Some of us know people who are highly enthusiastic, complimentary, and positive. These are not bad traits! But sometimes such people are so lavish with their praise about every sermon they hear, every restaurant meal they eat, every movie they see that eventually we come to wonder about their judgment and just how valuable getting a compliment from such a person really is. If you are on the receiving end of a “That was a great sermon, pastor!” comment at the church door, you want to believe it. But when you have heard this same person dish out heaping helpings of praise for sermons you know full well were not such stellar messages (whether delivered by you or someone else), you have cause to wonder how genuine even the compliment you just got actually is.
When everything is wonderful, there is a sense in which, conversely, nothing is actually wonderful.
In some ways preachers face a similar conundrum when it comes to gratitude or thanksgiving. Biblically and theologically speaking, the whole of the Christian life is one giant, extended act of thanksgiving. Although only one-third of a confession like the Heidelberg Catechism is devoted to gratitude, the fact is that the first two sections of the catechism talk about things already in the rearview mirror of Christian reality. We find out where sin came from and what it did, and then we explore what God did definitively through Christ to bring about salvation. All of our Christian living is post-misery, post-deliverance. It is now all gratitude, all the time.
But when everything is gratitude and thanksgiving, it can come to feel at times that nothing is actually gratitude or thanksgiving. And maybe that is why we preachers too often cave in to the temptation to turn large swaths of Christian living into . . . something else. We worry that if we ever and always frame up discipleship, virtue, or morality as expressions of thanksgiving for the fact that in Christ it has all been done for us, people will stop listening. Or they won’t take it seriously enough.
And so we slide into making a lot of Christian living all about duty. We use guilt as the doorway through which people must pass in order to feel seriously obligated to go out and live better, more upright, and moral lives. Indeed, we have preached so many “shouldy” sermons in the church (to use a word coined by my friend Meg Jenista) that many people don’t think a message even qualifies as a true sermon unless it ends with a good to-do list of tasks and obligations. People will thank preachers at the church door for giving them an assignment for the week ahead, as this is what will help them feel they are truly pleasing God and so staying on God’s good side. Everybody loves a good old-fashioned moral checklist.
Somehow Christian discipleship being seen as incessant and extended acts of gratitude isn’t quite enough. We need to reframe it. Of course, this causes plenty of theological and spiritual mayhem. Many people quietly believe that the difference between themselves and their unbelieving coworkers is not the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross but the fact that they live better lives than those other clueless and immoral folks. That attitude in turn leads to a Galatians-like notion that we are actively contributing to our own salvation, perhaps filling in any gaps left even after Christ gave his all. As a T-shirt I saw some while back put it, “Jesus Did His Best, You Do the Rest.”
As some of us know, however, today there is also a flipside to closet legalism, and that is the lax attitudes of those who embrace what Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism.” In this mindset the idea is not that we need to please God by living moral lives, but rather that God is pleased with us even if we don’t do very well in the moral arena. God’s not paying that close of attention anyway and is mostly interested in seeing whether or not we are pretty good people who stay ever-so-slightly ahead of the moral curve vis-à-vis others.
But when faced with this attitude, again we preachers are less likely to reach for the language of thanksgiving and more for stern talk along the lines of “Listen, you! God does care. He is looking in on you every day, so shape up or else!” We want to shake up millennials who tip toward moral therapeutic deism, but we are pretty sure that telling them to be more grateful to God for Jesus won’t cut it, and so we reach for other rhetorical strategies.
Reframing Discipleship as Thanksgiving
Somehow we preachers need to find regular ways to frame the whole of Christian discipleship as thanksgiving. The only way we are going to let the cross of Christ shine in all the atoning splendor it deserves is if we hammer away at gratitude, at the idea that we will never finish saying thank you to God for what he accomplished in Jesus. And we preachers need to do this week in and week out, because that is what will stick with people over the long haul more than any individual sermon ever could.
Whether the people listening trend toward closet legalism and like to have that propped up by “shouldy” sermons with long to-do lists, or whether the people listening trend toward an overly relaxed attitude premised on the idea that God doesn’t much check in on our lives anyway, a robust and consistent message of thanksgiving will help. Such an emphasis reframes Christian living as pure joy, as a never-ending, ecstatic opportunity to show God how well we “get it” when it comes to Christ’s sacrifice. This is not grim duty. This need not happen as a result of launching a guilt trip.
Such ongoing eruptions of gratitude happen because people are exposed every week in worship to various facets of the atonement and of Christ’s cosmos-shattering salvific work. And shouldn’t that be a core and constitutive part of all our preaching in the first place? We are not in our various pulpits to dispense good advice, to prop up some DIY version of Christianity, or to entertain people better than the popular preachers on YouTube. We stand before God’s people to preach for one reason, and one reason only: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and it is our good and high and holy privilege to proclaim this Good News every week.
We want people to be so saturated with the gospel that they will carry their enthusiasm and joy into the coming week, transforming how they live because they are so filled up to the brim with awe and thanksgiving.
Yes, it can be very difficult to sustain abiding gratitude. And yes, when everything is gratitude, people run the risk of thinking nothing is gratitude, and so we are tempted to turn it into something different just to shake things up, to get people’s attention, to motivate them. But that is a homiletical temptation we must resist. True Christian joy, guilt-free living, and the freedom to serve the world with the humility of Christ all spin out of a proper understanding of Christian thankfulness. Most other efforts to induce proper morality in people end up twisting the Good News into something that is less than good after all. And none of us was ordained to do that.
Fall Preaching Conference: “Catholics, Protestants, and 500 Years of Preaching” with Dr. Gregory Heile, OP. October 26, 2017, Calvin Theological Seminary, 9:30 am.