Mission Work

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:1-10

There was work in Paradise.  In the Garden of Eden Adam worked.  God worked to create Eden and He worked to make the man for that Eden to work it and keep it.  And it was good!

But when the serpent entered, Paradise was lost and work became work.  And to this day work remains a sign…a sign of whether we live by faith or not.  For by faith we believe Paradise has been restored through Jesus Christ…and by this faith we work.  Such faith shapes our work and our attitude toward work.  Or…if work is still only work for us, Paradise remains lost…then work is a sign that something is terribly wrong with our faith!

There is a subtle shift in emphasis that takes place within the Gospel Reading today.  The chapter begins as St. Luke notes, “Jesus said to His disciples…”  This passage continues from the Gospel Readings of the last several Sundays, all of which have Jesus speaking about discipleship, about following Him, walking in His steps, sharing in His life.  Here He speaks about the demonic experiences a disciple faces.

And then, a few verses later, St. Luke makes a shift in emphasis by the term he uses to identify Jesus’ listeners.  “The apostles said to the Lord…”  In the first verse it’s “disciples,” the followers of Jesus.  Now Luke singles out the 12 (which will become the 11 before it becomes 12 again, until finally a Baker’s Dozen when St. Paul is added to the mix).  From words spoken to many disciples, Jesus now speaks to the few apostles.

It is a shift from faith in general, all believers who follow Jesus, to faith in particular, faith lived within a particular calling, a vocation…work.  Here that work is the work of an apostle, but from Jesus’ words we could just as easily apply them to any Christian’s work, whether that’s work with our hands or with our head, whether we work at home, in an office, in the fields, on an assembly line, or in a classroom.  Jesus’ words shift from discipleship, from following Him, to living that discipleship within the field of one’s particular work.  This too is missions.  Mission work!

From the beginning of the Bible there is a rhythm to life, like the tick-tocking of a pendulum clock.  There is labor and there is rest.  From Genesis to Revelation, the clock tick-tocks in labor and rest, labor and rest, neither the one without the other.  But just as Jesus tells His disciples, “temptations to sin are sure to come…” so there are many, many itching fingers ready to reach out and wreck havoc with the tick-tocking pendulum.  Work, rest, work, rest…

Satan did it in Paradise: “You can be like God!  You can set your own rhythm, you can pound out your own cadence.”  And they tried…and the clock of Paradise crashed to an end with alarm!  More tick than tock, more tock than tick…work became work…and Paradise was lost.

Jesus’ words in this passage are a hint of the temptation to come in another Garden: Gethsemane.  Judas will have the serpent’s part there, trying to alter the cadence that God had set before time began.  Judas—whose treachery tried to stop Jesus or force His hand—Judas tried to alter the work Jesus was doing by the workings of his own dark mind.  Woe was his reward.

Jesus had work to do.  His rest would come after the work was finished.  First the cross, then the resurrection.  That’s how God’s clock tick-tocked.  And Jesus would allow no temptation to alter that cadence…and we are glad indeed!

Now, you say, “Well, yeah…but that’s Jesus.  His work is really, really important!  Savior of the world!  But…what I do can hardly be compared with His work!”  Ah…the little bell goes off!  It’s not about the work!  (As a couple weeks ago it wasn’t about the money.)

It’s the old evil foe, that ancient serpent, who comes slithering up in those little cocktail party conversations and says, “Well, well…and what do you do?”  Suddenly the focus is on our work…and the pendulum is disrupted.  If we feel that our own work is wanting in comparison to someone else’s, well, we try to pump it up with fancy titles or inflated salaries or drop a few names to make our work more impressive than it is.

If our work is highly esteemed by the world (that is, by the world’s usual methods of esteem, most often a grossly disproportionate salary for the actual work being done)…well if that’s us, we become condescending, pitying, rattling off our impressive resume.  But Jesus has a word for that: “Woe.”  “Better a millstone and a long walk off a short pier.”

It’s not the work!  It’s not what we do that gives life meaning or purpose or status or any other idolatry.  Jesus notes this by the parable He tells at the end.  “When you have done all that you were commanded, [you] say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Work by itself is only work.  There is nothing redemptive about work.  If you are tempted to think so, simply recall where the motto, Arbeit macht Frei (“Work makes you free”) was located…over the gate to hell on earth, the concentration camp at Auschwitz.  As Dante wrote, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” if you think that work is redemptive.

Work does not make us free.  It is the Son who sets us free, as St. John so famously records in his Gospel.  It is the Son of God, Jesus, who here in St. Luke is the dutiful servant who says “I am only doing My duty.”  It was not Jesus’ work that was redemptive.  Dying is not redemptive in itself.  It was who He is that’s redemptive, and that divine Who is revealed in and through His work.  It is the One who dies, it is in who He is, that makes this particular death a redemptive work.  It is the One who rises to life, it is in who He is, that makes the resurrection a redemptive work.  It’s not the work.  It’s this Worker!

Here is the place of faith.  Faith gives us to know who we are: disciples of Jesus.  And it is who we are—disciples—that gives purpose and direction to what we do—our work.  This is the truest mission work. Not certain activities which get the name mission work…but all the work done in faith by all the followers of Christ…this is mission work!

Here in Luke 17 Jesus’ work is the work of rebuking sinners and forgiving those who repent.  That’s His work.  It becomes the work of His apostles, those few disciples who are particularly called to go in His name to exercise that Office of the Keys.  And while it is the work of the few…apostles, pastors…the many are not compelled to that same work!  It’s unfair to make it so!

Among the many disciples of Jesus just in the New Testament, only a few were apostles.  Some were teachers.  But many, many, many more worked as any person worked in that day, with their hands!  And yet…unlike any other person who worked in that day…the many disciples of Jesus worked with their hands as people of faith; their work was imbued with who they were…people who lived by their faith.  Their work became mission work…flowing out of their faith living within their work.

It’s faith…the faith that comes with following Jesus…faith lives in our work and lives through our work.  It’s not that some work is mission work and most is not.  Our faith finds expression within all our work…even in those times when we are without our work!  In faith it all becomes mission work!

Martin Luther said in one of his sermons, “He who has faith in God…is not anxious about tomorrow but lives content with today.  He does his work with joy and with a quiet heart, living by Christ’s injunction, ‘Do not be anxious.’  The livelihood of such believers will not be hard, for even though they too must eat their bread by the sweat of their brow, yet they do it with faith and a joyful conscience…  At issue is not the nature of the work, but only the nature of faith.”

Work is often woe to the person who has separated his faith from his work…making mission work only some sort of religious activity separate from other work.  But when faith enters the field of work…whatever that field…the faith of Christ living within the disciple, in us, flows into that work and through that work into the world.

So often we never really know the effect of that faith, our faith, at work in our work.  But God promises that our work in faith is never ever in vain!  So we live by faith.  We work by faith.  And as St. Paul and many, many others have known, we are bold to say that know whom we have believed.  And we are not ashamed because He works in our work!  And that is the truest mission work!