Sermon, 22nd April 2012
FAITH AT WORK
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Verses like this are a stumbling block to many in the modern world. The idea of the risen Jesus taking physical form is a scientific impossibility in their eyes and therefore proof that Christianity is mere hokum and something that only the credulous would go along with.
Such views overlook the fact that believers didn’t and still don’t find this easy either. You only have to look at the gospel accounts to see that this is so. In today’s gospel reading the disciples were both disbelieving and terrified. They simply weren’t prepared for the resurrection. It did not in any way map onto their experience or their expectations. It was a complete and total shock.
Whatever happened at that first Easter it is clear that the resurrected Jesus’ was not a resuscitated body. The resurrection accounts are clear that in some strange way Jesus had been transformed. He was both recognisably the same but also strangely different such that he was often not immediately recognised by those who knew him best. What’s more he seems to have been able to appear and disappear with ease, and to enter rooms with locked doors. And yet, for all this, his was a physical entity. It’s all very strange, weird even, to put it mildly.
It’s easy to see how people find all this very hard to believe but the nay-sayers are nonetheless confronted with one hard, awkward historical fact – namely, that something did happen that transformed a tiny, dispirited band of very ordinary men and women into a church that changed the whole world and that continues to change it. Put simply, the last 2,000 years do not make sense without the resurrection, hard though it is for any of us to get our heads around what actually happened. To press any further with this is futile for to obsess about what really happened is to risk overlooking what the gospel is telling us about God, about creation and about ourselves.
The emphasis on the physical aspects of the resurrection is all of a piece with what the Bible tells us about God. He is the great, creator God. He is manifest in the physical world he has created. He glories in his handiwork, as is clear from the creation account in Genesis. Whenever God creates something in that story he pronounces it “good” until at last he creates humankind and he then pronounces his handiwork “very good”. But God doesn’t just glory in his handiwork, he takes pleasure in it. There is a beautiful verse in the Book of Proverbs in which the character of Wisdom, who is described as being with God from the very beginning and is thus seen as an Old Testament precursor of the cosmic Christ of the New Testament, says:
“I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
This is interesting because in the West it is still our default assumption that the body is somehow secondary to the spirit, that our better selves are our spiritual selves and that our bodies lead us inevitably into sin and corruption. We see the body as somehow inherently sinful and something to be disdained. It is thus, I fear, that Christianity can to many seem to be a life-denying creed. And yet a moment’s consideration of the resurrection accounts suggest that any disdain for the body is quite out of place. The resurrected Jesus is not some airy spirit but an embodied person. As such, the descriptions of the resurrected Jesus are entirely consistent with the Judeo-Christian understanding of what it is to be alive in the first place. We are fundamentally psycho-somatic entities such that when we feel joy or sorrow it is the whole of us that does so – mind, body and spirit.
The implications of this are clear: if God glories in his physical creation then so should we. But more than that, as creatures made in his image we are called upon to be his co-workers in creation. Look around you and what do you see – this church and all its artefacts; the clothes on your backs; the mobile ‘phones and change in your pockets; the houses and shops of Primrose Hill – everywhere you see the fruits of creative, human activity. We take all this for granted but in fact we are highly unusual, for we are the only one of God’s creatures that shares his ability to consciously create. We are made in his image and we are creative because he is creative.
Looked at this way we should consider work a holy activity. If we did so we would find ample support in the Bible. Jesus worked as a joiner before he began his brief ministry. His parables – which were his chief means of teaching – are full of homely stories rooted in the workplace. There we find farmers going out to sow, builders working out estimates, middle managers facing the sack and vineyard owners anxious about their crops. There is a basic assumption underlying his teaching that production and exchange are normal and honourable aspects of human life because they are reflective of God’s life and activity.
Look at the Old Testament and you find God frequently described as a workman – composer, performer, metalworker, otter, gardener, wine-maker and so on. Indeed the Jewish conception of work was so holy that the Hebrew word “avodah” means both work and worship.
Work as holy? This is not something that is familiar to us is it? Work is surely more generally associated with other four letter words that are not repeatable from the pulpit. Much more familiar to us is the idea of work as a curse and here we remember God’s words to Adam and Eve after the fall in Genesis:
“by the sweat of your brow you shall eat your food.”
