Being a Christian at Work

Bible Book: Ephesians  6 : 5-9
Subject: Work; Employment; Labor Day; Christian Living
Series: A Walk Through Ephesians
[Editor's Note: This sermon is listed here in July because it is part of a series of messages on the book of Ephesians, however, it is also a great message to be used during the time surrounding Labor Day.]
Introduction

There’s a post office in our area—I won’t name the branch—but if you’ve been there I probably don’t need to….because there’s something that makes this particular branch very memorable—and unfortunately I’m referring to the negative, unfriendly attitude of its employees. Whenever I go there to buy stamps or mail a package…I get the distinct impression that these postal workers hate their jobs. They seem to be completely unmotivated. They act like waiting on me is a chore. When I seek the answer to a question, they respond as if I was asking them to donate a kidney. I get the feeling they would rather be anywhere else. In fact, once while I was waiting in line a postal employee said, “Come on five o’clock! I am sooo ready for quitting time to come!” I looked at my watch and it was ten in the morning.

There’s another post office not too far away where the attitude of the employees is exactly the opposite. They act as if they enjoy their work…and they give me the impression that they sincerely like helping me with my postal needs. They offer friendly suggestions as to how to mail my package cheaper or quicker. For obvious reasons, whenever possible I always use this post office over the other.

How would you explain the difference between the two? Why such a stark contrast?

Of course—without actually interviewing the employees at both branches I can’t answer that question with any degree of certainty. I mean, there could be all kinds of mitigating factors. But with the help of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians I can do one thing: I can share principles that will help make any employee—or employer for that matter—in any work place…more like those postal workers in the “happy branch.”

Before I read our text I want to issue a word of caution and remind you that Paul’s culture was very different than ours. So—when he addresses these workplace attitude improvement principles, he doesn’t use the words “employee” or “employer.” He uses words that we thankfully don’t embrace these days—words that offend us. Paul uses the words: slave and master. And don’t misunderstand Paul. He’s not endorsing slavery here. He’s simply speaking to the culture of his day in a way that called those people to a higher standard. In doing this, God uses Paul to share timeless principles that help people in any culture to understand how they can live out their faith in the workplace…live it out such that they can find joy and fulfillment in their labors…whatever they may be. Take your Bibles and turn once more to the book of Ephesians. Follow along as I read chapter 6 verses 5-9.

Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 – 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. 7 – Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 – because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. 9 – 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.

Okay—before we can glean the “employer/employee principles” that I mentioned from these verses—principles we can use in our day and age—I think it will help if we try and understand the context—so here goes:

It has been estimated that when Paul wrote these words there were some 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire. Furthermore as many as HALF of the populations of major cities…cities like Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, were slaves. So in his day literally half the people were slaves of the other half. This is important for us to note because it means that within the membership of the churches that first received this letter there were both slaves and masters. As proof I would cite the church in Colossae. Remember? Paul’s other writings tell us the names of two of its members: a slave named Onesimus—and his master whose name was Philemon. There must have been many other “Onesimuses” and “Philemons” in the rest of the European churches of Paul’s day. Think of it. You could have a slave serving as a deacon chair…and the slave’s master serving as a deacon. You could have a slave pastoring a church where his master attended or vice versa….both rejoicing in the fact that the Gospel message was for all people…and that the ground was level at the cross of Jesus.

In any case, when the members of the churches heard this part of Paul’s circular letter read for the first time, I’m sure all ears perked up. After all, these were words that applied to their lives directly. This was “rubber-meet-the-road” stuff.

Another part of the context we need to understand concerns what slavery was like at this point in history. You see, most slaves were not subject to extreme exploitation in Paul’s day. Of course I am not approving of slavery in any form—but we need to know that back then slavery wasn’t like it was in the southern half of our nation during the Civil War.

