In the weeks leading up to our Easter celebrations we are exploring the way in which Jesus sends us out. This week we’re looking at the idea that we are sent to the people that we work with. Now I know that not everybody here this morning is currently in paid employment. However, that is not an excuse for a little snooze. All of you will know somebody in work, and you might pick up something that you can be praying for them, or that you can support them with. Many of you, whilst not being in paid employment, will have people you do voluntary work with, study with, meet up with, and the principles that we’ll be exploring this morning apply just as much there as they do to other work contexts.
So, let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica. In the bit we read today he is helping them to understand that practical implications of life as Christian – what difference it actually makes in day to day life. Amongst other things he talks about the world of work, and what our attitude to work ought to be. “You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders”
Now, it doesn’t seem to me that Paul’s point here is that manual labour is somehow more Christian than other kinds of work. No, his point is that we should engage with our work, whatever it is, in a way that wins the respect of outsiders, that makes people look at our attitude to our work and form a positive impression in their minds.
In our reading from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life we hear about a man named Zacchaeus. Now, if anybody ever had an unpopular job it was Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector for the Romans, the oppressors, the invaders, and Zacchaeus was a collaborator, taking hard earned money from the honest, working people of Galilee to pay for the soldiers that were occupying their land. That’s why he was so unpopular, that’s way they wouldn’t make space for him to be able to see Jesus, that is why they muttered and grumbled when Jesus invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus had done well out of this unpopular job, he was wealthy but it is pretty clear that he had not been doing it in a way that had won the respect of outsiders, they all hated him. But then Jesus came along and things began to change. What did Zacchaeus do?
The first thing he did was to try and see Jesus. When he heard the rumour that Jesus was in town, he wanted to see him, he wanted to see who this Jesus was. He had some difficulties, people got in the way, and discouraged him, but he wasn’t going to let them stop him, he climbed a tree. Then he got the surprise of his life when Jesus noticed him and said that he wanted to come and stay with him – that was a lot more than he’d bargained for, but what did Zacchaeus do?
The second thing he did was to come down and welcome Jesus gladly. He didn’t stay up the tree, hiding behind a branch, hoping that this inconvenient person would go away and leave him alone. Encouraged by Jesus, he faced down the crowd and welcomed Jesus to go and stay with him. And that encounter changed Zacchaeus. What did he do?
The third thing he did was to respond to the generosity he had been shown by being generous to other people. Jesus has seen him, ignored the social conventions and general disapproval and accepted Zacchaeus’ hospitality. Jesus has brought salvation, rescue, new life, to this house, and this is the most generous gift of all. So, Zacchaeus gives what he has. He has money, and starts giving it away. Half of it to start with, for the poor of the community. Then even more to anyone he has cheated.
So what might this story have to say to us, as we are sent to our work places, and to the people we work with? I’m hoping that none of us have quite such hostile work places as Zacchaeus did, but we might, and even if we don’t there will, for many of us, be those times when we’ve felt like an outsider, not quite part of it, a bit different.
It seems to me that the first thing we can do is to look for Jesus. Sometimes we talk about God being omnipresent, but we don’t really believe it. It is absolutely true that God is everywhere. There is no place that God is not. We cannot get away from God. God will never abandon us. Sometimes it can feel like we are alone, that we have been abandoned, but it is not true. God is there. God is always there. At your desk, in your classroom, in the people you serve coffee to, in the clients in you meet with, in the sales room, in the shop. God is always there. Despite the hostility or apathy of others, Jesus is present with you in your work place – look out for him. As you travel to work, as you boot up your computer, as you join others in a break time cup of tea, look out for Jesus, ask the Holy Spirit to show you where Jesus is already at work.
Having seen him, the scary thing is that he might see us and decide that he’d quite like to stay with us, and he’s got something for us to do. How will we react? Are we going to hide behind a bunch of leaves, or are we going to come down and welcome him? What might this look like in practice I wonder? Maybe you’re chatting over that cup of tea and one of your colleagues mentions that they went to a Christening of their niece over the weekend. What might you say? Might you ask what they thought of it, share your positive experiences of seeing children brought here for thanksgivings and baptisms? Maybe someone we work with has had a bereavement or is facing a crisis in their lives, and they open up to us. How might we welcome Jesus into that space?
This all about being generous with what we have been given. Generous with the generosity that God has shown us. As followers of Jesus we have been adopted into God’s family, we are children of the Creator King of the Universe who loves us so much that Jesus died so that we can live life in all its fulness now and forever. Sin and death have no power over us because Jesus has defeated them. We have been given the Holy Spirit to comfort us, guide us, strengthen us, empower us. We have been given everything. Now we want to give it away, knowing that the faster we do, the more we will receive.
Now, this is not about becoming the embarrassing office Christian that everybody runs away from because they’re always inappropriately offering to pray for people or going on and on about what they do at church. We have to be wise, sensitive, and graceful in the way we are with people. Our aim is to commend our faith, and to be generous with what we have received, not to put people off. But, there is also to be a winsome boldness about us, that courageously prays for, and then takes opportunities as they arise.
And that prayer thing is important, nothing happens without prayer. After Easter we’re going to be thinking about prayer a bit more, but suffice to say at this stage that it is critical in being sent to the people that we work with. We can pray for them, that they will want to see Jesus. We can pray that we can show them what Jesus is like. We can pray that Jesus will meet them and invite himself into their lives. We can pray that they will welcome Jesus. We can pray that they will receive Jesus’ generosity and then go on to share that generosity with others. We can pray all these things with confidence and faith, because we know that these are the things that God wants to do. However, there is little point praying them if we are not willing to be part of God answering them.
Jesus sends us to be closer to those we work with. Sometimes that is difficult, and we doubt that we are having much effect. People in our office just keep their heads down, too focussed on work to have random conversations about faith. We read Christian paperbacks about people who run work place Alpha courses or prayer meetings and doubt that could ever happen in our workplace. We just cannot imagine the people we work with getting from where they are now in our relationships with them to a place where we could even have a conversation about our faith. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there, and been frustrated by preachers who stand at the front of church and make it all sound so easy. And yet, Jesus sends us to be closer to those we work with. So let’s go, not pretending it’s easy, but choosing to have faith, knowing that it might take some time, but committed to look out for Jesus at work, to welcome him when we see him and to be generous with the generosity that we have been shown.