Thanksgiving, Remembrance, Theosis

By Neil Earle

"The First Thanksgiving," a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, ca. 1914.

The great American holiday of Thanksgiving is unique among national celebrations, and I say that as a legal immigrant from Canada.

Invariably at Thanksgiving there will flash onto the screen of many people’s remembrance, scenes such as Puritans in broad brimmed hats holding a blunderbuss and ladies in white head-dresses with perhaps a turkey not far away. That’s the great thing about human consciousness, the ability to recall and re-experience events that mean something to us years and even centuries ago, commemorations that trigger present reactions of appreciation and even joy.

Remember, half the Puritans died that first winter on the Massachusetts shore.

Simple Bread and Wine

Today we have the Communion emblems spread out before us. For Christians that brings something else forcibly back to the screen of our imaginations. “But we see Jesus,” 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).”

As usual, there’s a lot packed into that one verse. There is a reference to what theologians call the Incarnation – Jesus’ coming in the flesh and blood of a humble Palestinian villager for the suffering of death, paying our penalty for us on our behalf as our Mediator but then rising gloriously from the grave, then ascending to the Father to be received in glory. He entered the holy place “in the heavenlies,” symbolically carrying his own blood and not the blood of sacrificial animals. Our High Priest was the slaughtered lamb as well as our living intermediary for us (Hebrews 9:11-12).

That’s part of what the Christian service of bread and wine, the Lord’s Supper, brings back to our remembrance.

Today we will see that there are some things going on here at the Lord’s Table which Christian proclamation sometimes fails to emphasize – namely our adoption into the family of God and our induction into the loving, thrilling relationships that exist between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15). The good news here is that in the early Christian centuries, godly writers not only stressed “adoption” as the best one-word description of the overall purpose of the Christian life but pushed beyond even that. Their meditation on such overall descriptive verses as Hebrews 9 showed our full unity with Christ our older brother (Romans 8:14-17). The implication of our identification with the sacrificial work of Christ makes possible something called theosis as well. And that, we shall see, gives a new dimension to any Christian remembrance of thanksgiving, any and every day of the year.

Let’s study and see. A good place to start is with Ephesians 2:1-10.

"St. Paul writing his epistles," an oil painting by Valentin de Boulogne, ca. 600 AD.

Our Spiritual Autobiography

Ephesians 2 begins by sketching our spiritual autobiography. That can be a depressing thought, for as Paul reminds us we were all caught up in the spirit of the world, the spirit of disobedience and thus became “by nature objects of wrath.”

The turning point comes in verse 4 when Paul rehearses to these experienced Christians in Ephesus the process of calling and conversion. At conversion God extended his Holy Spirit to us and we came to see how wrong we had been. We then accepted from God who is rich in mercy the gift of repentance (Romans 2:4). 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!” (See Acts 7).

Paul grasped and with dynamic intensity that Christ had died for him, even him, and that became bedrock of his proclamation. But it didn’t stop there. Through his look at his wild and hideous past he released in his letters a spirit of thanksgiving and fervent praise, the joy of salvation (Ephesians 1:4-8). That transformed his Present, where he claimed that, for him, to live was Christ (Philippians 1:21):

“But because of his great love for us,” he told the Ephesians, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved…”(Ephesians 2:4).

That’s pretty positive stuff so far, right? The past is covered by Christ’s blood and we live presently in newness of life as Romans 6, the Baptism chapter, says (Romans 6:4).

But that is where most people leave it and that is unfortunate for in this marvelous Ephesians section, the best is yet to come.

John Chrysostom

Past, Present, Future

There was a shameful Past, which Christ has covered. There is a Present walk with Him which is possible through His spirit in us. There is also a present experience of something we will enjoy more fully in the far future. This is told in the mind-expanding 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 we not only fall into the grave with him as payment for the sins of the flesh, we also rise with him, as indeed the whole human race did in symbol (2 Corinthians 4:14). And 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 into the heavenlies, where Christ is.

Such is the transforming and eternal effects of the work of Christ that we commemorate today through the simple symbols of bread and wine. Back in the 400s, the Greek church leader John Chrysostom put it this way as he explained the significance of Jesus as the Second Adam coming to totally remake the human condition made shipwreck in 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.”

There is marvelous teaching here about what it means for Jesus to be 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 says:

“All these things then 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 act of rigorousness not only lifted humanity from death but bestowed on us far more than we ever lost in the fall. Not only are we healed, ransomed, forgiven, says Chrysostom, but we are united to Christ our elder brother and led up to adoption, being made brothers and sisters of the only begotten Son. Our present sate is not only a vast improvement over our falleness in Adam but even vast exaltation above our “innocent” state in Adam, before the fall.

That is truly wonderful teaching for it encapsulates the whole plan of salvation. Early Christian writers called it “theosis” – being like God, not equal to God in totality, but being close enough to him to enjoy his attributes, “godlike” we would say today. And it all begins here at the Communion table where the emblems of our redemption are set out for us to partake.

Let’s end with John Stott’s up-to-date take on what Paul is saying in Ephesians 2:1-10.

“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)…. In the heavenly places…the unseen world of spiritual reality and in which Christ reigns supreme, there God has blessed his people in Christ (Ephesians 1:3) and there he has seated them with Christ (2:6).”

Nor is this mere analogy, says Stott.

“Moreover this talk about solidarity with Christ in his resurrection and exaltation 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 reminds us of it all. Salvation encompasses our past (flesh and blood like Jesus), our present (eating with him in forgiven fellowship) and future (a future that is already ours in part through daily opportunities to enjoy and supplicate strength through the heavenly side of our inheritance).

Let’s come to the table of the Lord, then, in humility and thanksgiving.