A Time For...

A Time for Work - Week 1

Readings: Genesis 2:8-15, Ecclesiastes 5:18-19, John 5:16-18, 1Cor9:3-14
Sermon Date: April 3rd 2016
Notes by:  Simon Butler

A Disclaimer:  This is a topic that really interests me and so these notes are quite extensive and draw on quite a bit of reading and thinking.  I’m conscious that not everyone will share the same level of interest in this as a pastoral & theological issue.  Please forgive the length of the notes and use what is useful – ignore what isn’t!  SB.

How to use these notes:
Sounds like a silly thing to start with but there are a few ways in which you might want to use these notes.  The notes are split into 3 sections, you might like to follow through all 3 sections or just pick one or two of them to use. 
Section 1 is pastoral in nature and might help the group to frame and discuss their own experiences of work and its place and value in their broader lives. 
Section 2 attempts to set some background and context for a prayerful discussion of work by engaging with some of the widely held and often subconsciously implied ideas about how work fits into a ‘Christian’ worldview (accepting that almost all of these thoughts originate with Martin Luther and therefore within a reformed 16th C theological and social framework).  This might be helpful to open up the conversation beyond current boundaries of thought.
Section 3 is a broad outline for a bible study.  You might want to skip straight to this if that’s how your group likes to work.  There are a few texts which you can pick and choose from and some notes to guide reflection and conversation. 

Section 1

To begin with, let’s ask some questions of our own work situation to help us set the scene for our prayerful conversation about work.
  • Do you think that your work matters to God?
  • Do you feel as though your work can ‘make a difference’?
  • Do you think you are investing yourself and your energies into something that really counts?
  • If you had to grade your level of ‘satisfaction’ in work from 1-10 where would you end up and why?
  • Do you feel you have a healthy spirituality of work that contributes to your wider spiritual well being and sense of whole life discipleship?
  • Do you struggle to see how your work plays a creative role in your spiritual life?
We might respond in any number of ways to these and other similar questions. 

Perhaps we respond with a resounding ‘Yes’ to many of them.  Perhaps it’s a more tentative yes that on a good day we really hope is true.  Or maybe our feeling to some of the questions is a dispiriting and depressing and unqualified ‘no’! 
What this session is all about:
I’ll reveal my hand at the start.  I think work does count in an ultimate sort of sense and that this contributes positively to giving meaning and purpose to our lives as disciples.  For some the idea that work can give meaning and purpose to life is unspiritual and bordering on heretical but I don’t think it is, and we’ll explore this in our session today.
In this session we’ll explore the idea that our earthly work, in addition to being valuable in the here and now, actually has a heavenly good and value.  We’ll reflect on the idea that our work might just count from the perspective of eternity.
Why is this important? 
I wonder if this is the only basis for experiencing a truly satisfying ‘spiritual’ dimension of our work.  Which in turn shapes our convictions in such a way as they gradually transform our inner attitudes and motivations and perspective on the thing that many of us spend more time doing than anything else!
What this session is not all about:

Seeing our work differently will not of course mean that current frustrations disappear and that we’ll suddenly find our daily tasks are brimming over with meaning and purpose.  Sorry. 
Why does all this matter?
I think this matters for a number of reasons.
  • Most of us spend a lot of time ‘at work’ in one sense or another.
  • It is a place where a lot of life takes place.
  • It is a sphere of life which matters to God.
  • A great deal of people have an unhealthy relationship with ‘work’, a relationship which does not lead to flourishing and life, but rather one that leads to enslavement and dis-satisfaction.
  • Work is rarely understood within a broader theological and spiritual framework which allows it to play its full and satisfying part within our lives of missional discipleship.
  • Work matters.
Let’s talk value…
Question:  How do you classify and value your particular work?
Usually within church circles work is classified and valued according to a well established hierarchy that often looks a bit like this – where 1 represents highest value.
1. Front line Christian work (clergy-person, missionary, etc)
2. Work that supports front line Christian work (admin in churches and other support services)
3. Work that has a compassionate focus (Doctor, nurse, care-giving, charity work, etc)
4. Work that is focussed on children and young people (teacher, child-minder, etc)
5. Everything else, except for...
1078.  Anything to do with Financial Services or banking
Maybe you experience the reality of this sort of value system quite personally?   
One of the major problems we have to contend with is a system of valuing that says in essence ‘spiritual good’ but ‘material less good/indifferent/bad’ – it’s a dualism written into our lives on so many levels.  But it’s rubbish and is contra to what scripture teaches about the integration between the physical creation and the spiritual world.
Specifically applied to how we view work, this dualism means that we end up saying that some Christians do work that really matters whilst every other Christian spends the days of their lives doing stuff that at best matters less, or is at worst is utterly unimportant. 
Who wants to spend their days doing things that are unimportant in the overall scheme of things?  Not me.  And I imagine not any of us. 
Now this is not to say that all work is morally and ethically neutral.  Of course we’d want to challenge the Christian who was investing their time in a fledgling Arms dealing company, or who is running a distribution centre for naughty top shelf DVD’s…and perhaps suggest that the nature of such work is not consistent with the kingdom values which Jesus embodies and talks about!
Question:  So what about you?  Do you experience this ‘hierarchy of value’?
  • If so in what ways?
  • What effect does this have on how you perceive your work?
  • Is this hierarchy of value reinforced by others or is it internally generated?
 Section 2
So where do we look for meaning in our work?
Usually we find a degree of spiritual meaning in work through ideas such as:
Our work is significant if we tell people we work with about Jesus and model good Christian living to them.
Our work is significant because it allows us to have resources to invest in the work of the Kingdom
Our work is significant because working is a response of obedience to God and this is true even if the work itself does not feel meaningful
And in many respects these sentiments are perfectly reasonable.  But…
Question:  What is your response to the above statements and why?
  • Do these ideas/statements give sufficient meaning and purpose to your daily work?  If so why?  If not, in what ways are they lacking for you?
Finding meaning and purpose in our work beyond the here and now
The thing that connects each of the three statements above is that the place in which they try to locate value and purpose for our actual work (i.e rather than the relational encounters that might be facilitated by our work) is limited to the here and now.  I.e work is seen as something that is purely and simply ‘earthly’ i.e for ‘now’.  None of the statements leave any room for discovering a meaning and purpose in work that stretches beyond the here and now and connects with the glorious and wonderful future in which we will experience resurrection life…
Here’s a quote from a theologian called Miroslav Volf.  He teaches at Yale and he is Croatian. (just in case you were interested)
In his book ‘Work in the Spirit’ Volf suggests that:
“The value of ‘secular’ work depends on the value of creation, and the value of creation depends upon its final destiny.”
If the final destiny for creation is redemption and recreation (which as Christians we believe it is) then the material creation, which is the subject of redemption and recreation, must be valuable because it will be ‘saved’ (the word often used for saved in the NT is a word that can mean ‘healed’) and exist into Gods eternal destiny.  If our work is a part of creation, and not just something that we do ‘to’ creation, then our work will in some form or another share in the final destiny of creation in which it’s true value is given. Therefore our work may be said to be truly valuable in that elements of it, as far as it is part of creation, will also be redeemed and recreated and be carried over into eternity. 
Or to put it another way and in the words of an author called Darrell Cosden, who is from Scotland but lives in the USA:
“What we often call ‘secular work’ is ultimately for heavenly good.  Our every day work whether paid or unpaid actually matters and makes a difference – not just in the here and now but also for eternity.  Work and the things that we produce through our work can be transformed and carried into ‘heaven’.” (by heaven he doesn’t mean the disembodied fairy-tale place in the clouds but the glorious eternal resurrection life lived in the physical redeemed creation.)
Question:  Do we think about our work having an ‘eternal’ dimension?
  • Do we think about our work being something that is capable of being redeemed and carried into the new creation?  If not, why?  If so, in what ways?
How might this affect the way in which we:
  • Value our work
  • See our work as having a purpose in Gods wider purposes
  • Approach our work

Now I accept that this might be a slightly strange and mind bending idea.  But I think it is worth pursuing.  But only if there can be some sort of biblical basis made for it, so let’s turn to the scriptures now.

