the 5,000 men, women, and children ate their fill and 12 basketfuls of pieces were left over. Thanks to the gratitude of Christ and the faithful provision of God, the disciples ended up with considerably more than they started with, and the needs of all the people were met along the way.

It would be wonderful if from that day forward, everyone on the hillside that day was able to live with the confidence the psalmist shared in our Old Testament reading today: “The Lord is my strength and my shield, in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” It’s kind of the pinnacle, isn’t it, of living in direct communion with God?

It’s likely, though, that human nature being what it is, no matter how monumental that day was for them, over time their sense of blessing will get tested by doubt and worry. It happens to us all—high moments, awareness of the Light, and then trials and circumstances arise that make us wonder. It’s a good thing we have help. If we can remember, no matter what comes, to look for God right in the midst of our daily circumstances, our hearts will respond with the calm and confident faith that shows us what we can be grateful for and serves as the seed of change.

So as the holiday arrives this week, let’s make it a point to notice all our blessings, large and small. God will use our awareness and our gratitude to shine more Light and hope into our world, which greatly needs God’s comforting presence.

 

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