Why Work? Part 2: The Story

[Part 2 of an adaptation of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015. Read Part 1 here.]

The story I want to talk about is one you may have heard before—it’s the story of God; it’s the gospel. This story—this gospel—as we understand it here at The District Church has four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal—and we need to understand all of them to understand the fullness of the story of God. Each chapter has something to say to our understanding of God, of life, of faith, of sin and evil, of suffering, of Jesus; and each chapter also has something to say to our understanding of work.

CreationLet’s start with Creation, where we learn this: we were made to work. You may not want that to be true, but there’s a reason why we feel more fulfilled when we’re working—and I don’t just mean the hours you spend at your job; I mean whatever you do with your time that fulfills the purpose for which God made you. We were made to work, and that’s why those of us who are unemployed and those of us who are underemployed—we feel the pain, the lack, the longing, the feeling of something missing, the feeling that we’re not doing everything we were created to do. In Genesis 1:26, God said:

Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

The Hebrew word for “rule” here is radah; it can also be translated “have dominion.” It’s not an idle word, where you rule by being handed a title and sitting passively on a throne. It’s an active word; it requires effort. When God gives human beings their commission in Genesis 1:28, he uses the same word: “Rule.”

See, in the ancient world, kings and emperors used to construct statues of themselves in whatever region they ruled—statues in their image, in their likeness—as signs to whoever saw them that this king or that emperor was in charge. This is what it means when the Bible says we are made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. The purpose for which God created human beings was “so that they may rule,” so that we might be living testaments to the Maker and Ruler of all things.

Here’s another thing we learn from Creation. In Genesis 2:2-3, it says:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

The word that’s used here for God’s work—melaka—is the same word that is used in Exodus 20:9, where God is laying out the Ten Commandments and he says to the people of Israel, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melaka).” The same word is used for the work that God does and the work that we do. We work because God works. We’re created in the image of God; we’re created in the image of the God who works. Therefore, we’re also created to work; therefore, when we work, we show what God is like.

Pastor and author Tim Keller wrote a great book about faith and work; it’s called Every Good Endeavor, and he writes, “Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.”[1] And the great English novelist Dorothy Sayers wrote, in the 1940s:

[Work is] a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. [It is] not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

We were made to work.

FallBut the second chapter of the gospel story is the Fall, when humanity chose to disobey God, to turn away from God, to distrust God’s word and his promises, and sin entered the world. In the Genesis account, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God told them not to; but in our lives, we do that in our own ways—we act like we know it all, we choose to believe that we can do things on our own, we elevate ourselves to the place in our lives that only our Creator should be in. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says to Adam:

[Because you disobeyed me …]

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Sin is why the world is broken. Sin is why our relationships are fractured. And sin is why work is a struggle. We were made to work but sin makes what was intended to be a joy and a fulfillment of all of who we were created to be a “painful toil.” Sin is why everyone—at some point or other, and some more frequently than others—experiences the sense that our work is fruitless and maybe even pointless, even if we’re doing a job we feel called to.

Folks work with and teach students who don’t always respond with gratitude or in educational systems that seem to magnify the bad things instead of amplifying the good things. Others work with patients who don’t always appreciate the treatment they’re getting or who may continue abusing their bodies or who may be coming from or going back into very broken families. Part of the reason for this is that sin doesn’t just affect individuals; it affects systems, it lingers over generations, it multiplies as time goes on—and so we have underserved communities, we have disparities in income and inequalities in educational opportunities, we have people working multiple jobs and still not keeping their heads above water while a few have enough resources to not work at all, we have a city—the capital city of our nation—where almost a third of the children (29,000 kids) live below the federal poverty threshold.[2]

None of us is exempt from the effects of sin and, this side of Christ’s return, what we will always experience in our work is that not all is as it should be; and even if you were to find the perfect job that perfectly utilized your gifts and you got to work with the most awesome people, you would still come up against the realities of sin. Sin is why work is a struggle.

RedemptionFortunately for us, sin is not the end. The third chapter is Redemption, which tells us that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to set the captives free, to break the chains of oppression, to defeat sin and death once and for all. Jesus was the most human of us all, and by that I mean he was—and is—the truest representation of God, the fullest embodiment of God-in-charge, the most authentic image-bearer of God, in the way he showed grace and love, in the way he called out injustice and oppression, in the way he stood up for those the world had tossed aside. He did it in the way that he lived, in the example he set; and he did it most decisively in the way that he died on a cross for our sins and was raised from the dead to give us new life.

