Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"A Christian View of Work"

2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Genesis 2: 15

 

 

For most of us, the beginning of September marks the ending of so-called “vacation season.” The

kids are back in school.  The family outing to the beachfront condo is beginning to seem an ancient

memory.  It’s back to the grind for that long haul between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  And as we

settle back into our daily routines, many of us in the workplace may begin to feel like:  Isn’t there

anything more to life than to get up, get dressed, go to work, come home, then rest for the demands

of tomorrow’s work, all the while thanking God that Friday’s coming. 

      When we examine God’s word, we find the Scriptures mostly silent about work in the sense of

one’s daily grind.  From a Biblical-historical standpoint, we are told of the daily grind of some persons

we meet in the pages of the Bible.  For example, we learn that Moses kept flocks near Horeb; that

Amos was among the shepherds at Tekoa; that Joseph was a carpenter; that Peter, Andrew, James

and John were fishermen by trade; that Matthew was a tax collector; that Paul was a tentmaker.  In

this morning’s text, however, we find a rare instance of the Bible speaking to work from a philosophical and theological

point of view.  The subject of work is a piece of Paul’s counsel to the church at

Thessalonica -- work as we know it in our day-to-day routines, and also in our work together in the

church, which we broadly call “ministry.”  So this Labor Day weekend, I’d like us to pause and hover

over this unique conversation between a pastor and congregation about the nature and place of

work in the Christian walk.

          (Read 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

      It appears that 2nd Thessalonians addresses some members of the congregation who were having

doubts about the worth and purpose of what we call “the daily grind;” “the rat race.”  It’s possible,

based on what we read in the 2nd chapter of this letter, that there were faithful Christians in that

congregation who were so consumed with thoughts of Jesus’ immediate second coming that they may

have argued:  “Hey, why bother punching the time clock?  After all, our Lord will be right back to take

us to His Kingdom.”  I suppose in a short-sighted and self-serving kind of way, this could be reasoned. 

But many of us know from firsthand experience that idleness – whatever its basis or rationale – can

create major disturbances and disruptions within groups.  It is amazing how quickly those not given to

more useful and productive tasks can become irritating busybodies to others who are trying to be

useful and productive.

      Earlier this summer, I shared about my factory experience at Capri Plate Glass.  Among the cast of

characters there was a guy we called “Scoop.”  Scoop always talked a great game.  You know, “I’m

gonna do this,” and “I’m gonna do that.”  But most of his eight-hour shift was spend meddling;

spreading gossip; talking down management; grousing about equipment failures, yet never lifting a

finger to help get things up and running; complaining about how overworked and underpaid we

were; just generally getting in the way of those of us who were trying to put in an honest day’s work.

      Paul’s advice to the faithful in Thessalonica was to steer clear of Scoops; of the company of the

idle.  Paul reflects on his own experience with fellow leaders when they were living among the Thessalonians.

  He holds up their conduct as a positive illustration:  “…we were not idle when we were

with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we

worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” This is a philosophical reflection. 

They didn’t and weren’t about to live free gratis on the sweat and exertion of others, but put in an

honest day’s work.  Paul urges the Thessalonians to be imitators of their useful and productive example.

      What Paul is essentially talking about is the Christian view of work.  An idiom comes to mind that

appears nowhere in the Bible, but which I believe is descriptive of a Biblical mandate of work.  A 20th

 

century sociologist by the name of Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic.”  Weber was

hearkening back to 16th century reformer Martin Luther who, in his reaction to religious monasticism,

made an effort to dignify the work of common folk as no less ordained by God than what clergy or

other religious leaders do.  Luther rejected the long-held belief that a professional clergy person was

responding to a higher and more important calling than that of anyone else diligently pursuing his or

her vocational call.  Even the humblest hand cleaning floors or laboring in a factory, Luther pointed out,

can do so to the glory of God.  This is worth hearing in a where so much work and so many workers are

demeaned and devalued. 

      In the bigger picture; in the eternal scheme of things, what each of us happens to do workwise is

eternally consequential if we are wholeheartedly enlisted to bring honor to God through it.  Luther was

most interested in how God’s activity emerges from our daily routines, and how the gospel can be proclaimed

and celebrated there.  In other words, we are called to do our work – however humble or

exalted it may be – as a witness to God’s presence and influence in our lives.  So when Luther speaks

of vocation – a term which is often and exclusively equated with our day jobs – he is referring to the

sum of our relationships with the world; not only in our daily grind, but in our marriages; our families;

our friendships; our recreation and leisure; in EVERYTHING.

      In our reformed understanding, our vocation is first and foremost to glorify God in all that we do.

