An engineering graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology was in his first ever career job interview when the Human Resources representative asked the question he’d been waiting for: “What range are you looking for in starting salary?”
A smile came to his face as he decided to swing for the fence. He has massive student loans. He’s got his eye on a new car. He wants to live downtown where the action is. So he answers, “I’m thinking somewhere in the neighborhood of $190,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.”
The interviewer looks down, crunches some numbers, then comes back with this: “What would you say to a package of five weeks vacation the first year, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental insurance with zero deductibles, a company matching retirement fund up to 50% of your salary, and a new company car every two years, say, the latest Tesla?”
The new graduate sits straight up in the chair and exclaims, “Wow! Are you kidding?”
To which the HR rep replies, “Yeah, but you started it.”
We need to talk about work! We come today to a very challenging passage in our study through the book of Ephesians. It’s challenging on two fronts: first because it touches on slavery. Our national experience with slavery puts the hair up on the back of our necks as soon as it’s mentioned. We’re going to talk about that.
There’s a second reason this passage is challenging, and that is that it speaks to every single one of us. Last week we heard God’s counsel for distinctly Christian parenting. Not all of us are parents. But today’s passage speaks to all of us, as it raises the bar for how we go at our work; what a distinctly Christian approach to work looks like.
There’s a former newspaper editor who gave a talk where he said, “Work is a four-letter word. Most people don’t think that work could possibly have anything to do with spirituality…They assume that these two worlds cannot mesh.”
Source: Terry Mattingly’s Washington Bureau religion column, “Spirituality in the Workplace?” 11/20/02
I want you to know as we get into this that God cares deeply about your work. Work is a theme that runs throughout the Bible from creation to the new creation at the end of the book. Work was entrusted to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before sin came on the scene.
God himself reveals himself to be very much an active worker, in creation, in our redemption, and in guiding human history even now toward the fulfillment of his good plan. God, always and everywhere, is at work.
And he cares deeply about your work. We see that in the most and least likely places, like Joseph in slavery, nevertheless honoring God as he worked for his captors in Egypt. Doesn’t mean God approved of his brothers selling him into slavery. What it does show is Joseph turning his work even there into a blessing.
We get to listen in on young Daniel and his peers doing outstanding work for their captors in wicked Babylon. Even there, they managed to turn their work into a blessing.
In the book of Proverbs, we spy many gems of wisdom about our work—what makes for wise or foolish approaches to work.
And in today’s passage along with several others in the New Testament, the Bible is replete with godly wisdom for how to turn your work into a blessing.
How to turn work into a blessing
I want to give you four “I can” statements; four actions that are in your power to take, to transform your work from obligation, to blessing. Let’s get right to it.
The first thing you can do to turn your work into a blessing is bring your soul to Jesus at work.
- I can bring my soul to Jesus at work.
Our Western worldview is flawed in seeing the sacred and secular as two separate realms. Faith is seen as personal and private, whereas work is public and corporate, and the two have nothing in common. That is a Western worldview, but it is not a biblical worldview.
When Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden, it was all part of their walk with God, in the world God had created, in partnership with God who created them.
When Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers—again, a biblical example telling of but in no way endorsing slavery—we read in Genesis 39: “The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered…” (Gen 39:2) Even though this young man was sold into slavery—something evil—God remained with Joseph, and blessed his work.
So the biblical worldview is that whatever your work, God is with you in it. You matter to God, and your work matters to God.
When you go to work tomorrow morning, I want you to know that God is at work in you. Do you ever think about this? Whether your work is parenting or selling, managing or designing, God is at work, in you, as you go to work. Nothing is beyond the reach of Christ’s great work in you.
Turn with me to Philippians chapter 2. The apostle Paul, writing from prison to a congregation he had started, speaks of the work of God within you, and our responsibility to cooperate with God’s work. Philippians 2:12-13 Paul writes…
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”Philippians 2:12-13
The Holy Spirit says, “Christian, work out what God is working in you. Let the power of God show up in how you do your job.” Bring your soul to work, recognizing that in everything, Christ is at work in you.
Richard Rolle put it like this back in the 13th century:
“That you may love [Jesus Christ] truly, understand that his love is proved in three areas of your life—in your thinking, in your talking, and in your manner of working.”—Richard Rolle
What you choose to dwell on mentally, what you choose to say for the benefit of others, and how you work are three of the greatest evidences that you are experiencing the love of God.
