Goodness, Grace, and Gratitude

by

by Bill Carroll

 

One of the many things I love about St. Francis of Assisi is his consistent emphasis on the goodness of God. Take, for example, this prayer from his “Office of the Passion.”

Almighty, most holy, most high and supreme God,
All good, supreme good, totally good, You who alone are good:
May we give back to You all praise, all glory, all grace, all honor,
all blessing, and all good.  

So be it. So be it. Amen.

[For this translation, see Laurent Gallant, OFM, and André Cirino, OFM, The Office of the Passion of St. Francis of Assisi:  The Geste of the Great King.  2nd Edition.   (Phoenix, AZ:  Tau Publishing, ), pp. 40-41.]

I also admire the implicit twofold movement, made explicit in subsequent Franciscan tradition and with clear antecedents elsewhere (Pseudo-Dionysius, Richard of St. Victor), between the self-sharing of the good God, and our response of “giving back” all God’s good gifts. The gifts of God are best received by giving them away! One of my professors, B. A. Gerrish, once wrote a book on John Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology entitled Grace and Gratitude.

We see a similar theology in one of the things many Episcopalians still say at the Offertory: “All things come of thee, O Lord. And of thine own have we given thee.” We also see it in some of the great hymns of the faith, “Thou didst give thyself for me, now I give myself to thee” (Hymn #313, Let thy Blood in mercy poured).

But it’s in the Eucharist itself that we see this logic play out most profoundly. We kneel (or, in some congregations, stand) and we open our hands and mouths to receive a priceless gift, which is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, given for our salvation. By the work of the Spirit in the gathered Eucharistic assembly, the bread and the wine become the means by which Jesus gives himself to us in love, renewing us in our union with him. Like Jesus himself, whose Real Presence it is, the Blessed Sacrament is a gift we could not possibly earn or deserve. But God gives it to us freely, because God is good, and God loves us.

Although there is no price that we could pay—nothing that we could do to earn or deserve this gift—God does ask for a response from us. What God wants is gratitude. God wants us to say “thank you” (Remember, “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”). And in God’s kingdom, the way we say thank you is by sharing the gifts we’ve been given with ALL others, especially those who lack their daily bread or are otherwise in need. At the conclusion of the Eucharist, when the Body of Christ has been gathered and reconstituted, a deacon (or if there’s no deacon, a bishop or priest) sends us out to do just that.

God’s goodness (all goodness has its source in the all good God) wants to be spread around.    God made the world and everyone in it, in order to give God’s love freely and fully away. And even when sinned and wandered far from God, God continued to seek us out. God sent sages, saints, and prophets, to show us God’s love and call us back to each other and back to God. And in these last days, God sent us Jesus, God’s own Son, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us (once and for all) with God, each other, and the earth.

The world may not know it yet, but it’s true; and it’s our job to go and tell them. In Jesus, God has triumphed over sin, suffering, and death. As we enter a season of renewed evangelism in the Episcopal Church, claiming our place as a branch of the “Jesus Movement,” I think it’s vital to remember that we don’t have to evangelize out of anxiety over anyone’s salvation. That’s a perspective that leads to coercive and manipulative tactics, which are not only inconsistent with the Gospel but don’t really work.

In Jesus, our salvation has been assured. We share his Gospel, by word and deed, because we are grateful for the good things God has given us, and we want to share God’s good gifts with other people. We share the Gospel, not out of anxiety but out of love. And we are willing to accept and collaborate with people who follow other paths (and to learn from them), even as we are convinced of the truth and decisive importance of our own.

In the catechism, we are told that the Eucharist is the place where Jesus “unites us to his one offering of himself” (BCP, p. 859). In the Rite One Eucharistic prayers, we are told explicitly that, with the bread and the wine made holy, we too are offered up; “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” (BCP, p. 336).

Some of us, because of feminist concerns or more general concerns about the oppressive abuses of power, are rightly suspicious of language of sacrifice. I would be happy with language of self-offering, with the proviso that the all good God is the one reality in the universe, whose glory comes at the expense of no one else. By offering ourselves into God’s hands, we suffer no diminishment, but become fully ourselves.

The logic of this reciprocal self-giving, in which God is the sovereign partner but our true selves are grounded in God’s free and unmerited self-gift, has been spelled out by many theologians and spiritual writers. To my mind, some of the best of these are Kathryn Tanner, Thomas Merton, and Karl Rahner. There are others who are on the same wavelength.

But, for me, it all comes back to Francis, who saw clearly that God was supremely and totally good, as well as utterly non-violent and non-possessive. In this, Francis is very close to Jesus himself. God has nothing to do with the violence or manipulation that infects even the most well-intentioned uses of human power. God is powerful as goodness and love are powerful. God suffers no loss in giving Godself completely away. The only limits are imposed on our side, as we block the flow of a total and efficacious gift of God’s own self. God, who knows all-too-well how weak and frail and compromised we are, gives us this gift anyway. Why?  Because God is good, and God loves us – “God so loved the world.”

We need to return God’s gifts as best we can.  And the best way to do that is to serve and empower the neighbors God gives us—living lives, where we share what we have and strive for right relationship—with God, each other, and the earth.  If we want to follow Jesus, we must follow his teaching and example. We must follow him in the ways of peace, justice, and practical, neighborly love. God’s love can change our world.

 


The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma.   He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty.   In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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