See, the most significant way that Christ’s redemption impacts our work is that it restores our relationship with God—and therefore it reorders our relationship with our work. Because of the amazing grace of God, we no longer have to work our way back into his favor. We were made to work but sin made work and money and status and power and privilege idols for us, to be valued over God; and yet “through Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Jesus came to bring redemption so that we might be restored to God, so that we might have hope and joy and peace, and so that our relationship with our work might be reordered and realigned the way it was supposed to be.

Oh, by the way, Jesus worked too. Scripture tells us that until he was about thirty years old, he worked as what was called a tekton, what’s normally translated as ‘carpenter.’ We also know that he was poor; and we know that when he first preached in Nazareth, the question that was asked was “Is not this the carpenter?”, which might be taken as, “Isn’t this just the carpenter?” See, the job Jesus did for most of his life didn’t seem to garner him much regard in the eyes of the world. Remember that, especially if and when you’re doing something that the world doesn’t seem to hold in great esteem. Jesus, our Teacher, our Master, our Lord, our Savior, our King, worked. And he sees you.

RenewalAnd so we come to the fourth chapter of the story: Renewal. Jesus coming to earth and winning us back for God wasn’t the end of the story either; no, God the Father and Jesus the Son sent the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—to empower his church—that’s us—to continue the work they had been doing, to continue the mission they had begun, to play a part in this story. The Father worked, the Son worked, and the Spirit is at work in and through us as we live and work. And so renewal teaches us that we are recruited to work (again), to work with a reordered understanding of creation and of sin and of redemption and of our place in the whole story, and to partner with God in the work that he is doing through the church—remember, that’s us—setting the world right, setting our eyes on the vision of heaven coming to earth, of God’s kingdom and God’s government being fully established here on earth, and doing whatever it takes, doing whatever the Spirit asks us, to make that a reality. It is this broader calling that we are all entrusted with as followers of Christ; it is within this broader calling that we then figure out what our individual callings may be. If you spend all your life trying to figure out your own individual calling without responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal, you’ll probably miss out on all of it; but if you spend all your life responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal—wherever you find yourself—you’ll be fulfilling the purpose for which you were made, whether you find one thing to do for the rest of your life or not. It’s in working together in this grander work of renewal that we truly embody our identity individually as image bearers of God and corporately as the church, as the body of Christ.

Read Part 3 tomorrow.

[1] Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 49.

[2] http://www.nccp.org/profiles/DC_profile_7.html

What is the gospel?

[Excerpt from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “You Are Not Your Mistakes.”]

“There is not one square inch of the entire creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” – Abraham Kuyper

Gospel (letterbox)

This is the gospel:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything that is in them. He made human beings to be his image-bearers, commissioned us to rule over the earth as his ambassadors, his representatives. And he declared all things good.

But we chose to do things our own way, separating ourselves from God and from his good, life-giving purposes for us. This is what we call sin. Our sinful decisions—because they separate us from God, who is the source of life—lead to death.

In the Old Testament, to atone for the sin—to pay or make up for the wrong that had been done—a sacrifice had to be made. The sinner would have to bring to the temple an animal without blemish—no bruises, no cuts, no scars. In one episode of This American Life, a Jewish professor said we lose some of the impact nowadays of how sacrifice was such an important part of worship because we tend to give either impersonal things like money or intangible things like time. In those days, you would bring something personal—an animal you had raised and cared for and protected from harm—and then you would make the sacrifice yourself. You couldn’t avoid the mess of sacrifice or the cost of sacrifice because you can’t avoid the mess of sin or the cost of sin. And sin leads to death; sin always leads to death: the death of a friendship, the death of a marriage, the death of innocence, the death of a healthy sexual identity and expression, the death of justice and equality, the death of trust, and in those days, the death of an animal.

But God knew that animals could never make up for the wrong that we did, that all the animals in the world could never make up for the hurt we caused each other and ourselves, that it was like trying to stanch a gaping wound with a Band-Aid or to hold back a river with a brick. And so, we are told, God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son Jesus to live the life he created us to live, the life we could not live on our own, a life full of love for him and for each other.

On the cross, God took the cost of sin on himself; God himself experienced the mess of sacrifice; God himself experienced death so that we might have life. God in Jesus paid the price for us—the word that the Bible uses for this is one that was commonly used in economic transactions: redemption.

Jesus knew what was coming; he knew what he had come for; he knew the mission on which he had been sent.

To proclaim good news to the poor and release for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

To let the world know that God was making all things new, that God was taking the things that the world had twisted upside down and turning them back the way they were supposed to be.

