I wonder if people aren't a little suspicious when we preach about work. When we say that all work is a calling, and that all work is good and important, I wonder if some have trouble swallowing it. Consider the guy who gets depressed every Sunday night at the prospect of going back to the office or the woman who faces incessant complaints and impossible demands. I think some people gratefully accept their jobs as God's call, but for others it is a hard sell. It can be very hard to think Christian-ly about jobs.
While preaching through the Book of Ephesians, I came to the subject of work. I like preaching through a book of the Bible because, for one thing, the Scriptures set my preaching agenda. I didn't actually decide to preach on work (or the nature of the church or marriage). The Holy Spirit used Ephesians to decide for me. I also like staying put in that one passage, rather than trying to do a broad topical sermon on a subject like work. That means that I don't cover all the Bible has to say about work, but it also means I am forced to look deeply into the thoughts of this one passage.
The greater challenge was to see the passage with fresh eyes—to believe that there was something important to see and say that wouldn't sound clichéd and predictable. In this case I found commentaries to be of very limited use. But what did work was simple observation—just looking, praying, and thinking. I was excited by what I discovered and the feedback was almost startling.
This was a sermon where I felt good illustrations were vital. The Studs Terkel quote at the beginning is a classic just waiting for the gospel answer, and the story at the end about Emma Gray is gold.
After the sermon we tried something interesting. Our sanctuary is small enough that we can invite congregational sharing, so we asked people to finish this statement: "This week I will have to _______. Let me do it unto the Lord and not just for the boss." The responses included: "file a lot of paper;" "do laundry, dishes, and cleaning;" "meet with clients." People were thinking about their work in a new way. There was worship in the air. I think God's Word, once again, did its wonderful work.
How do you feel about your job? Studs Terkel, the famous Chicago author, interviewed hundreds of people about their jobs and recorded what they said in his 1974 book, Working. He wrote this in the introduction:
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us ….
It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.
Years ago I read that quote to a couple guys who work for a gas company. One of them said, "That's us." The other one said, "Now I know why some people bring guns to work." I hope your job isn't that tough!
Subverting the work curse
When Adam and Eve sinned, God said to Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field." (Genesis 3:17-18) Once man sinned, God made work—even good work—hard. He did it so that we would be impelled to turn to him when the thorns get to be too much for us.
The good news is that Jesus Christ subverts the curse. Have you read about how computer hackers work? They hack into somebody's computer—the person doesn't even know they're there—and a hacker uses the computer for their purposes. When Christ comes into our lives, he gives us a way to sort of hack into the cursed work system and use it for a purpose no one around you would imagine. Christ can make our work good again. Our text tells us how this happens.
Ephesians 6:5-9 was originally written to slaves and masters. On the back of the sermon notes in your bulletin, I've given you some background information on slavery in New Testament times—commonly referred to as Greco-Roman history—because it's a lot different than the way we think of slavery. Nonetheless, there are some things that just don't change, and this passage speaks to that which is always true in any culture: Most people have jobs, and even the best of jobs are often draining and thistle-infested. And at the heart of our jobs is the often difficult relationship between bosses and workers.
When you read Ephesians 6:5-9, you cannot help but notice how central Christ is in this passage. I once read this quote from a prominent newspaper editor: "Most people don't think that work could possibly have anything to do with spirituality. They assume that these two worlds cannot mesh. But if we bring our souls to work then we can transform our work." I think he's on to something. But I would say the problem with work is that we can't help but bring our souls to work. That's why it's so painful at times! Work does something to our souls. What our passage in Ephesians tells us is that we can bring our souls to Jesus at work, and he will transform our jobs. We can partner with Jesus in subverting the work curse.
Give your boss the Jesus treatment
Listen to verse 5: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." The first way you subvert the curse on work is by giving your boss what I would call the Jesus treatment.
Obeying your boss can be hard. For one thing, sometimes your boss doesn't seem to know what he or she is doing. What can make it even more difficult is that sometimes you just don't want to do a particular job that has been handed to you. But notice again what comes at the end of the verse: "just as you would obey Christ." Obeying Christ is the very essence of being a disciple of Christ, right? Even when we don't understand why, we're committed to obeying him, because we know he loves us and we know that he has purchased us with his blood. Verse 5 tells us to obey our earthly masters with respect and fear. That qualifying phrase—"with respect and fear"—is always reserved in the Bible for God. In fact, there is an exact parallel to this verse in Colossians, where Paul writes, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord." Paul is saying that the respect and reverence that we show to our masters is really respect and reverence for the Lord. In other words, when we show genuine respect to our bosses, it is actually our reverence for Christ that they are seeing. They are, in our minds, Christ's surrogate, his emissary. Our bosses get something that they personally do not deserve. Even if they're wonderful and deserve a measure of respect, they don't deserve reverence and respect such as we would give to God. Yet that's what they see coming from us. They are shown grace by our actions.
