Work 101

Work 101

Ephesians 6:5-9


An Englishman whose nickname was “Gibbo” worked as a clerk for a store in London called Selfridges. This was a real guy, although I doubt he is still alive anymore. He was very old when he told this story years and years ago. He worked with Gordon Selfridge, who started Selfridges. And one time the telephone rang, and he picked it up, and the person said, ‘Could I speak to Gordon Selfridge?’ And Gordon Selfridge was in the room, and so he called him, and Gordon Selfridge said, ‘Tell him I’m out.’ And Gibbo handed him the phone and said, ‘You tell him you’re out!’ And Gordon Selfridge apparently was absolutely furious. But Gibbo said to him, ‘Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’ And that moment transformed Gibbo’s career at Selfridges, because from that moment onwards when they needed someone they could trust, they always went to him. He became the owner’s most trusted employee.


How we handle ourselves at work, both as an employer and an employee, says a lot about who we are in Christ. Paul has taken his direction to all believers, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and applied it first to marriage and then to parenting and child-parent relationships, and now he brings it into the workplace. Paul has every expectation that our identity in Christ, impacts us not just for an hour on Sunday mornings, but in every arena of life. When you think about it, it really makes sense. If we think that the Creator God of the universe, who in Jesus Christ became human and made his dwelling among us, sacrificing himself for the forgiveness of our sins and to restore the relationship between himself and us, taking our punishment upon himself, wants to spend just an hour a week with us, we’ve placed that God in a really small box. We cannot contain God. Our lives cannot contain God. And to think that we can is just foolish. When we come to him in faith, and turn our lives over to him, his Spirit begins to live in us and there’s no part of our lives that is safe from his transforming work. Not our marriages. Not our families and our homes. Not even our work. Everything we do, we do as children of God, because that is what we are. Read text.


When we look at this passage, it looks like Paul is talking about the relationships between slaves and masters, which he is; even that he is condoning slavery, which he isn’t. We have to understand slavery in Paul’s day, because it was very different than what we see when we see slavery today. Slavery in Paul’s day was different. It wasn’t ok. Paul never condones slavery, and we’ll see that in a bit. But slavery in Paul’s day wasn’t racial, it was socio-economic. And most of the time, slaves were not exploited as they were in our past. It is certainly true that there was the traditional ancient teaching such as that by Aristotle that ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” So Aristotle viewed slaves as somehow less than fully human, more tool than person, although he did allow that “a slave is a kind of possession with a soul.” And under Roman law, slaves were things to be bought and sold and not legal persons. They had no legal standing under the law. And its also true that some slaves suffered terribly under their owners. One slave was crucified because he killed a pet quail. And there were three major slave rebellions, the most well-known of which was the rebellion led by Spartacus, but those were all well before Paul’s time, between the years 140 – 70 B.C.


By the time Paul wrote the book of Ephesians, major changes had been introduced that changed the treatment of slaves for the better. For starters, slaves under Roman law could generally count on being set free eventually. Very few reached old age as slaves. Those who did were typically slaves who were freed by their masters after a time of service and chose, because of the way their master treated them, to continue on as a slave. Slave owners actually released slaves in such high numbers that Caesar Augustus introduced legal restrictions to curb the trend. We have archaeological evidence that almost half of Rome’s sixty million slaves were freed by the age of thirty. And even while a person remained a slave, that slave could own property, including his own slaves. And he, not his owner, completely controlled his own property. So he could invest and save toward purchasing his own freedom. You see, most people became slaves, and some even sold themselves or their children into slavery, because of debts owed. Some sold themselves into slavery because the slaves of Roman citizens could become Roman citizens and gain a new entrance into society. And when the debt was paid, the slave was often freed. Lastly, slaves were not pushed down into their own social class. They typically enjoyed the same social class as their owner. Just based on appearance, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between slaves and their owners. Slaves could serve as custodians, salesmen, teachers and tutors for the household children, even physicians. In fact, many scholars believe that St. Luke, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, and who was also a physician, was likely a slave at some point in his life, if not throughout his life, because most physicians were slaves. It wasn’t uncommon at all for slaves to be better educated than their masters.


But make no mistake, slavery was and is a reprehensible thing. It made one human being the property of another, dehumanizing the one owned. So why didn’t Paul just ban it, given the radical nature of the gospel he was teaching? Well, for starters, he was anticipating the imminent return of Christ. The thought of Christ waiting hundreds, now thousands of years to return was a foreign one to him, as it was to all of the earliest Christians. In 1 Corinthians he wrote “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.). For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” (1 Cor. 7:21-23). If you can attain your freedom, do it. Why? Because being a slave wasn’t a good thing, freedom was better. But if you can’t, don’t worry about it. Why? Because Christ was returning soon. And he knew that the Gospel he was preaching would tear down the walls that separate human beings from one another anyway.


Paul made two things very clear here: your outward appearance does not determine your actual identity, Christ does; and the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, was fully expected to dismantle the barriers that divide human beings. The gender barrier. The race barrier. The culture barrier. And social and economic barriers. Unfortunately, human sinfulness and resistance to the Gospel means that it took way too long to have any impact at all. And it still has an impact to make. But what we can do here is take the principles Paul set forth for masters and servants and apply them, fully understanding that employees are not slaves owned by masters, to our relationships with our employers and employees.