To be sure—slaves had been subject to severe cruelty in the decades prior to Paul’s life and ministry. For example, hundreds of years earlier Aristotle had written, “A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” In the centuries prior to Paul’s day slaves had suffered terribly at the hands of their owners, such as the slave Augustus had crucified simply because he had killed the emperor’s pet quail. It is also a fact that in years past there had been major slave rebellions, like the one that was led by Spartacus seventy years before the birth of Christ. But—perhaps because of these rebellions—by the time this letter was written over a century later,

sweeping changes had been introduced which radically improved the treatment of slaves in the Roman empire. For example, under the laws in Paul’s day all slaves could count on eventually being freed. More than half were freed before they reached the age of 30. In Paul’s day, slaves could own property. They could invest and use their earnings to purchase their own freedom.

Plus—being a slave did not indicate one’s social class. A slave could be a custodian, a salesman, or a CEO. A slave could be a physician or a teacher. The closest friends of the emperors—their secretaries—those who educated individuals who handled the enormous finances of the Roman Empire—they were slaves.

I share all this contextual information—because I think it takes some of the “sting” out of words like “slave” and “master” so we can then glean these timeless principles that we can and should apply to our lives as employees—and employers—Biblical principles that help us do a better job of being a Christian at work.

And let’s be honest—there are times in the work place where people feel they are enslaved. This is why gloomy songs like “Monday Monday” became popular. It’s why people say, “Thank God it’s Friday!” It’s why our culture has designated the hours right after the work day ends as “Happy Hour.” A few years back I saw a bumper sticker that expressed the opinion of many. It said, “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to work.”

Am I on track here? Have you ever felt that way about your job? I mean do you ever find yourself taking four or five coffee breaks BEFORE lunch? Do you keep a large calendar on your desk at the office and use a big red marker each day to cross off the days until your next vacation?

Do you count the weeks until flu season, knowing this will provide a great excuse to stay home?

Well, if you feel this way you’re not alone because surveys indicate that 7 out of 10 Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs and DREAD going to work.

It doesn’t have to be that way because the principles in Scripture help us to change our attitude toward work such that it goes from being a chore—to being something that brings us joy. Paul says two of those principles—things that I believe both employees and employers must embrace in order to find fulfillment as Christians at work.

I. First, Paul says we must have the right ATTITUDE.

Look at the phrases he uses. To slaves he says, “Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart…Serve wholeheartedly.” To the masters Paul says, “Treat your slaves in the same way.”

So—to bring this into the 21st century—wherever we are in the corporate hierarchy Paul says we are to sincerely respect one another—and the different rolls we play in the workplace. On top of that we are to embrace an attitude in which we always do our very best on the job. We must work hard—we must strive for excellence. Ecclesiastes 9:10 puts it this way: “Whatever your hand finds to do—employers and employees—do it with ALL YOUR MIGHT…”

Unfortunately this kind of work ethic has become more and more rare in our society…and I for one think it may be one reason unemployment is so high. I mean, many workers—supervisors and supervisees—most are like my friends in that post office in that they do the least they can…just enough to get by. The attitude is to just get through the day—do enough to collect that pay check and no more. It’s no wonder profits are down and people are being laid off.

This week I came across something that expresses this poor work attitude. It’s entitled: “Ten Things to Say if Caught Napping at Your Desk.” I got a kick out of them. Perhaps you will as well. Here goes:

“They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”

“This is just a 15 minute power-nap like they raved about in that time management course you sent me to.”

“Whew! Guess I left the top off the Whiteout. You got here just in time!”

“Did you think I was sleeping? No—I was meditating on the mission statement you shared with me and envisioning a new paradigm.”

“I was testing my keyboard for drool resistance.”

“I was doing a highly specific Yoga exercise to relieve work-related stress. Are you discriminatory toward people who practice Yoga?”

“Why did you interrupt me!? I was concentrating and had almost figured out a solution to our company’s biggest problem!”

“The coffee machine is broken.”

“Someone must have put decaf in the wrong pot.”