In both the Shorter and Larger Catechisms contained in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, the first

question is:  “What is the chief and highest end of (humankind)?”  The answer is:  “(Humankind’s) chief

and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy (God) forever.”  So our calling is to make worship

the center of our vocational life; our highest work.  Our calling is to fundamentally find ways to offer

praise to God in our daily occupations; in a word, our work is an act of worship.  A high form of evangelism –

a witness consistent with Paul’s teaching on work – has to do with making ourselves useful and productive in practical ways;

endeavoring in self-sacrificial and self-emptying ways to build up the

common good.  And what better context than the workplace, where we spend perhaps more time than

we do anywhere else? 

      Both Martin Luther and John Calvin used the Protestant Reformation as a platform for elevating

what are wrongly called “menial positions” as no less than divinely ordained.  After all, God can be glorified

everywhere and anywhere by anyone with a heart to do so.  One of the claims of Weber’s

Protestant work ethic, and of the Biblical view of work, is that the attitudes and motives we bring to

our work are just as or more important than what our work happens to be.  It is right and fitting for

any Christian to search for meaning in their work. 

      But at the same time, this also must have its limits.  We should be wary of work structures and

economic orders where so few have so much, and so many have so little.  Such imbalance is surely not

God-ordained.  I think Paul strikes the proper balance when he places responsibility in the hands of

those who choose between productivity and non-productivity.  He bluntly states:  “Anyone unwilling

to work [that is to say, has opportunity to work, but wills or chooses not to], should not eat.”  This is

not an indictment against compassion and care for the needy, but a warning against idleness and laziness by the able.

  There is a concept with its roots in a single verse from the 1st chapter of Genesis

called the “cultural mandate.”  This basically means that God calls us to work to live, not merely to live

to work.  We’re placed on earth to till and keep this awesome garden – God’s garden.  And so living a

life to God’s glory, and living and laboring in service to God through service to fellow-gardeners, is far

more important than making a great living, and having all the big toys, which we sometimes call the

 fruits of our labors, sweet as they are. This is the theological reflection.

      So on this Labor Day weekend, we as Christians should be focusing our attention on looking for

meaning in our work. Beyond that, we should also be cautious about seeking too much from our

work.  It’s been said that “Americans worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship.”

True it is.  When work becomes the sole purpose of our life - the chief and highest end of our devotion;

the object of our worship; the altar at which we bow down and bring homage - work has become

an idol.  How many a marriage has been ruined because one spouse or the other, or both, were married

to their jobs.”  Work can insidiously creep in as another way we rebel against God.  So we hear:

“I would attend worship, or be more involved in church, or spend more time in prayer and Bible study,

but my work just keeps me too busy.”  If that’s our story, we’ve named and claimed the god of our

devotion.  Paul counsels us in our lesson from his letter to the Thessalonians that there is a time and

place to work for the sake of work; for the fruits it produces; for the ways its keeps us from becoming

Scoop-like meddlesome idlers.

      As a final point, what about the difference between work for the sake of work, and work for the

sake of advancing the Kingdom of God?  Isn’t that, after all, why we’re here today.  What about the

work we engage in as an offering of service to our Lord?  As choir members, youth and Sunday School

leaders, liturgists, elders, deacons, ministry members, Needy Lunch and Clothing Closet volunteers, is

our service here just putting in time and performing a task?  Of course not!  It is – or certainly should

be -- deeply-rooted in our divinely-ordained vocation to glorify God.  I found a neat little motives test

published some years ago in a conference newsletter of the U.C.C.  Here goes:

     If you’re doing it because no one else will, it’s a job.

          If you’re doing it to serve the Lord, it’s a ministry.

     If you’re doing it just well enough to get by, it’s a job.

          If you’re doing it to the best of your ability, it’s a ministry.

     If you quit because no one praised or thanked you, it’s a job.

          If you stay with it even when no one seems to notice, it’s a ministry.

     If you keep doing it simply because it’s become habit, it’s a job.

         If you keep doing it because you can’t imagine not doing it, it’s a ministry.

The article goes on to add:  “It’s hard to get excited about a job.  It’s almost impossible not to get

excited when it’s a ministry.  An average church is filled with people doing jobs.  A faithful church is

filled with people doing ministry.”

      Let’s consider the motivation of our work, and let us consider the motivation of our ministry.  Let’s

explore how God can use us to glorify Him through whatever we do for a living.  Let’s examine our

attitudes toward work both outside and inside the church.  Does our work consume our spiritual life,

or does it enrich our spiritual life?  Are we counted among those who ask:  Isn’t there anything more

to life than to get up, get dressed, go to work, come home, then rest for the demands of tomorrow, all

the while thanking God that Friday’s coming?  These are questions for ongoing reflection as we celebrate

a little-explored national holiday tomorrow, and as we return to our workplaces on Tuesday.  As we do so,

let’s take Paul’s final words on the subject of today’s counsel:  “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Amen.

 

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102