I was reminded of this painful aspect of work only the other day when I saw an old colleague of mine. She’s very able and successful but I could tell right away that all was not well – her shoulders were stooped and she didn’t have much colour in her cheeks. She’s got a very senior job and is highly paid and there is the problem. Her job satisfaction is very low and yet her big family commitments mean that she can’t leave it and she feels trapped.
What makes work such an issue is that it dominates life for so many. Those in work tend to spend five days out of seven working and I will wager that many of you spend the other two days worrying about it. Now, we mustn’t be too bleak about this. I know people – as I am sure you do – who love what they do and for whom their work is a good reflection of who they are. For such people work has a very personal sense of purpose and it’s wonderful to see this. Whenever I see someone for whom this is true I am reminded of the wonderful saying of Irenaeus of Lyons, the second century French theologian who said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Many of the problems in the workplace are to do with people not doing jobs to which they are very suited and when that happens there’s little meaning and purpose to work. It’s just a means of earning a living and that can be soul-destroying. But even if you are in a job that suits you and in which you have a sense of purpose and vocation there will still be things that get in the way. There are our own weaknesses and failings for a start, not to mention those of others. And then there are the often seemingly impossible demands of our employers, particularly in these straitened times.
But just because this is so doesn’t mean that we should put up with it. As Christians we are supposed to be salt to the world, to witness to the power of the resurrection by making a positive difference, to support and enable others to live the abundant lives that Jesus wants for all of us. So we really shouldn’t shrug our shoulders at the miseries and compromises of the workplace any more than we should shrug them when we see evidence of injustice, oppression or discrimination. If we are God’s co-workers and work has the potential to be holy then we should strive to make it so.
This is why we are today launching a series of discussion groups under the title of “Faith at Work” that are designed to address some key workplace issues and to see how our faith might help us with them. We will be meeting on Tuesday evenings and will discuss topics like ambition and integrity. A lot of Christians think that the call to humility means we should shun ambition. This can’t be right – it’s our duty to develop our God-given skills and talents to the full but how do we do so with integrity and without making some of the compromises that advancement so often seems to demand of us? We’ll be looking at tough decisions. The workplace is full of these, such as when we find ourselves called to do something that is in the interests of our employer but which cuts against the personal interest of people who work with us and for us. How can we square that particular circle? There is the perennial of stress. We work in a long-hours culture and very often a great deal is required of us when we are at our desks. How do we stay sane and maintain peace and perspective in the face of these demands? Then there’s the whole question of disappointment. Who hasn’t faced disappointment at work – an unfulfilled ambition, a promotion not gained or maybe a job lost with all the threat to pride and livelihood that entails? When such things happen how do we build ourselves back up and find some hope in our disappointment? Finally, we will be looking at work-life balance and how, with all the demands of the workplace, we can find time for our families, our partners and those aspects of life that matter to us so much but which don’t earn us any money.
We will be meeting over a light meal in the homes of members of the congregation to whom I’m very grateful for offering to host. Each session will be led by a member of the Faith at Work team and again, I am grateful to them for all the work and thought they are putting into this. Mindful that this series is aimed at people who are often very busy there’ll be little by way of preparation – just a couple of sides of notes to read to get the juices flowing. The aim of these sessions is to get people talking and sharing views and insights. This element of mutual support is crucial. Despite what many seem to think the Bible is not an instruction manual. If you look at it for specific guidance on how to maintain a work-life balance you will look in vain. Instead, what you will find is a set of gospel values and precepts to live by and it’s our job, as the church, to work out what they mean for the particular situation we find ourselves in so hearing different views and experiences is going to be very important.
You’ll find a sign-up sheet at the back of church and some flyers to take away. You don’t need to sign up for the whole course, just those topics that interest you. It would be very helpful if you could sign up as soon as possible so that our hosts can know the sort of numbers to expect.
While the aim of this course is to be of real, practical help it’s also something of a toe in the water. If the appetite is there we can see if there are more things we can do to support each other. This is important because the whole point of church is not to provide us with a brief moment of uplift on a Sunday. Rather, it’s to prepare us for the harsh light of Monday morning that we might greet it not with dread but see it as hallowed, blessed and capable of redemption thanks to the power of Jesus’ resurrection and his love for this broken world of ours in which, remarkably, we are called to share in his Father’s work of creation.