To sing of a God who welcomes sinners and forgives sins, who restores broken lives and broken bodies, who saves those who think they’re too far gone and humbles those who think they’ve got it all figured out.

To invite us back to the ancient, cosmic calling to be God’s image-bearers on earth, to live as God would in us in a world broken by sin, to proclaim with our words and our deeds the renewing of all things.

This is the gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Renewal.

WashFeetThis is the gospel Jesus spoke of; this is the gospel Jesus lived out. This is the gospel that the woman who lived a sinful life (in Luke 7:36-50) saw and heard. That’s the good news that changed her life, that lifted the weight of sin and death from her soul, that caused her to demonstrate her gratitude by showing love to her Lord. It was a sacrifice that she made, subjecting herself to judgment and ridicule, violating social norms, being vulnerable in the way that she was. An ancient writer said, “Worship without sacrifice is just words.” But this was a different kind of sacrifice.

See, people used to make sacrifices in order to receive forgiveness. This woman was making a sacrifice because she had already been forgiven.

You see the difference? I’ve used this analogy before but it’s like this: in my marriage, I don’t do things for Carolyn so that she will love me; I do them because she loves me and because I want her to know that I appreciate that.

And so with us and God: in Jesus, God is reconciling all things to himself, extending an invitation of forgiveness to every sinner, an invitation to be made new, to come home, to be part of the greatest adventure ever written—life with God for eternity, starting right now and right here on earth.

What does the gospel have to do with your life? Absolutely everything.

CreationFrom Creation, we learn that every human being is made in the image of God.

That means every person you encounter—at home, at work, at play; the people you love and the people you hate; the people you walk past on the street or gossip about behind their backs—every person is made in the image of God.

That means that your calling, the thing you were made for, the thing that—if you were to do it—would make you as fully human as you have ever been, is to be like God in this world, to live as Jesus would live if he were in your place, with love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and justice.

FallFrom the Fall, we learn that there is a thing called sin, which separates us from God and leads to death.

That’s why we aren’t surprised at the brokenness and death and suffering in the world; that’s why we don’t just accept the injustice and we don’t just complain about it; and that’s why we always look at ourselves to see how sin is impacting us and clouding our judgment or making us hypocrites.

That’s why we always walk humbly with our God and with one another, because we know we screw up too.

That’s why we live in community—so we can help each other along the way, by encouraging one another and holding one another accountable.

RedemptionFrom Redemption, we learn that—praise God!—sin and death do not have the final word, that the Creator of the universe loves us so much that he didn’t want to be without us, that he was willing to get involved in the mess and to pay the cost of our sin.

That means that there is no mistake too big for God to overcome, no addiction too strong for God to pry you loose, no pit too deep for God to come down and break the chains of whatever is keeping you there and bring you out into the light.

RenewalAnd from Renewal, we learn that we who have been redeemed have a purpose, and it is to carry out that calling that God gave us from the beginning—to be his image bearers, to be heralds of this upside down kingdom, this reality in which God is in charge and things are not as they seem.

That means that God is not done with us, that he is continually forming us to be his people, sent out on his mission into whatever workplace or whatever situation we may find ourselves:

  • on the frontlines in Afghanistan or the frontlines in underresourced neighborhoods,
  • in the arenas of policy or activism or healthcare,
  • as we take photographs and tell stories,
  • as we fill out TPS reports and stare at Excel documents,
  • as we raise our kids and get to know our next door neighbors,
  • as we go out with our friends and as we go out to serve the poor—and maybe one day those two things will be the same,
  • as we spend our money and we give it away,
  • as we walk with our friends struggling with addiction and illness, and as we ourselves struggle with addiction and illness.

In it all, we are called to be a people—you are called to be a person—of outrageous, unconditional, exceptional, upside down love.

[All Gospel designs by Chantal Rogers]

Have you heard?

“Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” they said. “He is not here, but raised up.”

Every person dies.

Only one has been raised from the dead.

What a weekend.

JESUS IS ALIVE!

Hallelujah!

Good Friday

Original post: April 10, 2009; repost: April 2, 2010–Good Friday.

How could anything so tragic be good?

[From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, 2004.]

And the account from Matthew’s Gospel (27:27-54):

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;  then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”  Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Sometimes, I wonder if I'm a Christian

Sometimes I stray real far from where I want to be, from where I know I ought to be. Some days, I don’t look like a Christian at all. Sometimes I wonder whether I really have changed. Life, every day, is a series of decisions that lead me toward or away from God; sometimes I make wise decisions and sometimes I make stupid, sinful ones. But each time, I know God’s mercy and his grace.

And I know that he still loves me.