By contrast, if your thinking is consistently pessimistic; if your words are constantly critical; if your work is the bare minimum possible, something is off. You’re missing out on the life-changing love of God available to you through faith in Jesus.
Bring your soul to the Lord at work. What can that look like? True story: Rebecca Sabky reads 2,000+ college applications every year. She’s an admissions counselor at an Ivy League university. She reads about students who are intellectually curious, they’re talented, they climb mountains, they lead clubs, they develop new technologies.
But she’s always on the lookout for one more quality, and it this one: the student who brings their soul to their work. She tells of a college applicant who was clearly very intelligent, as evidenced by his class rank and teachers’ praise. He had a supportive recommendation from his college counselor and an impressive list of extracurriculars…But one letter of recommendation caught Rebecca’s eye. It was from a school custodian.
In her words: Letters of recommendation are typically written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. This letter was different. The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff.
He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.
Rebecca concludes with this: Over 15 years and 30,000 applications in my admissions career, I had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. It gave us a window into a student’s life in the moments when nothing “counted.” That student was admitted by unanimous vote of the admissions committee.
Source: Rebecca Sabky, “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person,”New York Times (4-4-17)
That’s bringing your soul to work. Bring all that you are, to whatever you do, remembering that Christ is with you, and he is at work within you.
Now let’s turn to Ephesians six, and three more things that are in your power to turn work into a blessing. The second is this…
- I can give my boss the Jesus treatment.
Verse 5 Paul writes…
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
This is hard to hear given our nation’s experience with race-based, brutally cruel, lifelong slavery of people stolen from their homelands in Africa.
When I moved to South Carolina for grad school, my first Sunday I went to First Baptist Church of Columbia. I wanted to see that place where, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the first meeting was held for the southern states to secede from the Union. The vote was 159-0 in favor. And it led to Civil War.
So as we dip our toes in a passage addressing slaves and masters, the first task is to understand how the original audience heard this. Because the way you and I hear this is very different from how it was received in the first century.
You have an important insert in your bulletin explaining the original context, who Paul was addressing. The North American experience for Africans was lifelong, forced, by-way-of-kidnapping, often brutal slavery. The Bible nowhere endorses that. The fact is that some twisted Scripture to support their evil, even as some do today regarding other issues they want to self-justify.
The reason the New Testament doesn’t explicitly call for the abolition of slavery is because when the NT was written, Christians were a tiny, minority, illegal religion. So what God did instead was sow the seeds for slavery’s destruction, by putting slaves and masters as equals in Christ. It starts with this letter, it builds in other NT letters, and it reaches its apex in the letter to Philemon, where Paul tells a slave and a master that because of their faith in Jesus, that relationship must change: they are now in God’s sight brothers.
Slavery in the 1st-century was what we now call being indentured servants. They looked like everyone else (slavery wasn’t racial). They weren’t segregated from others, unlike the American experience. They were as educated as, sometimes more educated, than those they worked for (not the case in America). They earned the same pay, totally different from slavery in America. And only rarely was someone in that role for life. Many gained freedom by the age of 30.
So in several ways, 1st-century Roman Empire slavery was vastly different from the experience of Africans kidnapped and sold into lifelong slavery in America. Let me give you a telling example from the New Testament.
In Acts chapter 24, Paul is brought to trial before the Roman governor Felix, who turns then abandons Paul to prison for the next two years, hoping Paul will bribe him.
The fascinating thing is that we know from history who this Felix was: he had been a slave, but then he worked his way up through society’s ranks, all the way to governorship. We have nothing like that in our national experience. So understand that we need to do the work of discovering what a given passage meant to the original audience, before we jump to our day.
Alright. Let’s move on. What has not changed since the first century is that just about everyone has a job. And even the best of jobs are sometimes marked by conflict between employees and employers. And that is what this passage is speaking to. Paul addresses both sides, workers and bosses. He begins with workers.
The word here is not that any boss is Lord, but that you honor Christ by how you work. That’s it. This is what Joseph did, making the best out of a bad situation, bringing good into something that was flat out evil. This is what Daniel and his Jewish peers did in Babylon: they honored the Lord by how they worked. Even while fully seeing and not in any way buying into the arrogance and idolatry of their boss, they did their jobs as for God himself.
Let’s keep going. The third thing in your power to turn your work into a blessing is…
- I can make my work worship, not just widgets.
You and I are hard-wired by God to want to make a meaningful difference. And that’s what the Holy Spirit speaks to in verses 6-8…
“Obey them [your boss] not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
You can change bosses without changing jobs.