The text says that we bring to our obedience a "sincerity of heart." We obey because we want to—because we mean it. Our obedience isn't just to placate the boss or to get the paycheck. We sincerely do the job for Christ. If Jesus asked you to have the report done by 5:00, would you do it? If he asked you to make those calls or clean up that mess or go to that meeting, would you do it? Yes—and willingly.
What I'm talking about isn't some mental game we play to motivate ourselves. This is reality. Doing our jobs out of sincere obedience is a kingdom issue. It's like our company has a new owner, only nobody else knows about it except us. When we serve our boss or our company, we are serving the kingdom of God.
Think how potent this new approach to work, this new attitude in the office, could be. Giving your boss the respect and reverence due Christ is a game-changer. For one thing, your work will always be done to the best of your ability. Secondly, your work might very well transform your boss. When someone is sincerely treated with deep respect, it stirs something in them. Even the worst of bosses will be affected, because a Christian attitude can be catalytic. You are bringing grace to work, and grace is an inevitable agent of change. This new attitude that we bring as Christian workers to our bosses can change raise the dignity of the whole workplace. Give you boss the Jesus treatment!
Change your work product
The second way we can subvert the work curse is by changing our work product. Look at verses 6-8:
Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Do you remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin? He could magically spin flax into gold. He worked with something ordinary and produced something extraordinary. That's what you can do as a Christian. It doesn't matter what your work is.
A more literal translation of verse 6 would read: "not by way of eye service, nor as people pleasers." In other words, don't shape your work around what makes you look good or around office politics. Let God take care of all of that. He can hack into that system if we just do our job as unto the Lord with Christian integrity. You don't have to play that game. Let God take care of the posturing and scorekeeping. Focus instead on obeying your bosses like slaves of Christ.
Dallas Theological Seminary professor Howard Hendricks tells of a time when his flight was delayed. His fellow passengers were getting more and more irritated, and some of them of began to take out their frustrations on the flight attendants. Hendricks noticed how gracious and poised one of the flight attendants was, and when they finally took off and she had a minute, he called her over and commended her. He told her that he wanted to write a letter of commendation to the airline to tell them what a good job she had done. Her reply: "I don't work for the airline; I work for Jesus Christ. And this morning before I left for work, my husband and I prayed that I would be able to serve Christ in my job." She used her job to serve Christ.
There are three phrases in our passage that inform what being a servant of Christ involves. The first one is "doing the will of God." The point Paul is making is that your job, and all the tasks that go with it, are a part of the will of God for your life—the filing, the phone calls, the customer service, the repairs. These daily duties are God's will for you. This might not strike you as good news, but you must keep in mind that God is up to something in your company and the people around you don't know that. You're in there undercover. God is working through you. All of these little tasks are God's will for a couple of reasons.
First of all, when God created the world, he gave dominion over it to human beings. Jobs are a way we do that. Second, God is always at work in this world to break through the crust of sin and selfishness with his love and grace for other people. When you and I obey our bosses and do our jobs, even when it's difficult or unpleasant, that is a way for God to bring the knowledge of his love and grace into the place where we work. Third, obedience in the work place can be used by God to shape our character into being more Christ-like.
This reminds me of a story I heard. Stuart Briscoe, an author and pastor, once asked a young woman, "What do you do?" She replied, "I'm a disciple of Jesus Christ, very skillfully disguised as a machine operator." We are all really servants of Christ, and we must approach our work as God's will, unless it is explicitly against the commands of Scripture.
There's a second phrase in verses 6-8 that we need to examine: "Serve wholeheartedly." The word "wholeheartedly" comes from a Greek word that means "well-minded." The idea is to have an attitude that is born of a good heart and an active mind. You must have good intentions toward what you do. You put your mind and your heart into the tasks before you because whether anybody else realizes it or not, you are doing God's will.
The third defining phrase is found in verse 8: "the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does." As I've studied this passage, I'm not sure that the word "reward" is what Paul was getting at in this verse. Here's a literal translation: "knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord." In other words, the work you do isn't so much about reward, but compensation. Whatever good anyone does, they will receive back something similar from the Lord. Put in good, and you get good back.
