Imagine with me that we aren’t in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, but in the Greek city of Ephesus. And it’s not this morning. It’s the first century. And the routine of going to church is very different.
There is no church building. We come to church in a house, the home of one of the few fairly wealthy members, the only home that has a courtyard big enough for 40 or 50 people to worship together.
There is no illuminated sign out front. The neighbors are still very nervous about this new sect. They have heard that Christians refuse to give worship to the gods of Rome. And in time of war or famine, when they really needed those gods to help them, that’s treason.
They have heard that Christians no longer were part of the worship of the patron goddess of Ephesus, Artemis. They were social dropouts for many of the most important social functions in the life of the city, rebels.
When Christians got together, Jews and Greeks mixed freely, slaves and free people, rich and poor. It just wasn’t natural. Grandma never would have approved of this.
Sure, they knew some of the Christians and liked them as people. But there was tension. And when things went bad in parts of the Roman Empire, it wasn’t unusual for the Christians to get blamed and harassed and even arrested and jailed or thrown to the lions because they were so different.
There is no pipe organ, but a few members have brought along drums and stringed instruments, which they play enthusiastically.
They always have a meal together after church, a love feast that climaxes in communion. Some linger for hours after the service is over. That does sound a lot like our routine here and now.
The speaker for the day is the Apostle Paul. He arrives early. The head of the household greets him warmly, and then invites him into a more private room for a word together. They sit on ornately carved chairs to talk. A slave brings them drinks and fruit.
“Paul,” he says, “you’ve been talking about the church a lot lately. It sounds like you are saying that in the church we are all the same, all equal. That sounds nice. But Paul, you know that three of my slaves have now joined the church. I don’t think you realize the ramifications of what you are saying.
You can’t get too close to your slaves. My family has handled slaves for generations. We know. They are naturally lazy. If they get any idea that I won’t punish them severely, they’ll rob me blind. They’ll slack off in their work. I’ll be ruined. My business can’t make a profit without slaves. I couldn’t have all ‘this’ without slaves.
One of my slaves was talking about it with the slaves next door, this business about everyone being equal. My neighbors are furious! One of them had a slave sass off at him this week and he said it was because he heard in our house that all people are equal. And he had always been a good slave and kept his mouth shut before you started this. Paul, this puts me in a very difficult position.
You remember, a century ago Spartacus led a slave rebellion that almost toppled Rome. Paul, you are playing with fire. Tone it down! Be realistic!
Paul said, “Give me some time to pray about this.”
The service begins. It’s a glorious time of worship and Bible Study, followed by the love feast and communion.
And as the church is finally breaking up for the week, as Paul is about to leave, one of the slaves asks to see him. He speaks with his head down and his eyes on the floor. “Mr. Paul, sir, I hate to bother you because I know you are busy. But could I talk with you for just a minute?”
Paul answered, “Of course!”
The slave had no place to receive a visitor. There was no privacy in the crowded slave quarters. He didn’t have any snacks to offer him or even have a chair for a guest. So they found a quiet spot in the garden to talk.
“Mr. Paul,” the slave began, “when I hear you talk about God loving all people and all people being equal, it feels so wonderful in my heart.
But the more I dare to believe that I am a real person and that God loves me, the harder it is to put up with the way my master treats me. We do all the work, but we have nothing and he gets rich. When I talk with my friend next door, he says we should all just refuse to work like this anymore. He got in big trouble this last week. I don’t think he’s right. But, Mr. Paul, I get so angry inside. It’s just not fair the way they treat us. Why should I work day and night for this guy? Why should I put up with it when he treats me like dirt? Paul, I’m torn. How can you be a Christian and a slave at the same time?
And Paul says, “Give me some time to pray about this.”
A week goes by and the next Sunday Paul arrives at the same house. The church gathers for worship. And I suspect that we still have a summary of his sermon, very much geared to the needs of his day, but containing principles for workers and bosses in all ages.
Would you please stand for the reading of God’s word? For Labor Day Sunday we’ll jump ahead to Ephesians 6:5-9. Paul opened his letter to the Ephesians talking about every blessing in the heavenly places, with wonderful theology drawn in broad generalizations. Today we see how he applies those generalizations to one of the most challenging nitty-gritty relationships we face, masters and slaves, workers and bosses.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So what does Paul say to slaves? First he says to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Do your work. First century slaves or 21st century employees, who play games of seeing how little work they can get by with, or how much they can pilfer, bring shame on the name of Christ. Christians do their work.
And what do slackers accomplish by their goofing off? Nothing, except that they gum up the works for everyone else and they get the boss mad at them. People who don’t learn to submit their will to doing the task at hand are just going to be in chaos all their lives. Do your work. That’s pretty basic. And of course, if your boss wants you to do something immoral or dangerous, that has to be adjusted. But the basic principle for workers is, do your work, and do it well. Christians are good workers.