Section 3
Bible study: 
1Corinthians 15

In this text Paul sets out his understanding of Jesus as our ‘prototype’ and he uses this pattern to encourage the believers to persevere in their lives and work.  For Paul, as for us, the strength to keep going in daily life is rooted in an understanding that who we are and what we do has a resurrection future.  I.e we are not temporal but will live forever having experienced resurrection. 
Linked to this, a major thread running through Pauls thought is that the things that are part of the resurrection life are the things that are ultimately meaningful and valuable in this phase of life. 
In 1Cor15 Paul talks about ‘the Lord’s work’ as being just this – something that has meaning and value because it is part of the resurrection life. 
“Stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain”  (1Cor15:48)
The key question is then:  What does he mean by ‘the work of the Lord’? 
We might note that the overall purpose of this bit of 1Corinthians is to help the believers to resist false teaching and beliefs that undermine the resurrection hope.  Because for Paul, if there is no resurrection then we are fools to be pitied and without any meaningful hope at all.  And this because if we do not have a resurrection hope then everything is fleeting and ‘for this life only’. 
Clearly then we should see that ‘the work of the Lord’ should refer to the hard work of hanging on to and understanding and witnessing to Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection hope. 
But is this all? 
Historically the church has never understood ‘the work of the Lord’ to only be about sound teaching to do with the resurrection.  Instead it has been understood as referring rather more widely to all that we do in the power of the Spirit to live and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. 
But does this still only imply ‘religious’ activities?  Or does it also include regular and ordinary working activities that do under God and in his strength?  Nothing in the text limits us to a view which excludes this.  Indeed Paul seems to be at great pains to show how the material and spiritual are drawn together into new life in the resurrection of Christ, and so it would seem odd for him to in the same argument try to draw such a divide between the two. 
Can we say from here that ‘the work of the Lord’ includes ‘work’, and that work is given meaning and purpose because it becomes part of the resurrected life?
Revelation 21 & 22
We must of course be careful not to read these passages as ‘facts’ designed to fuel wild end time fantasies.  They are not that.  Instead they might be seen as illustrations designed to stimulate our faith-filled imaginations by linking things that are unseen with concrete realities in our daily lives.
So what do we see?
Firstly we do not see the earth being annihilated.  If we see earth as being destroyed and replaced by heaven (the new Eden) what emerges is a new creation untouched by human hands. 
Secondly we see a vision of a ‘City of God’ and ‘garden city’ which illustrate the characteristics and nature of eternity.  We see contours of our own eternal future. 
Revelation 21 has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth – two thing which in the initial creation were distinct, but are in this picture now merged.  God and people, matter and spirit, live ‘in the same space’. 
In this space sharing there will be some points of continuity and some points of discontinuity with what we currently experience. 
Could it be that we see here a place which is always open and includes the best of human accomplishments and culture which includes things accomplished through our work?   Is this a fair reading of our ‘splendour’ which is part of the ‘glory and honour of the nations’? 
Does the very picture of a city say something to us about the role of the ‘created’ in this shared space?  The city is the work of human hands, in contrast to the garden which is portrayed as the work of Gods hands? 
Does this vision imply that God is pleased to gather up, transform and include not just his pure creation (the garden), but also the genuine additions to the created reality that mankind has brought about through creation-transforming actions and work? 
This is not to suggest that our ‘work’ is worthy of inclusion in the redeemed creation in and of itself, but rather that once redeemed and transformed it may find a home there. 

Simon Butler, 06/04/2016