When a Christian does his or her work as the will of God, it changes from simple work to sacred good. Good deeds are not just feeding the poor or sharing our faith in Christ. A good deed is when you do your job no matter what it is as a service to Christ with a whole heart and good intentions. Your company compensates you with salary and benefits. God compensates your good with his good. It calls to mind the principle: "What you sow, you will reap." To borrow from the story of Rumpelstiltskin: "You spin flax, and he'll give you gold." I've found that God is endlessly creative with the good that he gives in repayment for the good we do for him. It's hard to say what it will be for you. It might be a life-changing relationship. It might be great influence. It might be the trust of your boss or a raise for good work. It might be a growing reputation or surprising opportunities. One thing it will certainly mean is a more Christ-like character within you, which is a great treasure in and of itself!
Christian bosses answer to the Lord for how they work
Finally, let's consider the word Paul offers in our passage to bosses. Verse 9 tells bosses how they can subvert the curse on work: "Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them. Since you know that he who is both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." In other words, Christian bosses answer to the Lord for how they work. And how should bosses work? They must approach their relationships with their employees as their service to Christ, just as much as employees approach their relationship with their boss as a service to Christ. When Paul says bosses are to "treat [their] slaves in the same way," he is reiterating everything he shared in the previous verses. Bosses do their jobs as the will of God. They must put their hearts and minds into their jobs, spinning their work into good. While Christian bosses do not submit themselves to their employees' orders, they do submit themselves to their employees' good. That's what's unique about a Christian employer or boss.
Paul also adds this stern warning: "Do not threaten them." This doesn't mean a boss can't lay down the law, point out the consequences for poor work, or offer a bad job review. It means that Christian bosses should never lord it over their employees, using fear and intimidation to get their way. They mustn't do this "since you know that he who is both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him."
When I was putting together this sermon, I caught an episode of the reality television show Undercover Boss. Here's the premise: A CEO goes incognito and gets a low-end job in their own company. Nobody knows who he or she is, and he or she watches what happens. They simply observe how hard the job really is. They see how their employees treat other employees and how their managers respond to those below them. As you would suspect, they learn a lot. To those of you who are bosses, your master—your true boss—is undercover at your company, and he is watching you. Pretty sobering, eh?
Paul says to Christian bosses that they must keep three things in mind: (1) Christian bosses and their Christian employees have the same master, and their master watches out for all. (2) The true Master is much higher on the organizational chart. (3) The true Master is not partial to the boss or their position. There's no favoritism with him. He does not favor vice presidents over custodians. While God certainly honors the need for authority and leadership, a Christian boss is expected to show the same servant heart, the same willing mind, the same goodness, as the lowest Christian on the proverbial totem pole.
There's an impression a lot of Christians have that says my job as a pastor is more important than your job, if you're selling widgets or fixing cars or cleaning dirty rooms. Is that the case? The Bible doesn't come at it that way! Our passage for this morning shows us that it isn't the task that defines the importance of our work; it is the worker and the master. Nothing in these verses touches on what the job at hand is. It touches on the character of those involved in the work.
Emma Daniel Gray died on June 8, 2009, at the age of 95. On the office records, her title reads "charwoman." Your job is probably more important than that, right? Nonetheless, there was a big story about her in the Washington Post when she died. For 24 years she was the charwoman for six different U.S. presidents. Each day she dusted the office of the President of the United States.
Now whose job is more important?
It isn't always about the work. It's the task. It's about who you serve. We all desire to do tasks that are meaningful and fulfilling. God often grants us just that. But not always. At the core of the Christian work ethic is not what we do, but whom we serve. When we see our work, whatever it is, as serving the Lord and not men, our work takes on a holy dignity and an eternal significance. When we realize that any work we do, no matter how ordinary or lowly, can be transformed from work to good, then that job is of utmost importance and will earn the compensation of our good and generous God. What made the story of Emma Gray even more interesting to me was that she was a devout Christian. She would stand and pray over the president's chair every time she dusted it. Her dusting cloth in one hand, her other hand on the chair of the president of the United States, she would pray for blessings and wisdom and safety. That is what turned her work to good. That is what earned her God's good gifts in compensation. After she died, her pastor said that Emma "saw life through the eyes of promise." Friends, of all the places you've got to go and all the jobs you've go to do—some of which are nasty—that is how Christians work. That is what makes our jobs different.
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________