“…in Jesus’ name…Amen.”

We chuckle—but poor attitudes—lazy attitudes—in the work place are really no laughing matter. Did you know that employee theft is one of the greatest threats to business today reaching upwards of $50 billion a year? Time theft—arriving late, leaving early and playing sick—accounts for an additional $150 billion. But it’s worse than that. As the late Dr. Elton Trueblood once put it, “Deliberate mediocrity is a heresy and a sin.” And unfortunately it is a POPULAR sin. The writers of the book, The Day America Told the Truth reported that only one in four workers say they give their best efforts. Most admit to spending about 20 percent of their time at work goofing off. Almost half of American workers admit to calling in sick, when they are not sick…and the sad fact is that studies show Christian workers to be just as guilty of this kind of behavior as anyone else.

In his book, Your Work Matters to God, Doug Sherman says we’re in the midst of a “…‘moral mudslide’ in the American workplace and Christians are caught in the drift and in many instances are instigating the slide.” Another writer sadly concluded, “The so-called Protestant work ethic is long gone from today’s American workplace.”

Paul says that part of being a Christ-follower is going against this “flow” by striving to be effective at work. Of course he is right. We must always give our best—whether our job is to vacuum an office—or supervise the workers in that office.

And this is not a burdensome rule. The fact is we enjoy our work more when we strive to do our best.

A great example of this is seen in the work ethic of the Shakers—a sect of believers that existed until the late 19th century. They had some odd doctrines and practices but they built some of the world’s best furniture. Here is what they taught their craftsmen: “Make every product better than it’s ever been done before. Make the parts you cannot see as well as the parts you can see.

Use only the best of materials even for the most every day items. Give the same attention to the smallest detail as you do the largest. Design every item you make to last forever.” It has been said that every Shaker chair was made fit for an angel to sit on. Their recipe for lemon pie is still world-famous. They were Christians who were known for the way they loved their work—and they loved it—because they did it with the right attitude! They learned that when we give our all at work—whether we are boss or employee—our labors become more fun—more meaningful!

The late Methodist minister, William L. Stidger tells the true story of the owner of a small drugstore who hated his job. One day, for some reason, he decided to have fun with his work by striving for excellence in delivery times. That kind of challenge appealed to him. So, in an effort to get the needed prescriptions to his customers as soon as possible he came up with the following strategy. When a customer who lived nearby would call an order in on the telephone, the man would repeat each item being ordered and his assistant would listen and fill the order as he spoke.

With the order filled, the owner would keep the customer on the line while a delivery boy would dash out the front door. When the delivery boy reached the home of the customer, who was still on the phone with the owner of the drugstore, the customer would excuse herself for a minute to answer the door. Coming back to the phone she would express great surprise at the quickness with which the order was delivered. Well, news got around about the drugstore that filled orders so promptly and soon Charles R. Walgreen, founder of the great Walgreen drugstore empire, had more business than he could handle. He found the JOY OF ACCOMPLISHMENT in work he had once despised because he strove to be the best at what he did!

But there are other benefits to be found in striving to do our best at our jobs.

For example—when we team up with God in our work by using the talents and abilities He has given us we develop CONFIDENCE in ourselves and in God. You see, when we discover the good work He prepared in advance for us to do—and then strive to do it—we learn to trust our Creator more! We also grow and mature SPIRITUALLY in other ways. I mean, if we stay at our jobs until they are done right even when it is frustrating to do so, we develop PERSEVERANCE.

When we resist the temptation to yield to some unethical practice we develop HONESTY. By working alongside of irritating co-workers we learn TOLERANCE and PATIENCE. So…our jobs can indeed help us to develop as disciples of Jesus. Bill Hybles puts it this way: “The marketplace can provide graduate-level instruction in character development that can transform our lives and free us to be the men and women God wants us to be.”

