Wednesday 25 November 2015

Unnatural thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:3-5)

Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday that makes sense. In the UK, the equivalent would be our church harvest festivals in autumn. If you are Chinese, think of Mid-Autumn Festival (or Mooncake Day) - it’s that big a deal here in the US; for some a bigger deal than Christmas! Families gather for dinner, usually turkey. They watch (American) football. All the shops are closed (but they get up early the next morning to buy flat screen TV’s on what is called Black Friday).

The first Thanksgiving, I’m informed by Wikipedia - and I confess, a recent episode of Big Bang Theory - was celebrated four centuries ago by the Pilgrims who were the first Christians arriving in America after a long and difficult journey in 1620. 45 out of the original 102 travellers died by winter but with the help of 91 local Indians, the Pilgrims planted a crop and harvested a bounty the very next year. So thankful and so surprised were the Pilgrims that they celebrated the very first Thanksgiving in 1621 - not with turkey, but with eel and lobster.

Thanksgiving makes sense. If you have been blessed; if the year has been good - celebrating and remember the good times with thanksgiving makes sense. But thanksgiving makes sense even if you haven’t been blessed, even if you can’t think of anything to be thankful for this year. Why? Because you still wish you did. All of us wish we had something to celebrate. All of us wish we had something to be thankful for.

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Ephesians 5:3-4

I call this unnatural thanksgiving. Paul talks about sexual immorality, impurity, greed (verse 3). Paul warns against obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking (verse 4). And then he says, the opposite to all this sinful behaviour is... thanksgiving.

We don’t expect him to say that. We expect Paul to say holiness. We expect him to write goodness or purity or obedience. But, no. Paul says the alternative to sexual misconduct; the opposite of self-centred spending and sinful speech is none other than thanksgiving.

Thankfully, Paul helps us out by qualifying what he means in the very next verse.

No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Ephesians 5:5

Paul describes the immoral, impure and greedy person (notice, these are the same three attributes outlined in verse 3) as an idolater. That is, these actions are symptoms of something deeper. An idolater is someone who goes to the temple. It’s someone who has a statue of Kuan Yin in their hallway with joss-sticks laid out before the altar. Now, I should qualify that Paul is not saying that people who worship idols are sexually deviant, money-grubbing individuals. That’s not his point at all. However, what Paul is doing is making a profound comparison between the person who turns to sex, to money and to status for satisfaction with the person who bows down before a false god. Paul is saying they are both doing the same thing. They are worshipping something other than God as God. Or, as he puts it in verse 5, “Such a person is an idolater.”

Sin is not breaking some arbitrary rule in the bible. Neither is sin first and foremost an action that harms another human being. Hence, the common excuse, “I’m not hurting anyone. Why is this wrong?” Rather, Paul is saying that sexual sin, selfish gain and sinful speech are symptoms but not the disease. The disease is a heart that rejects God. The disease is a heart that refuses to acknowledge God as God.

Conversely, thanksgiving is the mark of a person who has a relationship with God. Sandwiching these verses are two reminders to Christians that we are God’s children. In verse 1, we are urged to follow God’s example as dearly loved children. And in verse 5, we are to called walk as children of light. That is important because the thanksgiving that is being described here is not the overflow of touchy-feeliness that comes from receiving a promotion, passing your exams or even winning the lottery. Neither is it the tradition of going round the table and saying something you are thankful for. Why? Because the motivation behind the thanksgiving of verse 4 is not what you are thankful for but who you are thankful to.

How is thanksgiving the alternative - or even an antidote - to sin? Thanksgiving takes us out of ourselves and focuses our identity and fulfilment on God. Sin, on the other hand, draws us back into ourselves. Martin Luther defined sin as curving into itself.

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them ...or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts.

Yes, as Christians, we do have much to thank God for - not least the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (verse 2), the inheritance we’ve received in God’s kingdom (verse 5), our deliverance from judgment (verse 6), our transformation from darkness to light (verse 8) and the indwelling of God’s own Holy Spirit within us (verse 18).

And yet, when Paul comes back to the call to thanksgiving in verse 20, he mentions none of these things. Instead, he says:

Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:20

Literally, Christians are called to giving thanks continually “at all times for all things”. Not just in the good times when good things happen. Paul is not describing the circumstances of thanksgiving but the character of the thanksgiver (if there is such a word). Christians are able to give thanks in every and any situation. Why? Because we know God as our Father. We know who we are thankful to, not simply what we are thankful for.

In this sense, the bible is describing the character of the thanksgiver, not the circumstances of our thanksgiving. Here, Paul defines thanksgiving as the basis of true worship over against idolatry (as he does elsewhere in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”) Unexpectedly, thanksgiving within the context of Ephesians 5 is even to be equated with holiness (what is “proper” for God’s holy people, in verse 3), in that it is so distinctive for God’s people to be thankful in their daily speech.

But most amazing and most important of all, thanksgiving reveals those who are truly known by God and those who are truly loved by God.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1

Our unnaturally thanksgiving is a response to an unnatural God who loved us while we were still sinners, who gave himself up for us while we were still enemies. We are loved - and that by God - as dearly loved children.

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