1 THESSALONIANS 5: 12 – 22
I think for some of us, particularly at the moment we will find one of Paul’s instructions in this section particularly hard. Give thanks in all circumstances, for all things. Can you give thanks when you have not been able to see your loved ones in ages. Can you give thanks when your partner of many years goes into hospital, you cannot visit them and the next thing you know is that they have died from covid? Can you give thanks when you have been laid off, you are struggling to pay the rent or for groceries? Can you really give thanks? Wouldn’t it be easier and more accurate to say, give thanks in most circumstances, or as much as you are able? One writer suggested this nautical analogy:-
That has to be one of the most adventurous voyages of thought ever embarked upon the rough waters of reason, and logically it seems destined for shipwreck.
But Paul does not qualify the statement, not in one little bit. The other imperatives in this section are equally as all encompassing. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. So how do we make sense of this in a way which does not leave us disheartened because of our struggles to live up to this calling?
I believe that there are two things to bear in mind. First of all. This letter was not written to an individual. It was written to a church, a group of people. Remember what I said a few weeks ago, we need to read the new testament as Jane and her fellow southerners would read it. Give thanks, y’all, in all circumstances. Rejoice y’all. Keep praying, y’all. These instructions are given to a body of believers, not individuals.
A body is an interesting thing. One of the things that I have learnt about the body through growing up with partial paralysis is that when one part of the body is weakened often other parts will be strengthened to compensate. If you are so unfortunate to see me in my shorts you will notice my left leg is bulkier than my right. My left arm than my right. In the same way the body of Christ can compensate. I am sure that many of you are struggling to give thanks at the moment while others find it easier. That’s ok and that is a part of what it means to be a body. There are aspects of our situation today that causes me tremendous grief and sadness. I have to admit that at the same time I am not missing being out almost every evening which means I am getting to spend more time with Jane. Just as someone might get upset because it rains and ruins their barbeque, someone else might be delighted as their crops needed the water. In everything, as a body, we can give thanks.
Another way to look at this is to look at two basic truths which, I would suggest does make it possible, even as individuals, to give thanks in all circumstances. The first truth is that worship is the context for the whole of life, not just one hour on a Sunday morning. In Karl Rahner’s words, everyday life must become itself a prayer. If all of life is worship for those who seek God’s will then thanksgiving is a necessary and inevitable by-product. That is why Calvin objected to the term Eucharist, for the Lord’s Supper as he promoted the fact that all of life should be lived in thanksgiving to God and eucharist means thanksgiving. We therefore, to use Calvin’s picture, all live eucharistic lives 24/7. Therefore ot quote one theologian, whether good or bad be the lot, a life of worship means perpetual thanksgiving.
The second truth presupposes that it is life’s depths and not its shallows that must arrest our attention. Paul Tillich speaks of the depth of existence that is the ground of our historical life, the ultimate depth of history. Thus Tillich calls us away from the shallow waters of superficial determinants which we see as being good or bad things happening to us. Instead he calls us out to the deeper waters where weightier truths make it possible to always give thanks. These weightier truths we have already seen, the gift of faith, the joy of salvation, a life hidden with Christ in God. These are things that our present circumstances cannot touch. These are things which go deeper than simply our own happiness or unhappiness due to present circumstances. These are the eternal things, the really meaningful things. These are the things that go beyond what moths can eat or rust can affect. Society tries to make us believe that life on the surface is what counts. We live in a pleasure seeking, superficial world. Yet that is not our natural habitat.
I remember when on holiday in Madeira being told I had ot try this particular fish. It was a local delicacy. A strange fish its skin was black. It lives most of the time in incredibly deep water, such as the water that surrounds the volcanic island. It is only at night that it comes to the surface. So, the fishermen of Madeira go out at night to try to catch this elusive creature. In the same way we live our most joyful and thankful lives when we live in the depths, remembering the eternal truths enjoying the knowledge of our salvation in Christ. That is not to say that we should not come up to the surface every once in a while like the Madeiran fish. It is good to enjoy a nice meal, the escapism of a film or a play or a concert. But we must not live on the surface for too long. We must return to the depths if we are to keep our spirit of thanksgiving.
Even this lockdown time is producing things of great joy. People in their distress have been turning to the faith, have been tuning in to live stream services, have been watching live studies such as this. They have found comfort and strength in these small acts of worship. They have found access to be easier as they don’t have to walk into a strange place and feel everyone’s eyes turning in their direction. Through acts of ministry such love your neighbour we have thrown off the shackles that so often hold us back and demonstrated a real concern and love for those around us. The elders have done a tremendous job, calling round their districts, getting in touch with people, showing care and compassion. They say there are silver linings with every cloud, there have even been silver linings through this crisis. So do give thanks. Give thanks in all circumstances and whenever you can. Live life at the deep end remembering all our Lord has done for us and rejoice.