Thanksgiving—Common and Uncommon
By Pastor George Van Alstine
At Altadena Baptist Church, we see Thanksgiving primarily as a family holiday that is celebrated in the homes of our members. But we do provide two opportunities for our people to come together around the theme of our response to God’s many blessings. This Sunday evening at 7:00 pm, we will join with other local congregations for the annual Altadena Community Thanksgiving Service, which this year will be hosted by Christ the Shepherd Lutheran Church. Then on Wednesday at 7:00 pm, the eve of Thanksgiving Day, we invite our ABC folk to gather for a family-friendly time of sharing about God’s bountiful blessings on us, especially his great salvation.
The Sunday evening community service is sponsored by an organization known as “ACTS,” an informal group in which Pastor Connie and I are both very active. “ACTS” originally stood for “Altadena Churches Together Serving,” because it was formed by the pastors of several churches in the community to coordinate ways in which we respond to the needs of homeless and transient people around us. But somewhere along the way, the rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple became interested in working with us, so we changed the meaning of the acronym to “Altadena Congregations Together Serving.” Once they realized active participation in ACTS was not limited to mainline Christian denominations, others showed an interest and became part of the ACTS ministry to community needs, first the Christian Science Church, then the Bahai Faith and, most recently, a Muslim congregation. They’ll all be participating Sunday night.
A couple of people have questioned me about this. How can we share in worship with people who don’t acknowledge Jesus as Savior? He is the center of our life and our worship, so our thanksgiving to God has to focus on him.
As I was thinking about this, I realized that we were looking at a real-life example of a theological concept every serious Bible student has encountered: the distinction between common grace and special grace.Let’s begin with special grace. Another way of referring to this is “saving grace” (not to be confused with the TV program of the same name). It is the grace that God shows in reaching down into a sinful world and rescuing people who would otherwise be lost. God’s saving grace is made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, by which we are redeemed and delivered from our sins. Saving grace is experienced by those who have responded to the gospel and received Jesus as their Savior. Among the familiar passages about God’s special grace are these:
“The righteousness of God has been revealed, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-23). “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Trust in God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ is what we all share at ABC.
But we also share in common grace with Jews, and Muslims, and Bahai, and even atheists. Jesus put it this way, when he was teaching his disciples the radical idea that they should love their enemies:
“Your heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)
The Apostle Paul used God’s common grace as an argument as he tried to convert people who believed in pagan religions:
“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness—giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:17)
John began his Gospel with an affirmation that Jesus came into the world as the unique Light of revelation from God, adding:
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
John seemed to be saying that the reason people were able to recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus was that they were already experiencing God’s common grace in their everyday lives.
So here’s the way I see it: On Sunday evening we’ll join with our neighbors of all faiths (or no faith) in thanking God for his common grace: the food we eat, the healthcare we enjoy, our homes and community, our nation, peace in our land, our government, schools, law enforcement, etc. Then on Wednesday evening, we’ll come together with our believing family to thank God for his special saving grace, celebrating the center of our thanksgiving, the new life we have experienced through salvation, the challenges and victories of our faith journey, and our eternal hope. I plan to enjoy both thanksgiving experiences.