A Fresh Vision for Thanksgiving – Time for Two Tables
By Neil Earle
After one of the bitterest political seasons in recent history the great American holiday of Thanksgiving seems to be coming just in the nick of time, even with reduced activities due to Covid-19.
Here is a national holiday unique among nations and I say that as a legal immigrant from Canada. It’s the religious overtones of American thanksgiving that give it its special flavor.
Invariably there flashes into our minds the slightly misleading sober Puritans in broad brimmed hats and ladies in white head-dresses sitting with Native Americans and a turkey not far away. Stimulus/Response. Our minds have the ability to recall and re-experience events that meant something important years and even centuries ago. We can revel in whole series of re-imagined events from 1621 that can trigger joyful thoughts today, even if the facts are stretched a little.
But half the Puritans died that first winter on the Massachusetts shore and it was a tenacious and robust faith in Providence that undergirded their efforts. That is why in most churches Thanksgiving conjures up religious feelings. It calls for two tables, two commemorations. In a time of division such as now we need them both.
Simple Bread and Wine
At Thanksgiving many churches offer the traditional Christian emblems of the bread and the wine for what the New Testament calls the Lord’s Table or Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:21). For believers these symbols bring something else forcibly back to our minds and imaginations. “But we see Jesus,” St. Paul wrote to the Hebrew churches, “who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death so that, by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).”
Here is a visionary reference to what some consider God’s grandest miracle – the Incarnation, Jesus as God Incarnate coming in the flesh and blood of a humble Palestinian villager for the suffering of death, paying our penalty for us on our behalf – our Mediator making our reconciliation to God the Lawgiver possible. Then he rose gloriously from the grave whence he ascended to the Father to be received and to direct His work on earth until his return in glory. At his resurrection and ascension, Jesus entered the holy place “in the heavenlies,” symbolically carrying his own blood, the slaughtered Lamb of God as our living intermediary for us (Hebrews 9:11-12). The debt of sin that weighs us down is paid in full and access to the Father is now open at last.
That’s part of what the Christian service of bread and wine, the Lord’s Supper, brings back to our remembrance. But there is so much more.
Adopted by God
Christian proclamation sometimes fails to emphasize our adoption into the family of God, our induction into the loving, all-powerful relationships that exist between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15). The love that pours out from that relationship is a life-giving stream of blessing with the power to transform all human lives, all human relationships. Early Christian writers not only stressed “adoption” as the best one-word description of the overall purpose of the Christian life but pushed even beyond that. They taught the believer’s full unity with Christ our older brother (Romans 8:14-17). We are spiritually joined to the immortal life-giving Son of God (1 Corinthians 6:17). The implications of this profound concept give a rich dimension to thanksgiving, any and every day of the year.
Let’s explain how the process works.
Our Spiritual Autobiography
In the Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter Two the inspired writer sketches our spiritual autobiography. This can be a depressing thought, for as Paul reminds us, we were all once caught up in the spirit of this world, the spirit of disobedience and thus became “by nature objects of wrath.”
In verse 4 Paul expounds the turning point: the experience of calling and conversion. At conversion God extended his Holy Spirit to us, thus softening up our minds. We came to see how wrong we had been. We then accepted from God’s rich mercy the gift of repentance (Romans 2:4), gift He extended to us. And, believe me, it was a gift, for no one comes to the point of forsaking all that they had done in the past to seek humble forgiveness on one’s knees. Paul himself went through that on the Damascus Road when he encountered the Living Christ whom he was persecuting.
The scales fell from his eyes and he became the First Century poster boy for “look at what God can do for us!” (Acts 7).
Paul grasped with dynamic intensity that Christ had died for him, even him, and this experience became bedrock for his proclamation. But it didn’t stop there. Through his look at his wild and murderous past he was moved to release a spirit of thanksgiving and fervent praise, the joy of knowing true salvation (Ephesians 1:4-8). This so transformed his life that he claimed that, for him, to live was Christ (Philippians 1:21):
“But because of his great love for us,” he summarized for the Ephesians, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by (this) grace you have been saved…”(Ephesians 2:4).
So the Past is covered by Christ’s blood and the Present is lived in newness of life as Paul rehearsed in Romans 6 (Romans 6:4).
But that is where most people leave it and that is unfortunate for in this marvelous teaching, the best is yet to come.
Living the Future…Now
We all had a shameful Past, which Christ has covered. There is a Present walk with Him which is possible through His revivifying Spirit in us. There is also a present experience of something we will enjoy more fully in the future. Here it is in Ephesians 2:6-7, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
According to Paul, the work of Christ has been so potent, our identification with him is so overpowering, that He not only slept in the grave for us as payment for the sins of the flesh, He made it possible for us to rise with him. That rising potentially involved the whole human race, at least in symbol (2 Corinthians 4:14). Christian theology teaches that we are not simply “repaired,” or made “as good as new,” but…and here is the Big Surprise…we are actually taken far beyond our old sinful state and ushered with Him into the heavenlies, where Christ is.
Such is the transforming and eternal effects of the work of Christ that Jesus becomes our older brother and we share inheritance with him. All of this we recall through the simple symbols of bread and wine. Back in the 400s, church leader John Chrysostom summarized the whole process as Jesus the Second Adam coming to totally remake the human condition made shipwreck by the First Adam:
“For it was not to do away [with] the sin only, that we received of his grace, but even far more. For we were at once freed from punishment and were also born again from above (John 3:3) and rose again with the old man buried, and were redeemed, justified, led up to adoption, sanctified, made brothers of the Only-begotten, and joint heirs and of one Body with Him, and even as s a Body with the Head, so were we united unto Him.”
Thus, Jesus is rightly called the Pioneer of our Salvation (Hebrews 2:10). He has gone before us, every step of the way in the Christian life. And there is more, as Chrysostom saw: “(in) all these things Paul calls for a superabundance of grace (“grace upon grace”), showing that what we received was not a medicine only to countervail the wound, but even health, and comeliness, and honor, and glory and dignities far transcending our natural state.”
Jesus: The Second Adam
Early church fathers saw how the infinite superiority of the Second Adam over the first meant that Christ’s supreme act of surrender bestowed on us far more than we ever lost in Adam’s rebellion. Not only are we healed, ransomed, forgiven, says Chrysostom. We are united to Christ our elder brother through adoption, made brothers and sisters of the only begotten Son. Our present state is not only a vast improvement over our sinful inheritance in Adam, it is a vast divine-like exaltation above it.
This is why the Communion table where the emblems of our redemption are set out for us to partake is such a central practice of Christianity. This year of the divisive and bitter 2020 election is a good reminder of the things that really matter, the things that carry us already into the heavenly realms. This remembrance can undergird and strengthen our private family Thanksgivings. Christian communion is the ultimate Thanksgiving, a word for Main Street and Church Street.
Bible teacher John Stott shows us what happens when we gather around the Lord’s Table in the spirit of Thanksgiving:
“Fundamental to New Testament Christianity is this concept of the union of God’s people with Christ…their new solidarity as a people who are ‘in Christ.’ By virtue of their union with Christ they have shared in his resurrection, ascension and session (heavenly rule)…. It is not a piece of meaningless Christian mysticism. It bears witness to a living experience, that Christ has given us on the one hand new life and on the other a new victory. We were dead but have been made spiritually alive and alert. We were in captivity but have been enthroned” (The Message of Ephesians, page 81).
There it is. The mystery and glory of the true Christian inheritance. And the Lord’s Supper brings it all back. Salvation encompasses our Past (when we were fleshly concerned), our Present (eating with him in forgiven fellowship) and Future (a future that is already ours in part wherein we enjoy daily opportunities to fellowship with the eternal Son and beg for his strength to keep us on the right track).
May we all come to the Lord’s Table in a deeper spirit of Thanksgiving this year and may we all experience the individual and national healing we all need.