But the BEST reward of doing our jobs with the right attitude is seen in the fact that we are then given an opportunity to SHARE OUR FAITH. Hard workers are rare so when people see us giving our all we earn their respect and the right to share our faith.

A few years ago Jamie Winship wrote an article in DISCIPLESHIP JOURNAL in which he told of his career as a police officer. Knowing that as a policeman he would often be dealing with people who were faced with extreme crisis, He said that it was his deep desire to share his faith on the job. One of the first fellow workers he talked to about Jesus was his street-hardened sergeant.

Winship said, “I was barely able to tell him I was a Christian before he interrupted and asked what kind of police officer I would be. Startled by this question, I said that I didn’t know yet. ‘Neither do I,’ the sergeant replied. ‘When and if you prove yourself to be a good cop, then you can come talk to me about God.’” Winship said that at the end of his second year he was named OFFICER OF THE YEAR and at the ceremony he gave credit to the training he had received from superiors. He also explained that he wore his uniform every day in service to Christ.

Following the event, that street-hardened sergeant congratulated him and said he was now ready to talk about God.

The sad truth is that many of us have been ineffective in our attempts to make an eternal impact because we have neglected two vital elements of honoring God in the marketplace. Either we have been careless workers whose shoddy methods an inferior standards offended coworkers or we have been inconsistent Christians whose behavior was shaped more by marketplace mind-set than the mind of Christ. In either case we’ve forfeited our credibility and turned an opportunity into a closed door. Hybels writes, “Jesus never commanded us to engage in theological debates with strangers, flaunt four-inch crosses and Jesus stickers, or throw out Christian catch phrases. But He did tell us to work and live in such a way that when the Holy Spirit orchestrates opportunities to speak about God, we will have earned the right to do so.”

As Christians we must obey the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your GOOD WORK and praise your Father in Heaven.” We must do this because our co-workers are the congregation God has given us…those specific people for whom He has called us to be salt and light and if we do our work in a Godly fashion…if we embrace this first principle that Paul cites…we will get a “pulpit” from which we can share God’s love.

All disciples of Jesus should labor in this way for as Jerry White reminds us: “Ethics to the government is law. Ethics to the philosopher is a concept. Ethics to religion is morality. But ethics to God is OBEDIENCE.” God commands us to do our best!

So to enjoy our work—as employer or employee—to get fulfillment and meaning from our labors—we must embrace the right ATTITUDE.

II. The second principle Paul cites is this: we must strive to please the right BOSS.

Look back at our text. Verse 7 says, “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. And masters…do not threaten [your slaves] since you know that He Who is both their Master and yours is in Heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.”

Paul is saying that as Christian workers we must remember Who our ULTIMATE boss is…and with that in mind, we need to think of all our labors as service to Him. You see, in the final analysis, we are not working for our earthly boss—or for the company that prints our paychecks—no…we are working for God. We are fulfilling the calling—the work—He has given us to do in this life.

As most of you know, last week I was in Chicago to attend my daughter Becca’s graduation from Wheaton College. That same weekend there were graduates of Wheaton’s class of 1962 on campus. These gray-haired saints were all over campus enjoying getting together a half-century after their own graduation day. One day I heard a couple of the men talking in the hallway and one asked about a fellow Wheaton grad. He asked if his friend had heard about this particular man…how he was doing…etc. The other guy said, “Oh—didn’t you hear? He completed his life this past year. He’s with the Lord now.” I thought that was a great way to describe a life—as God-given work that had been completed. To enjoy our labors—whatever they may be—we need to look at them in this way for, our work is our calling—our assignment from God Himself. Whether we are behind the pulpit or in front of it we are working for God. We are doing the good work HE prepared in advance for us to do. And, I don’t know about you but when I die, I would love it if people could say, “Mark completed his life. He did the work God gave him. He finished the job.”