Look at V. 5. “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Now, he isn’t saying here that we should literally sit in fear of our bosses, that we should be afraid of them. The phrase “fear and trembling” actually gets more at respect. Respect your boss, your employer. The slaves to whom Paul was writing these words were typically household slaves. They probably had responsibilities for their master outside the home to, in terms of his business dealings, but they would have often been inside the master’s home too. So they would have seen and known him not as he presented himself, his social or business persona, but as he really was. They would have known the intimate details of his home life, his marriage, his business dealings, the good, the bad, and the ugly. You know the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt?” That was often the case here. It was common for slaves, who were often better educated than their masters, to smile and nod to their bosses on the outside while muttering behind their backs and holding them in contempt on the inside. Sound familiar? That attitude is so common today it’s almost laughable. But for you and I as followers of Jesus Christ and because of our relationship with him, our inside attitude should align with our outward behavior toward our employers. We must respect them.


Second, we need to be sincere in our dealings with them. “With a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” We are to view our job, no matter what our job is, as if Christ himself had given it to us to perform. “As you would Christ.” In V. 6 Paul says that we are to act on the job as if we are slaves of Christ, doing God’s will on our job from the heart. In V. 7, that we are to view our work as if we are working for God and not for any person. Many of us think doing the will of God on the job means sharing our faith with our coworkers, things like that. And God certainly will call you to do that. But before you ever open your mouth to talk about Jesus or even pull into the parking lot with a “Jesus fish” on the back of your car, you should already be striving to be the best employee in the building, putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and doing your job well. So many of us, especially if we know that our boss or employer is a Christian too, try to skate by doing less than our best. If the Spirit of God is at work in our hearts, we should be giving our very best effort, from the beginning of the day or shift to the end, whether you’re flipping burgers at Burger King or cutting steel on the job site, whether you are driving (if you are, abide by the law and be courteous), or sitting at a desk crunching numbers or working with stethoscope and scalpel in the medical field. What you do matters because you are ultimately doing it not for your boss or even for yourself and your family, but for Christ. So give your best.


“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.” ”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.” ”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!” Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job. What you do matters, because you are doing it for Christ!


A sincere heart is simply a single heart, or an undivided mind. It means our mind and heart, our focus, is on the task at hand. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take or receive breaks or rest your mind for a minute by doing something else. It simply means that your boss is getting the best of you physically and mentally every day. It means we are conscientious in our work. “not by the way of eye-service, as people pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ.”


And we are pleasant. Look at V. 7. “With good will.” It means we do whatever we’re doing with joy and cheer and pleasantness. It means you work to be a part of the team and are pleasant with coworkers and customers alike. The kind of person that people are glad when you show up for work and sad when you’re home sick and not the other way around. Paul isn’t saying you have to be happy all the time. We all have bad days. But have you ever met a Christian sourpuss? You know, the person who seems to have the spiritual gift of being a stick in the mud and generally unpleasant? Maybe the office moral police? That isn’t a real spiritual gift, by the way, but lots of people seem to think its theirs. That isn’t what it means to do your work “with a sincere heart, as to the Lord.” We’re to respect our bosses, not view them with contempt, pleasantly giving an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and doing our very best. But you know, this doesn’t just apply to us in our jobs. Many of us here are retired. This applies to our volunteer efforts too, whether we’re volunteering at the hospital or here at the food pantry or in a school or in a community Bible study. Whatever we do, we must recognize that it matters, and we’re to do it as if Christ himself were delegating the task to us, no matter how menial it seems.


Now, look at V. 9. Paul doesn’t just talk to employees. He talks to employers too. And he tells them to treat their employees in the same way that employees are to treat them, with respect, doing your very best for them, leading the way in the effort and quality you bring to the table, and doing it all with pleasantness and joy. Everything we just talked about applies to employees AND employers. Do you realize what Paul just did here? He told slave masters to treat their slaves as their slaves must treat them. He just abolished slavery, and slave-like work environments. Sadly, it took us far too long to understand this. But he did it. Those who found themselves in slavery were to realize that they were really slaves to Christ, not to their earthly masters. And the earthly masters were to realize that they too were actually slaves to Christ. In Christ, they and their slaves were one. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Employers are to treat their employees without harshness or bullying, and should seek to do the best they can to offer fair wages and good benefits.


Well pastor, that’s great and all, but my employees don’t treat me this way. Or my employer is no Christ follower. They don’t treat us well. What do I do then? You live by the Word of God. We aren’t called to do unto others as they do unto us, are we? We’re called to do unto others … as we would HAVE them do unto us. We call that the Golden Rule, right? Matthew 7? The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But Paul actually calls us to go a step further. He doesn’t say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He says “Do unto others as if that other person were Christ himself.” Employees, treat your boss as if they were Christ himself. Employers, treat your employees as if it were Christ himself working for you. Jesus himself said “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). This is where the rubber meets the road. This is discipleship, following Jesus, in the hard places of life, not just in our minds for an hour on Sunday morning.


Justin Martyr, born in about 100 A.D., just a few short decades after Paul wrote these words to the Ephesian church, wrote these words about our calling as followers of Christ: “Our Lord urged us by patience and meekness to lead all from shame and the lusts of evil, and this we have to show in the case of many who have come in contact with us who were overcome and changed from violent and tyrannical characters, either from having watched the constancy of their Christian neighbors … or from doing business with Christians.”[i]

[i] R.E.O. White, In Him the Fulness, p. 127