Second, Paul said to do your work with singleness of heart. Singleness of heart is a wonderful gift. Too often people are doing a job, but resenting very minute of it. And it tears them apart inside. Too often people are trying to keep some kind of a relationship with a family member or co-worker, but resenting them at the same time, carrying grudges, nursing bitterness in their hearts. Their hearts are divided. Their emotional energy is sapped like a short circuit drains the power out of an electrical appliance. The New Testament Epistle of James talks about the double-minded person, as is unstable in all his ways.
If you are in a difficult situation, don’t just leave it unresolved. Don’t let it fester. Deal with it. If you have to do a difficult job, don’t let fears or resentments sap your energy as you do it. Accept that it has to be done and just do it. If there is something wrong in a relationship, don’t let it fester. Don’t let it just go bad, on and on. Deal with it. Go talk to the person. Work it out. Get it all out on the table. Forgive. Put it behind you. To be double minded adds untold stress to your life. So keep working on it until you have things worked out and you can be single minded.
The serenity prayer comes in here. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. There is such wisdom in that.
In the first century any slave revolt was hopeless. Paul was clear in 1st Corinthians that if they had the chance to buy their freedom they should take it, and many did. But until that time came they needed to focus on God’s grace to live in the circumstances they had. We all need to learn to play the cards we are dealt rather than to stress out idly dreaming about the way that things might be.
Someone said that ten percent of your happiness in life comes from what happens to you. But ninety percent of your happiness comes from what you choose to do with it. I believe that’s true.
Third, Paul told slaves to do their work whether the boss is watching or not. Be a person of integrity. Use your time well. Don’t just float. Do what needs to be done.
Years ago when I was a student I worked for two summers in a spare parts plant for Zenith Electronics. When repair shops needed to stock up on the parts for their repairs they would get them from us.
That could have been a really boring job, actually, but I decided that I would treat it as a game of playing with building blocks, to see how efficiently I could pack the parts into each box. I dealt with the frustration inside myself. I found a way to make a boring job interesting by working to do it just the best way I could.
There were some on the floor who took a different approach and took every opportunity to goof off when the boss wasn’t looking. Some of them would spend hours hiding out in the bathroom. They thought they were pulling one over on the boss. But I was having fun playing with building blocks out on the floor and they were bored stiff. And they are probably still stuck in a boring job at the very bottom of the economy.
God put us on this earth to be productive and useful. We are designed to be active. That stands whether the boss is watching or not. Christians don’t just work because somebody pays them to do it and then watches to make sure they do it. We work because God has called us to work.
And the last, and most important, thing that Paul told slaves was to consider themselves as working for God, not any human, as slaves of Christ.
There is tremendous freedom in that. If your purpose in life really is to please God, then it matters a whole lot less whether some guy treats you fair or not, whether they speak nice to you or not, whether you get a lot of money or not. If God is happy with you, then you can be happy, too. Isn’t that simple?
That’s a principle for freedom in any job or any circumstance. Set your heart on pleasing God. Then do your job and do your best. And it won’t matter how others treat you. It won’t matter. You will be free. A slave who was secure in God’s love could be freer than any master who was desperate for human approval. A slave who could serve others joyfully, from his heart, was richer than any master who could only think of himself. If Christ shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.
When you work, whatever your task, whoever your boss is, be obedient, work with singleness of heart, whether people are watching you or not, and do your work as worship to God.
Well, that was Paul’s answer to the slave. What did he say to the slave owner? Did he stir up a hornet’s nest by calling for instant social change? Did he attack the entire institution of slavery? There are times to attack institutions, but Paul didn’t do it this time. But he did enough.
I’ve already said that he told the slaves to obey their masters, with singleness of heart, whether they are being watched or not, as their worship to God. That’s fairly predictable. But then he told the masters to do the same for the slaves. That’s verse 9. And every jaw in the place dropped. What?
Masters, obey your slaves, with singleness of heart and do this as your service to God, your religion. I can see the master scratching his heard, trying to figure this out.
Can you be a Christian and exploit your slaves and treat them like dirt? No way. You are called to serve them, to love them, to work for what is best for them. You can’t do it the old way. Every person is precious in God’s sight. In God there is no partiality. There are no throw-aways. There are none who deserve abuse. All deserve respect.
And slavery did not come to an end for centuries. Here in America it took a horrible war to bring it to an end, 1800 years after Paul wrote. But that morning Paul gave our planet a DNA transplant that slowly, slowly took effect. There is no partiality in God.
And that’s a word for us today, too. Every one of us has at least some moments of being bosses. When you go out to eat and that shy busboy picks up your dirty dishes, it is your job from God, your act of worship, to take an opportunity to be a blessing to him, if even with a smile and a thank-you.
If you are actually in the kind of boss position where you write the paychecks or give the orders, it is your job to be a blessing to your workers even while you get the job done.
In God there is no partiality. AMEN