Day of Thanksgiving (Harvest Observance)
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
November 27, 2013
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Theology is the art of making distinctions. So say some theologians. It really is true, though. In Lutheran theology, we make distinctions between Law and Gospel, two kingdoms, two kinds of righteousness, the two natures of Christ. Luther once said that anyone who could distinguish between Law and Gospel was worthy of being called a doctor of theology.
There is a particular set of distinctions that our Lutheran confession of the faith makes with respect to works. The first distinction is between a Sacrament and a sacrifice. A sacramental work is any ceremony or work in which God presents to us what the promise of the ceremony offers, such as Baptism. Baptism is not a work that we offer to God, but rather a ceremony through which God works for us. A sacrifice, on the other hand, is any ceremony or work provided to God in order to give Him honor.
A sacrifice can be further distinguished as either a propitiatory sacrifice or a eucharistic sacrifice.
Now, those are technical theological terms that mean this: a propitiatory sacrifice is a work offered to God to make satisfaction for guilt and punishment. It’s an atoning sacrifice that reconciles God and man, and is made on behalf of others. A eucharistic sacrifice is a sacrifice of thanksgiving (eucharist means thanksgiving, or, to give thanks). This sacrifice of thanksgiving does not merit the forgiveness of sins, and is only practiced by those who are already reconciled to God in order to return thanks and give gratitude. Hence the name eucharistic sacrifice.
Why is this distinction important? Because it has to do with the heart of the Gospel—justification by faith alone. This distinction is necessary because there has only ever been one propitiatory sacrifice—the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary for the sins of the world. Not even the sacrifices of atonement and guilt offerings of the Old Testament were sacrifices that forgave sins of their own power, but pointed ahead to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
Eucharistic sacrifices, on the other hand, happen all the time. A sacrifice of thanksgiving can be any work or ceremony that gives honor to God. These include the preaching of the Gospel, faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the troubles of the saints, yes, even all good works of the saints. Sacrifices of thanksgiving include doing your job to the best of your ability, speaking kindly of your neighbor, raising children in the fear and nurture of the Lord, remaining faithful to husband or wife, giving of your own resources for the sake of those who have none of their own.
When this distinction is not held, when the two kinds of sacrifices are muddled together, you will fall into the error of the pope, even if you maintain the name Lutheran. I once heard someone say that within every Lutheran pastor, there’s a little pope just waiting to get out. I can’t argue too much with that—at least from my own experience. But it’s not just pastors. Within every Lutheran, period, there is a little pope just waiting to get out, a little priest with his arms full of his own sacrifices to dump in God’s lap in order to merit his own forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s the Old Man in Adam, the sinful flesh.
Sacrifices of thanksgiving are good, and they are necessary to bring honor to God. But a true eucharistic sacrifice is not something that you work in yourself. It’s is God’s work in you, though the one propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This is why St. Paul so elegantly weaves together without confusion the two kinds of sacrifices in his stewardship letter to the Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians (which may actually be the fourth letter Paul wrote to this congregation) is a follow-up correspondence for a troubled congregation. The Church in Corinth suffered divisions, infighting, worship wars, culture wars, even a case of incest in the congregation. Members had been excommunicated. This letter that we call 2nd Corinthians was hand delivered by Titus (one of the pastors appointed by St. Paul) as well as two other brothers in the faith (there’s an indication that one of them may have been Luke).
In addition to hand delivering his message St. Paul sends his three colleagues to gather a collection for the saints in Jerusalem, who had been hit with famine and were in great need. A little over halfway into the letter, St. Paul launches into his appeal for this sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Now this, the one who sows sparingly, sparingly also will he reap, and the one who sows upon blessings, upon blessings also will he reap. Likewise each should plan [his gift] beforehand from the heart, not from reluctance or from compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. This particular sacrifice of charitable giving is not something that’s motivated by the Law, by a command from God. The giver is not coerced to give. No, if it were a Law to be obeyed, then it would not be a sacrifice honoring God, but honoring man.
But God is strong enough to abundantly grant all grace toward you, so that having full sufficiency in all things at all times, you would abound in all good works. The good work for what St. Paul is making an appeal, the eucharistic sacrifice, is enabled by the abundant gift of God’s grace. Because God’s gift abounds, your works will abound.
As it has been written: “Scattering abroad, He gave to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.” But the One who supplies seed to the sower and bread for the eater will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. The seed that God scatters that produces the harvest of righteousness is the one propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is the Seed of the Woman who was buried in the earth, and who arose as the firstfruits of a new creation. Now seated at God’s right hand, He implants His Word of promise in your heart.
In everything we have been enriched for all generosity, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. Because the service of this liturgy is not only filling the needs of the saints, but also abounding through many thanksgivings of God. Because of the approved character of this service, they are glorifying God on account of your submission to the confession in the Gospel of Christ and a generosity of common things for them and for all—and they are petitioning on your behalf, longing for you because of the surpassing grace of God among you.
St. Paul has many names for this gift, but twice he calls it a thanksgiving. This is the truest thanksgiving you can offer God—not heaping up “Thank you” upon “Thank you,” but by serving your neighbor in his need. This is your eucharistic sacrifice, your sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Sacrifices of thanksgiving come in all shapes and sizes. Monetary collection for the poor is but one. Sacrifices of thanksgiving are shaped and formed by vocation and are as unique and varied as the number of neighbors you have and the kinds of needs they have. Who is your neighbor? What’s his need? How can you serve? This is the first part to offering God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The second? Trust Christ. He will provide you with what you need, His righteousness implanted in you, which is bound to produce a harvest of generosity, of service, of fellowship, and of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Grows Out of God’s Grace
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard