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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Colossians 3:22 – 4:1
“Which Employer?”
April 26, 2015 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

         Which job offer will you accept? Graduate students actually asked that question before they got their PhDs fifty years ago. The question now is what will you do when you don’t find a job? So it’s kind of nice, or perhaps irritating, to imagine a situation where you actually get to choose among employers instead of hoping and praying that one, any one, will choose you.

         For the Christian, “For whom are you going to work?” has been a live question from the beginning. Even in situations with no options at all, even in slavery, Paul asked Christians to consider which employer they would choose: a human boss or God? That’s the choice which still goes with each of us to work.

         Let’s not, however, suppose that this passage or any other mention of slavery in the Bible in any way condones or supports that evil. Slavery is wrong. While misguided Christians in this country once tried to defend slavery with false interpretations of Scripture, it was other Christians in this country who preached and fought and risked their lives to end slavery. It is still Christians in the forefront of the fight to end human trafficking wherever it still exists in our country and in the world.

         Turn over to Paul’s first letter to Timothy chapter 1 verse 10 and you will find “slave traders” in a list of evil people along with murderers, liars, killers of their parents, perjurers, sexual sinners, etc. The Bible recognized slavery as an unavoidable social reality of their time. It did not bless it. What Paul says here in our text and elsewhere about the relations between slaves and masters makes it clear there is an equality we have in Christ which undermines the practice of slavery.

         The other mistake not to make with this text happens when we hear a simple analogy to our own work situations, between the slave-master relationship and the employee-employer relationship. The mistake is to forget how that sounds to brothers and sisters in Christ, African-Americans and others, who have a family heritage of pain and suffering as slaves. What feels to white people like simple contemporary application of a text feels to descendants of slaves like complicity in oppression. When we hear Paul say in verse 22, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters…,” you and I don’t feel what they feel.

         Human trafficking is an ugly and very present reality here in the United States and around the world. Portland is a center for trafficking in the sex trade. Children in Africa are taken captive to serve as soldiers. Just recently we heard about slaves on Thai fishing boats. Nothing that Paul or the rest of the Bible teaches allows or justifies any of that. These are human horrors that every Christian should want to eradicate, just as Kay Strom and Larissa Rudeen have been teaching us here at Valley Covenant.

         I tread lightly preaching this Scripture, remembering that for some of us securely in the middle class in America, employment is nothing like slavery. We get paid a wage for our work. We can resign anytime we like. We have laws specifying safe working conditions, limiting work hours, preventing sexual harassment, providing unemployment benefits, requiring minimum pay, and lots of other regulations and protections unheard of for slaves and still not received by migrant workers and others in our country and around the world.

         Slaves in the ancient world, like slaves less than two centuries ago in America, and like the people trafficked today, are totally the property of their masters. Masters had absolute power over slaves and could direct them to do anything they wished, take advantage of them sexually, punish them with beatings, and even kill them. Let’s not too blithely imagine ourselves to be in employment situations which resemble what Paul is talking about here when he tells slaves to obey their masters “in everything.”

         Yet reading this text and remembering the differences between the situation of Christian slaves back then and Christian employees today has a lesson of its own. If Paul told Christians then to submit and be obedient to those in authority over them in an oppressive and cruel system, how much more might the Lord expect our own obedience to employers in a much kinder and gentler system of work and labor?

         “Obey your master.” Obey your employer. The whole idea of obedience is difficult for us. With the possible exception of children, we don’t tend to think of obedience as an important part of human character. Instead, we stress independence, thinking outside the box, and even a healthy rebellion against authority. If we do our duty, if we follow rules, it’s because we want to, not because someone told us to.

         We obey because we get a paycheck. I once took an auto shop class. Back in the days when there were still automatic chokes on carburetors, our shop teacher told us there were different opinions on whether to oil them. He thought oiling a choke would gum it up and cause more problems. “But,” he said, “if I was working for someone and he told me to oil automatic chokes, then I’d have the biggest oil can I could find.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what you think, obey the person who writes your paycheck.