When you have a toilet brush in one hand and cleaner in the other, clean that toilet as if you were doing it for God himself.
When you lead a team or department or class, do so as a reflection of how well God leads you.
If you are a student, go at your studies as a disciple of Christ, a learner.
Whether you get noticed and acknowledged and praised for your work, you can make your job a blessing by changing who you do it for.
For some of you, the Holy Spirit wants to speak this to you: that God will reward what your boss doesn’t. God sees and will reward you for your good work, whether or not it is seen and acknowledged by your boss here and now. For some of you, this is the gold in today’s passage.
Even without changing jobs, you can change who you work for. You have the power to make your work a daily act of devotion to Christ who sees you, is with you, and will reward you.
This was a powerful revelation to 1st-century servants, some of whom had years to go before they gained their freedom. It’s just as powerful today for transforming how you see your work. You can make your work worship, by changing who you do it for.
The fourth thing that’s in your power to turn your work into a blessing is…
- I can remember, as a boss, the boss over me.
The Holy Spirit guides Paul to speak to workers, then he flips the spotlight onto bosses. Nothing in the New Testament in any way endorses the kind of slavery we practiced as a nation. To the contrary, verse 9 confronts any kind of cruelty or dehumanization of workers by those in positions of power:
“And 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.”vs. 9
Master, you have a Master! That’s the warning here. The way you treat those who work for you, God sees that. And will hold you accountable. He does not play favorites—meaning, you don’t get a pass just because you have the better title or the corner office.
More than 6,000 civil servants in London were studied and asked questions like: “Do you ever get criticized unfairly?” “Do you ever get praised for your work?”
Ten years later researchers followed up and found that men who reported low scores on their bosses’ fairness were 30 percent more likely to have developed heart disease, the leading cause of death in Western societies. And they think the impact on American workers’ health may be even harder, because we spend more time at our jobs than our overseas counterparts.
Source: “When the Boss Is a Jerk,” The Week (11-11-05)
With leadership comes greater responsibility. It’s no longer just about you getting ahead. God says treat those who work for you the way you want to be treated. If you want respect, show respect. Lead by example.
And don’t use threats against those under you. A few verses earlier comes the warning to Dads not to
exasperate or provoke your children when you discipline them. The caution to Christian bosses is similar: don’t make things harder for those under you.
Remember that over you stands the supreme boss, and you will answer for what kind of boss you were, how you treated those who report to you.
Pulling all of this together, the Christian view of work is that it’s ultimately about who you serve. When you see your work, whatever it is, as serving the Lord not just people, that brings heaven’s touch to what you do. It brings significance and purpose. God blesses you in your work, so that you can be a blessing to others, in the name of and for the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to end with a true story. Emma Daniel Gray died ten years ago this month at the age of 95. If you look up her name, Emma Daniel Gray, you’ll see career title was “charwoman.” I had to look that up. Charwoman is a fancy title for someone who cleans houses or offices.
Yet there was a story about Emma in the Washington Post after she died. Because over the span of her career, Emma Gray served as the charwoman for six American presidents. Among her responsibilities each day was dusting the Oval Office, a servant’s job—a thousand massive gap in title and responsibility between occupying the President’s chair…and being the servant who dusts that chair.
But here’s what you need to know about Emma Daniel Gray. Emma loved Jesus (she actually still does, as she enjoys the reward for her work).
Every time Emma dusted the president’s chair, she would also pray over it. A cloth in one hand, her other hand on the chair of the president, she would pray, asking the Lord to impart His blessings and wisdom and protection upon the one who worked from there.
It was only after she died, Emma’s pastor pointed out that she “saw life through the eyes of promise,” the promise that her work mattered, because she made sure that her work…was also worship. Friends, of all the jobs you do—some of which are unthanked or underappreciated—this is how Christians are to work. This is what makes our work different, and worthwhile.
So here’s how we’re going to conclude this morning—with congregational sharing. I want you to complete this statement, out loud for all of us to hear.
“This week I will have to _________________________.
Let me do it as for the Lord and not just for the boss.”
What can that sound like? Maybe it’s “This week I’ll have to crunch a bunch of numbers. Let me do it as for the Lord and not just for the boss.”
Perhaps it’s “This week I’ll have to do loads of laundry, shop and cook meals, and keep the kids safe and busy. Let me do it all for the Lord.”
This is a chance to voice your choice; to voice your commitment to take Jesus to work, each day. This is how Christians are to approach our work. This is what makes our work different and worthwhile.