A Culture of Gratitude—Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
By Fr. Chris Metropoulos
When we were little children, learning our manners, one of the first habits our parents drilled into our heads was the habit of saying “please” and “thank you.” Thank you for our food. Thank you for a present. Thank you to God for keeping us safe. Sometimes expressing our gratitude seemed to be only in words, and sometimes our gratitude shaped our actions.
Out of all the leaders in the Church, perhaps nobody expressed gratitude more fully and more fervently than St. Paul. This man’s gratitude defined the future of the Christian Church. Through his gratitude St. Paul glorified God, honored his brothers and sisters in Christ, and cultivated the Church. His gratitude is an example for us as leaders in our own parishes, because with a culture of gratitude, we can help our parishes find the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.
St. Paul had reasons to be grateful. He had spent the early part of his life persecuting Christians, condemning many even to death. St. Paul admits in his letter to the Galatians that he intended to destroy the Church. As a faithful and zealous Jew, he thought that he was doing God’s will, but in a dramatic way, God showed St. Paul His true will. One day, as he was walking to Damascus, a bright light shone from heaven, and, blinded, St. Paul fell to the ground. The Lord asked Paul why he was persecuting Him and the Church, and He guided Paul to change his life and to serve the Church. This man, who had spent his whole life hating Jesus Christ and hating His Church, was given a new life. God gave St. Paul a new direction. He showed him the way to salvation, and revealed to him the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. Paul recognized this salvation as a gift from God, and he spent the rest of his life thanking God for calling him to salvation. He writes to his disciple Timothy, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Tim 1:12-13). Throughout his ministry, St. Paul continually thanks God for this new life. He tells the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15), the gift of salvation: that Jesus Christ became man, that He endured torture and was crucified on the Cross, that He rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven, opening paradise for us. This indescribable gift was—and is—a gift of hope and joy. This gift of the Kingdom of Heaven is one that we realize even here on earth.
St. Paul was called to Christ in a dramatic, extraordinary way. A blinding light threw him to the ground. But we too have been called to Christ. At your baptism, you were called to salvation, and this indescribable gift of hope and joy was freely given to us. And like St. Paul, we must express our gratitude to our Lord. When we think about the gift, and when we thank God for this gift of sacrifice and salvation, our gratitude brings us to glorify God. When we are “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:20), then we recognize the power and the glory of God.
And when we recognize the power and the glory of God, we can understand our own position as God’s servants. We begin to approach the menial tasks that are all a part of our jobs as parish council members—taking out the trash, collating flyers, cleaning the windows, doing tedious paperwork—with a sense of contentment rather than a sense of obligation. We learn to be leaders—but at the same time, servants. Although we find ourselves in a position of authority, we are still servants, because we know that our Lord rules over all with love and mercy. Our gratitude helps us to glorify God, and we realize our place as his servants.
Gratitude—Honors Others and Humbles Us
St. Paul spent years traveling the known world, preaching the message of salvation to the Gentiles and establishing churches for the Christian believers in each city. In order to do this, he had to cultivate leaders, leaders who would work with him to strengthen the Church.
St. Paul realized that God was using his talents for the Church, but he also realized he could not do it alone. Though he was important for the growth of the Church, St. Paul needed other faithful workers to support him, and to sustain the ministry. Throughout his letters, Paul continually gives thanks to God for his fellow workers. To the Thessalonians he writes, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers” (1 Thess 1:1-3). To the Ephesians he relates, “Therefore I also…do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers” (Eph 1:15). In his second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes, “We are bound to give thanks to God always for you.” And he tells the Romans, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” St. Paul recognizes the contributions of others. He thanks God for them, and prays that they will continue to grow in Christ, serving His Church.
As parish council members, you are continually calling on the work of other people. You might need parishioners to spend a day cleaning the church. You’ll need others to serve food at a fundraising event. You’ll need people to serve on committees and as advisors. When we recognize the work of others, we can follow the example of St. Paul, thanking God for their contributions, for their work and for their faith. St. Paul’s example—of thanking God for others—brings us to do three things.
First, we humble ourselves. We realize that it wasn’t all our work. Dozens, sometimes even hundreds or thousands of other people worked to bring about a certain event, or to build a new church, or to feed a group of hungry people. Your church may have done great things, but you personally couldn’t have done it alone.
Second, we honor others. We acknowledge what they have done, and encourage them to continue working for the Church. We value them by valuing their work.
Third, by following St. Paul’s example we help each other to realize that God works through us. When we thank God for a person, we glorify God and at the same time, we help the person to remember that he or she is a steward of God’s gifts. Together we are building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Each Sunday in our Divine Liturgy hymns, we proclaim that Christ rose from the dead. While we believe this fact, and while we may even sometimes thank God for His sacrifice on the Cross, rarely—if ever—do we come close to the faith that St. Paul showed throughout his life. St. Paul expressed his faith through his own sufferings. He was so sure of the resurrection of Christ that he willingly was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and faced difficulties in travel, in the wilderness, and at sea. He tells of his sleeplessness, his hunger and thirst, and his fasting.
St. Paul was so sure of the resurrection of Christ and His message of salvation, that he endured all these things in order to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. Remember, at this time, a Jew choosing to follow Christ was a new, and often controversial thing. But St. Paul was convinced that his mission was from God, and through his efforts, St. Paul brought thousands to Christianity. He laid the foundation for billions of Christians who have lived since his time.
St. Paul was grateful to God and joyful for the gifts God had given to him. He expressed his gratitude by offering this joy to others, working tirelessly to reach out to people who had not yet heard the good news. Throughout the sufferings and the difficulties, Paul thanked God. “For what thanks can we render to God for you,” he asks the Thessalonians, “for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God?” (1 Thess 7:9).
In our own ministry in the church, we must find this same urgency, this same need to spread the Gospel. We must all cultivate the joy of Christ’s holy resurrection in our hearts. In a world of pain, sadness, and doubt, we hold the joy of salvation inside of us, and inside our churches. Like the myrrh-bearing women who ran to tell others of Christ’s resurrection, and like St. Paul who dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel message, we must express our gratitude by looking outwards.
We look outwards in our churches when we welcome a newcomer into our church. We look outwards when we serve the poor and give money to the hungry. We look outwards when we invite others to help us on the parish council and when we show the younger generation how to get involved. We look outwards when we allow others to participate in the work of the Church.
As parish council members you will face your own difficulties: financial, administrative, personnel, and many other problems. But these problems cannot consume us. As leaders of the church, you must recognize that the gifts from God are infinitely greater than any struggles we face. As St. Paul looked past his horrible troubles to continue to work for the good of the Church, we too must look beyond our parish’s trials, and focus on why we’re here in the first place: to offer the joy of salvation to the world around us.
A Culture of Gratitude in Your Parish
Imagine a church that follows the example of St. Paul. How would your parish be different if your parish leaders let gratitude lead them? Imagine serving in a culture of gratitude—not a culture of obligation, or guilt, or arrogance, or exclusion, or pride. As leaders, gratitude will bring us to glorify God, to thank Him for all His blessings, for the joy of salvation in Christ. Gratitude will help us to honor our brothers and sisters in Christ and to encourage our fellow parishioners also to serve the Church. And a culture of gratitude in our churches will remind all of us to look outwards, sharing the good news of salvation to all around us, as our Lord commanded us to do.
Our Church has a beautiful icon that expresses St. Paul’s contributions to the Church. The icon depicts St. Paul, together with St. Peter, holding up the Church in their arms. With heartfelt thanks to God, St. Paul worked tirelessly to build and strengthen the Church of Christ. When we follow his example, we too will strengthen the Church of Christ and lead others to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Fr. Chris Metropoulos is a priest at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and an Executive director of the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) and of the Come Receive the Light national Orthodox Christian radio Program.