         My shop teacher’s advice is the opposite of the spirit in which Paul tells us to obey those in authority over us. In verse 22 he uses a couple of unusual words to tell us how not to do our work, literally “not doing eye-service or man-pleasing.” In other words, don’t obey, don’t do good work just when somebody is watching or just to kiss up to the boss.

         I’ve used a personal computer for a long time. Early on someone conceived the “boss button.” You are at work, busy at your computer, writing letters, filling in spread sheets, placing orders, checking inventory, but in truth you are surfing the web or posting on Facebook or shopping on-line or looking at sites you shouldn’t view at all. The boss button is a key to instantly switch your screen from that cute cat video on YouTube back to your boring spreadsheet. You hit it whenever the boss approaches. That’s eye-service, that’s man-pleasing, letting “the man” see what he wants to see without actually doing it.

         There are huge differences between our work and the work of slaves, but fear is still a big motivator. A Roman slave worked hard because she feared a beating. You or I may work hard because we fear being fired, fear getting hours cut, fear getting chewed out in front of other employees. Paul says that is the wrong fear. The end of verse 22 says to do our work “wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.”

         Something is going on here which we miss in English. “Master” as in those “earthly masters,” which slaves and employees ought to obey, is exactly the same word as “Lord,” as in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is asking us, “Which master? Which employer? Which lord, are we going to have?” If you think your only real master is another human being, then you will work in one way. But if you remember that you have a Master who is also the Lord who died and rose for you, who is the Good Shepherd as we heard today in our Psalm and Gospel readings, then you will work differently. You will work better.

         Verse 22 says to work “wholeheartedly.” In verse 23 Paul says, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it…,” literally work “from your soul.” That phrase come as close as any to talk about pursuing your “passion.” But Paul doesn’t tell us to go looking for the work that is our passion. He tells to take whatever work we find ourselves in, even if it is slavery or its equivalent, and do it passionately, with our whole hearts, out of our very souls.

         Paul is simply applying the basic spiritual lesson which Jesus taught us over and over, which we heard Him say more than once in our Gospel readings for Lent. To find your life you need to lose it. If you set out to save your life, to make yourself happy, you will only lose your life and be miserable. If you go looking for work which is your passion, you may never find it. But if you do what Paul says here, if you take whatever work you are given and do it passionately, you will find happiness and you will find the Lord there with you.

         I’m doing a wedding this week. Karl and Dawn did pre-marital counseling with me. I told them what I learned from someone else a long time ago. Don’t go looking for your soul mate. Don’t think you are marrying your soul mate. Instead, marry someone good whom God has given you, and then become soul mates. Put your heart and soul into your marriage and eventually you will have a soul mate. Go looking for your soul mate before you get married and you may never find that person.

         Don’t get me wrong. In marriage you have a choice before you tie the knot. Marry someone good. Marry another believer. Don’t imagine you are going to change someone who is already abusive or lazy or addicted. Don’t marry someone like that if you can help it. But once you are married, put your soul into it, unless abuse or addiction or abandonment breaks that sacred marriage covenant beyond repair.

         Even more, most of us have choices in employment. Even in the ancient Roman empire, slaves got the opportunity to be free. So Paul says in I Corinthians 7:21 that if you were a slave when you became a Christian, don’t let it trouble you. But “if you can gain your  freedom, do so.” The same applies to our jobs. If you’ve got a lousy job, don’t let it trouble you, but if you can get a better job, then you are free to do so.

         Work with your whole heart even at a lousy job. Paul told slaves to put their souls into the work they did for their masters. Ultimately you do not work for that petty tyrant who runs your office or that foul-mouthed foreman at your work site. Paul says to work from our souls “as done for the Lord and not for your masters.”

         I don’t like bumper-sticker evangelism, but for this text the one that said, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter,” is exactly right. From God’s point of view, you don’t work for Symantec or for Peace Health or for Siuslaw Bank. You don’t work for your spouse or for your father-in-law or even for yourself. If you are a Christian, then you work for Jesus.

