Scriptures: Epistle: I Corin.3:9-14; 58:18; Gospel: John 13:12-15; 34-35
A pastor once invited some of his members from various professions to meet with him to dialog about their work and the role of faith. The group included an office worker, a corporate manager, a salesperson, a lawyer, a teacher, and several in public service. After a brief sharing of what each did for a living, he asked them this question: “How does your faith impact what you do in your work?” That’s a profound and insightful question. Here’s another way to ask the question: “What does what we do on Sunday have to do with the other six days of the week?” I think that is a good question for us to consider on this Labor Day Weekend.
This federal holiday that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers across our nation was first observed in 1894. Labor Day is always the first Monday of September and for most of us, provides an opportunity for a three-day weekend. It is generally viewed as the end of summer vacations and more leisurely activities. But Labor Day is more than observing a holiday. It also causes us to focus on the word labor and what it means for our lives. I invite you to consider the meaning of labor as addressed in scriptures, and its implications for Christian living.
The word labor appears numerous times in scriptures. The first is from Exodus in the Old Testament: "Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” These words are among the most familiar relating to labor because they are in the Ten Commandments. The term “hard labor” is found numerous times in the books of the Old Testament and relate to what the Israelites endured while in captivity. The Psalmist wrote: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” (Ps.127)
But the word labor takes on new meaning in the New Testament. In John’s gospel, we find these words spoken by Jesus to his disciples: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (4:38 NIV)
In the New Testament, labor refers to not only tasks performed by slaves out of necessity for wages, but more importantly as the work of faith and acts of love. During the final week of his ministry, Jesus y taking on the role of servant and washing his disciples feet prior to the celebrating the Passover Meal offered his disciples an example of servanthood. In so doing he offered them an example of servant love in action in addressing the needs of others. Then he gave them a new commandment that continues to challenge us who seek to be his disciples today: “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples.”
The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Church at Thessalonica, “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such words speak of faithfulness to the mandates of discipleship.
Paul is known as the chief missionary and theologian of the newly formed faith that centered in the life, teachings and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In today’s epistle reading, he addresses the Christians in the community of faith in Corinth. The city of Corinth was one of moral decay. Its people were greatly influenced by many pagan philosophies and practices. Many lived by the popular concept of that day, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” The quality of life was an all-time low. Those first century Christians had so much to learn about the newly formed faith in Christ as taught by Paul, and there were many voices of that day offering advice concerning religious practices and rituals. There was dissention and quarrelling among believes in the Corinth church because of the differences sand divided loyalties. Some believers were convinced that the end of time was near and they simply quit work and awaited the second coming. Others wanted to know more about God's requirements and expectations of them as followers of Jesus, and sought to be obedient to the mandates of faith. And a few recognized that there was a connection between faith and works. It was sometime later that James wrote in his letter “faith without works is dead.” He wanted to make a strong statement that what one believes should impact how one lives.
But Paul offers even a deeper insight for us on the meaning of labor and the implications for Christian living in his writings to the Church in Corinth: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. (1Corin. 3:8 NIVTherefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1Corin. 15:58 NIV
From the beginning of Christianity, Christ's followers sought to understand the implications of their faith and beliefs faith upon daily life. Christianity was not just a ritual to be followed. Being Christian involved more than obedience to certain religious practices and faithful attendance at worship. Paul reminded them that to follow Christ involved a commitment to a lifestyle of sacrificial love that covered all aspects of life, their work, or leisure, every day of the week.
Christ through his life and teachings offered a new interpretation to life, faith and work. And those who responded to his message were transformed. Some, like Matthew, the tax collector, even changed their occupations because of the requirements of faithful disciple-ship. Others changed their practices within their occupations because Christ’s way led to practice a morality based on honesty, love and compassion for others. Unfortunately, in many cases today, religion is practiced only on Sunday morning, if then. But our religion, the core of our faith and beliefs, should inspire and drive us, inform and form who we are and all that we do. Our faith should be present in the values we affirm in our politics, in the activities we enter into in our spare time, in the ways we spend our money, and, in all that we do. The challenge of faithful living is to ask: “Can others see Christ at work in us?”
The challenges we face today are many. We are living in a day in which work practices and the very ethical fiber of our society are being challenged. Young people are often confused because adults have failed to project stable moral and ethical standards. One of the greatest challenges facing the Christian church today is to make faith relevant in the work place. If Christianity is to survive, it will not depend on what we do on Sunday in church, but on what we do during the week outside the church. When what we profess in our creeds finds expression in our deeds, more people will want what the Christian faith and church have to offer.
Have you heard about Change the World RVA? Let me tell you a little about it, for it is a story about labors of love. It’s an organization I’m working with that began a little more than a year ago as a part of Bon Air UMC’s mission ministry. Our mission is “to provide unconditional nurture, support and hope to students in unstable housing situations through transforming relationships, inspiring positive personal and societal change.” The focus is on helping homeless high school students in Richmond to become more self-sufficient. Their needs are many -- food, clothing, shelter, school supplies, and transportation. The needs are over-whelming and ever-expanding. Even so, a small group of Christians are respond-ing to make a difference in the lives of these students by volunteering as mentors, tutors, drivers, and contributing financially. Almost a hundred persons from several partner churches are now engaged in this unique ministry to make life better for these students. Through Christ-like acts of loving kindness and caring relationships, needs are being met and lives transformed, not only among the students helped, but in the lives of those who offer themselves through labors of love.
George McLeod, a British clergyman and founder of industrial chaplaincy in England, has written these words: “I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town's garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek… at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died for. And that is what he died about. That is where [the] church ought to be and what [the] church ought to be about."
Here we are, gathered on a Sunday morning, joined together in a community of faith to share in Holy Communion. When our service of worship is over, we will go our separate ways to live life guided by what we profess and believe. The Apostle Paul offers us a departing challenge: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corin. 15:58) Indeed, when all has been said and done, it is the labor performed through Christ-like acts of love and kindness towards others that will last and live on forever.
So I leave you with the question that I raised at the beginning of my message: “What does what we do on Sunday have to do with the other six days of the week?” It’s up to you to answer that question as you leave this place. May God help you find an answer. Amen.