Thinking this way changes everything about our work from the morning commute all the way through to the evening one. As Calvin Miller put it, “The man who is ‘job-centered’ has more anxieties about his work than the man who is ‘God-centered.’” The fact is, our work changes in a wonderful way—when we embrace the fact that whether we be supervisor or supervisee, whether we are sweeping floors or running a company, we are children of God—working to please Him.

Before the Civil War, some visitors from the North were watching a group of slaves in New Orleans. The slaves were wearily shuffling along the dock. But one slave, in striking contrast, strode among the rest with his head held erect. He had the dignified bearing of a conqueror. One of the northern observers asked, “Who is that fellow? Is he in charge of the rest or something?” “No,” was the answer, “That fellow just can’t get it out of his head that he is the son of a king.” And that’s exactly what he was. He was the son of an African King and he had been taken into slavery when he was a young boy. His parents were rulers and had taught him that he was no ordinary person. Even now, after a lifetime of abuse and hardship, which had broken the spirit of other slaves, he still thought of himself as the son of a King. Good for him!

Well—as Christians—that’s what we are! The King of the Universe has claimed us as His children. He is our true “Supervisor”—and we need to work according to that mind set.

Another thing—when we look at work in this way—when we think of God as our Employer, our jobs become much, much more than jobs. They become one of the ways that we worship. Our job site—our office—even the car pool we ride in—becomes a “temple.” Each project we undertake becomes an offering to God. Remember how Paul puts it in Romans 12? He said the way we live our every day lives—which would of course include our jobs—should be considered a spiritual act of worship. That’s how we’re supposed to think of our work. So, as 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Strive to please Him in your labors. When a Christian walks on the job site he or she should be thinking about more than making money, impressing the boss, or even how much he enjoys his work. He should be embracing a mind set in which he constantly strives to honor God. As Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. IT IS THE LORD CHRIST YOU ARE SERVING.”

You see, wherever we work, whatever our job description, our ultimate boss is Jesus Christ. When this life ends—when the REAL quitting time comes—He is the One we will want to please. I’ve been quoting Ephesians 2:10 all day. Well, the New American Standard translates it like this:

“We are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should WALK in them.” Now, the word “walk” suggests our common everyday experience, not the unusual and heroic. I point this out because we all have a tendency to rise to the special “heroic” occasions of our lives, but as Jerry Bridges writes, “God has created us to do our good works in the midst of the humdrum of daily living.” We need to look at the “humdrum” of our jobs—even the little things we have to do day in and day out—as an opportunity to please God. Hudson Taylor, the great 19th century pioneer missionary to China once said, “A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in a little thing is a big thing…[to God].”

The truth is when we do our jobs in the right attitude—whatever we do big or small furthers God’s purposes—His eternal kingdom. When we embrace this mind set our work takes on great meaning because we come to see that if we do everything FOR GOD, then we are part of the big picture…we are where the action is…on the front lines, fulfilling God’s purposes in this world! We come to see that we are a part of God’s great plan—drawn up before the dawn of time!

A few years ago in an article in Christianity Today Philip Yancey told of a PBS series based on interviews with survivors of WW II. In these interviews, the soldiers recalled how they spent a particular day. One sat in a foxhole all day. Once or twice, a German tank drove by, and he shot at it. Others played cards and frittered away the time. A few got involved in furious firefights. But, mostly, the day passed like any other day for an infantryman on the front lines. Later, these soldiers learned that on this particular day they had participated in one of the largest, most decisive engagements of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. It did not feel decisive to any of them at the time, because none of them had the big picture of what was happening elsewhere. It was just like any other day of the war. But like all great victories, this one was won as ordinary people executed their assigned tasks.

We need to think of our work in the same way. As we allow God’ Spirit to bear His fruit in our workplace…in our Christlike interactions with others…God’s kingdom grows. Our acts of kindness…our striving for excellence…our honesty…our integrity…our witness both non-verbal and verbal—has eternal consequences! In our work—we can further one part of God’ eternal kingdom.