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8th November 2020AD
Saint John’s Church in Savannah
The Rev'd Gavin Dunbar


I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, …
for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now….

Gratitude it seems is back in fashion. Psychologists proclaim the physical and mental health and happiness that gratitude brings: research shows its benefits in curbing toxic emotions like envy, resentment, and depression; boosting the immune system and mitigating insomnia; fostering optimism and strengthening relationships. They note that gratitude is not only an emotion, but also an underlying disposition of the soul that can be cultivated over the long term by the practice of giving thanks. A greedy grasping person like me can actually grow in gratitude by the practice of giving thanks, over and over again, until it becomes a habit of the soul, a groove in my personality. It’s all true – but it’s really just another case of modern social science discovering a reality that religious tradition has known and practiced for countless centuries.

For what do Christians give thanks? In the General Thanksgiving at Morning Prayer, we begin with “our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life” – the earthly benefits of health, safety, jobs, savings; family and friends; but “above all”, it teaches us to give thanks “for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory”. It is gratitude for redemption that is at the heart of today’s lessons. In the gospel lesson, this takes the form of a parable warning about the dire consequences of ingratitude for this redemption. Jesus tells the story of a civil servant who has incurred a loss to the public treasury of ten thousand talents – an enormous sum of money which he is no position to repay. The King is within his legal rights in selling not only this man’s property, but the man himself and his family into slavery; but the servant begs for mercy; and the king, moved with compassion, forgives him the debt – which means that king himself assumes total responsibility for the debt. Yet this same servant, having accepted this free grace for himself, turns around and demands legal punishment for a fellow-servant for a much smaller debt he cannot repay; and when the king learns this, he is outraged, and throws the unforgiving servant into prison- and this time without hope of mercy.

It is a cautionary tale about ingratitude for grace: if we fail forgive our neighbours, we will forfeit the forgiveness God offers us in the gospel. If we despise the grace we don’t deserve, we shall have the judgment that we do deserve. But if you flip this warning over, the parable also tells us is that if you know how much God has forgiven you, in true gratitude, then you will be able to forgive others. It’s sometimes hard to forgive those who have wronged us – until we come to the cross, and see how much is cost the Lord to redeem us, the great price of our forgiveness. That’s why the Lord’s Supper is so important, the eucharistic memorial of the blood he shed for the forgiveness of our sins – for it is there, seeing how costly our own forgiveness has been, we are empowered and motivated to forgive others their sins. Grace received with gratitude changes our relationship with God – from wrath to favor; it also changes our relationship with our neighbours – from alienation to reconciliation.

It’s the transformative impact of grace on our relations with one another that is at the heart of today’s epistle lesson, in Paul’s joyful thanksgiving and affectionate prayer for the Christians of Philippi. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. Notice that in his thanksgiving he does not focus on material things, or on family and friends – but on those who have no affinity with him except through the grace of redemption proclaimed in the gospel which they have believed. For whenever he thinks of the Christians in Philippi, his heart overflows with joyful thanks for their fellowship in the gospel, who have all been with him partakers of [his] grace.

It’s not natural affinities or shared worldly interests, but the redemptive grace of Christ that has brought the Christians of Philippi into fellowship in the gospel with Paul and with one another; and though we tend to use the word ‘fellowship’ for social gatherings like Coffee Hour, in this context it has the sense of “active partnership” (like a business enterprise) in the advancement of the gospel. In the shared corporate activity of common prayer, generous giving, and bold witness, we are not individualistic passive consumers of religious experiences but active partners with one another in the mission Christ gave the Church. The grace we receive in gratitude breaks down barriers that divide us from God and from one another, unites us in fellowship, and motivates us for worship, service and witness.

And that’s not all: the more we give thanks for what this grace in the gospel has already done, the more confidence and hope we shall have for what it will yet do in us. As Paul says, I am confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. In that confident hope he is moved to pray for their further growth in grace. That’s what Paul is asking for, in his prayer for the Christians of Philippi: that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. He wants their love of God and neighbour to grow, and he wants it to be guided by growing insight into God’s will and ways, so that they may realize that insight in the best ethical choices, with the result that they may be found pure and blameless in the day when Christ comes to judge the world. All of which to say, is that he wants them to be full of the fruits that are brought forth in gratitude for grace – the fruits of righteousness that bring glory to God.

Now what does this say for the people of this parish? It says that what ties us together is not just a taste for incense, organ music, and tomato sandwiches, estimable as these are – but fellowship in the gospel; the grace of God at work in us through the gospel; it says that giving thanks for this grace – and praying for our growth to maturity in it is and must be at the very core of our fellowship and activity as a church. That is something to proclaim from the pulpit, and to offer up in our prayers; it is the truth set forth with such matchless clarity and conviction in the Prayer Book; but if fellowship in the gospel that is expressed in our worship is really at the core of who we are, it will come out in the things we talk about when we come together and in the things we do. Yes of course we will talk about the weather, sports, jobs, children, holidays, and our aches and pains; but at some point, should not Christians be able to go deeper in our fellowship with one another, to speak in terms of our fellowship in the gospel? that’s something to think about, to pray about, and then to act on.

To sum up: the lessons for this Sunday near the end of the Church’s year teach us to look back with thankfulness; but also to look forward, because, like the servant in today’s parable, for us also there is a day of reckoning, the day St. Paul says, of Jesus Christ, when we must give account to Christ for how we have used the grace he has given us. If the judgment the unforgiving servant brings on himself by ingratitude is one sobering possible outcome, Paul points us to another way, the way of gratitude, the eucharistic way, that engenders hope, overflows in love, leads to deeper discernment of God’s will, growth to spiritual maturity, and is filled with the fruits of righteousness unto the glory and praise of God. May this be our way also.