         At the beginning of the year I mentioned Brother Lawrence and his book The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence learned to pray all day while he worked in the monastery kitchen, whether he was sweeping the floor or scrubbing pots. He learned to pray like that because he learned who his boss was. He said, “That the most excellent method he had found of going to God, was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.” In other words, he found spiritual life in plain, boring work because he did his work for Jesus.

         In Christianity Today, Bradley Nassif, who teaches at North Park, says that for ancient Christian monks and nuns, dull, boring, mundane work was “heavenly sandpaper.” It shapes our souls to become more like Christ. It’s by doing hard, boring work for the sake of Jesus that we become molded more into the image of Jesus. Nassif wrote that “Our highest vocation is not the kind of work we do, but the kind of people we become doing it.”

         Working for Jesus to become more like Him changes your payday. In verse 24 Paul says that as Christians, “you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as the reward.” In those Roman households where slaves and masters became Christians, it was easy for slaves to resent their masters, to resent children of the household who would inherit their parents’ wealth. But Paul reminds Christian slaves, “you serve the Lord Christ,” and that changes the reward for good work and the punishment for bad work in verse 25.

         What Jesus offers is more important than a paycheck, more important than a retirement plan or health coverage. The benefits of knowing Jesus and becoming like Him are eternal. Paul asks us to contemplate that eternal benefit plan at work. When told to do an unpleasant or boring or just plain hard task, instead of wondering how we can get out of it, or how we can do it as quickly and superficially as possible, or daydreaming about winning the lottery or getting a better job, ask how doing such work can shape your soul to be like Jesus, more patient, more kind, more sacrificial, more loving. That’s the real work before us, not just closing a sale or cleaning a floor.

         My mother was a nurse. She always told my sister, “Don’t be a nurse.” My mother’s dream job, her passion if you like, was to be a missionary math teacher in Africa. She thought God wanted her to teach. But my great grandfather once worked as an orderly for Florence Nightingale. Nursing was in our family DNA. So my mother’s father told her to be a nurse and sent her to nursing school. My mother obeyed. She did what her father told her, then for several years she did what nursing instructors and head nurses told her.

         But without disobeying her father, my mother found a way to do what she thought God had gifted her to do. She took more nursing training and became a teacher of nursing, then the head of a start-up nursing program at a community college in California. One of her favorite parts of that career was teaching a basic mathematics refresher course for students whose math skills lagged. She went through all the drudgery of learning and teaching how to make hospital beds, how to take blood pressure, how to give a patient a bath in bed, but ended up getting the joy of teaching math anyway.

         It doesn’t always turn out like that. Lots of Christian slaves never got their freedom in ancient Rome, and lots of people in our world, including lots of us, work at hard, boring, distasteful jobs all our lives. But when we work for the Lord, when we want to be what He wants us to be, when we let rough, annoying work rub off our pride and greed so that our souls are shaped more like Him, then we find the reward.

         My mother learned something else as an instructor. She learned what Paul says there in the first verse of chapter 4, when he tells masters, “treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” Mom learned to care about her students, to care about how they were treated by supervisors and by doctors and by hospitals. She was in charge then, the master if you like, but she also knew what it was like to be an obedient student and a nurse on the job. It helped make her just and fair with her students.

         If God has given you some authority, made you a teacher or an employer or a manager or even the boss of your own business, then that verse is there for you too. It’s still about that same vocation, becoming more like Jesus. Be a “master” like our Master in heaven, who gave His life for those who serve Him. That’s heart of working as a Christian, to be like Jesus. If you are an employee, work for Jesus and serve like Jesus served. If you are an employer, lead and direct like Jesus, who led by serving.

         As I said last week, work can be cursed. It can feel like slavery and for some people it is. But all our work is aimed at that reward of being with and like our Lord, our real employer. Work for Jesus.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated April 26, 2015