Reflections on work and leisure
August 11, 2015
I am the bread of life, says Jesus. He who comes to me will never be hungry.
This year our August Sermon Series takes us deep in one chapter, chapter six of John’s Gospel. It’s a long chapter – a full 71 verses. Beginning with the Jesus’s feeding of the 5000 and his walking on the lake, it continues with a long section in the form of a “conversation” between Jesus and the crowd, about who Jesus is. This then leads to a sense of dispute and division among Jesus’s followers, and the chapter ends with Peter’s strong affirmation of Jesus’s true nature: “We know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”
At the heart of the chapter – literally at its centre, it’s the 35th of 71 verses – stands this powerful statement of Jesus, the first of the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel. I am the bread of life.
Last week Linda got us going on this theme by preaching for us on the feeding of the five thousand. She helped see how this feeding demonstrates the power of God at work in Jesus, realised in active compassion and abundant generosity. In out passage today Jesus is drawing out the full significance of the feeding. Jesus isn’t only the sharer of bread, the multiplier of bread: it’s more than that. I am the bread of life, says Jesus. He who comes to me will never be hungry.
If Jesus is the living bread, then being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian means being someone who is nourished by the living bread.
And that’s what I want us to explore together over the next few weeks. I’d like us to think about how being nourished by the living bread that is Jesus can sustain us in different areas of our life. It’s no good having a compartmentalised faith that we switch into and switch out of. What God wants for us is to enjoy that nourishment that Jesus offers in every part of our life. This week we’ll look at how faith in Jesus the living bread can nourish us in our lives of work and leisure. Next week Diane will look at how we can be nourished in the areas of our relationships and family life. And the week after that I’ll look at how we are nourished as we look towards our ultimate horizon – the horizon of eternal life with God.
Today then, I’d like us to spend some time thinking about and how a living faith in Christ can nourish us in our approach to the world of work.
And before those retired amongst you think, that’s not me, so time for a snooze – think again! My favourite Christian encylopedia defines work as “purposeful activity performed for God, community and self.” Think about that for a moment – that counts all of us in. On that basis, prayer is work, as raising children, no less than holding an outpatients clinic or preparing a case for trial. Work is purposeful activity performed for God, community and self. No mention of payment there.
Yet we also have to work to live, to take responsibility for paying for our own needs as well as contributing to the common good through taxation. And arguably we don’t talk enough about the workplace in church! We worship a God who took human flesh in the middle of real life. If we ignore the work that absorbs so much of our time we risk letting our faith becoming over-spiritualised and disconnected from ordinary experience. At my previous parish there was a lovely older woman called Kathleen, who said she met with God over the washing up. She said that her sink with its two taps were the equivalent of a personal altar with two candles on it. So where do you meet with God in your ordinary working day?
With our children now being young adults who want to work to be more financially independent, Steve and I can see how the world of work has changed since we were there age. We both found unskilled jobs to help pay our way. Steve worked for a while in a factory screwing lids onto shampoo bottles. I worked in a photo processing plant sorting through rejected photographs. Thirty years on, technological advances means that such low skill manual jobs hardly exist anymore – or that they’re done by low paid workers in the developing world. The IT and communications revolution has fundamentally changed our lives and our workplaces. Of course there are many positives with that. Sheffield’s been pretty successful in supporting the growth of new industries. Having HSBCs IT centre here has brought many jobs to the city, as has the growth of new firms such as the Broadband company Plusnet.
Yet with the rise of sophisticated, high-tech workplaces, and the collapse of traditional manufacturing, we have lost the sense of the dignity of honest labour. Whatever we may think about the Trade Union Movement, it did help foster a sense of self respect amongst low paid workers. I have recently enjoyed reading the memoirs of former cabinet minister Alan Johnson who worked in the seventies and eighties as a postman. He has touching stories to tell about his workmates and their pride in and dedication to making sure that the post was delivered on time. The world has moved on, and in many parts of society in can seem that getting rich is the only thing that counts. You work to earn money, end of story. In 2015 we have a high tech, high skill world of work that can work well for those at the top of the pile, but leaves those at the lower end of the pay scales feeling that their working lives have no value. And with the rapid development of artificial intelligence the demise of low skill jobs is certain to continue.
Jesus invites us to see the world through a different lens. We follow one who in his earthly life worked as a simple manual labourer, and who called his first followers from their work as fisherman. The ancient world certainly had its centres of power, wealth and sophistication but the revelation of God’s Word made flesh didn’t take place there, but among ordinary working people. Jesus warns his followers that they cannot serve both God and wealth, and affirms that God’s kingdom is made present at the low-skill, low status end of things. “Behold, I am among you as one who serves” says Jesus, and then models this for us by washing the disciples feet. “If I have washed your feet, then you should do the same.” In doing so, Jesus dignifies the work that most of us would like feel is below our dignity. Those who do the least desirable work – the refuse collectors, the night cleaners on the geriatric wards – they have equal worth before God as everyone else.
At one time, we were promised that the IT revolution would enable us all to live lives of leisure. That seems increasingly improbable, but how would such a leisured life fit with a Christian approach to work?
Genesis chapter 1 gives us the wonderful image of God’s creative activity over six days followed by satisfied rest on the seventh. Man and woman are created in the image of God, to follow this sequence of work and leisure, creativity and rest. Both work and rest are important parts of God’s providential design for us, and taking the Sabbath principle seriously means attending carefully that we’re not moving into excess of one or another. Overwork is not God will for his people, and nor is excessive leisure. Our calling as Christians is to live by healthy rhythms that can truly enable the life in all its fullness which is Jesus’s promise to us.
The first and second great commandments – that our lives are centred in love for God and love for our neighbour – remind us that our sense of human worth and purpose are locked into our relationships with God and with his people, with one another. This is why having work to do – “purposeful activity for God, community or self” – is vital for us. The scandal of unemployment is the sense of apathy, isolation and low self-worth it brings. The flip side of a society which says are human worth is measured by the size of our pay packet is a society which easily discards unemployed people as having nothing to give. Unemployment among 16 – 24 year old currently stands at 14.5 % – much higher than that of the general population. As Christians we cannot rest easy with this.
“Do now work for the food that spoils”, says Jesus, “but for food that endures for eternal life. “ As we let Christ nourish us with his living presence in this sharing of Holy Communion today, let’s pray 0 for a deeper sense of God’s presence with us in our daily round of work and rest. And let’s pray for God’s justice in the way we shape the workplace in our wider world.