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Back to Work, Face to God

Tuesday, 2 February 2016  | Gordon Preece

Holiday’s over, back to work! That’s the cry echoing in the ears of many paid workers - teachers, students and others - as February looms. For mothers and farmers there’s rarely a holiday, maybe just a slight slowing of their work’s relentless rhythm. 

Despite these looming pressures, I want to argue that the return to work for Christians, for all its aspects of the Genesis 3:16-17 curse, is also a Genesis 1:26-28 blessing when we ‘repent on the job’. Work is a place to seek God’s face, not in the high distance or clouds, not only in ordained/paid church work or distant missionary service, but near at hand, under our noses, in our neighbours, colleagues, clients, customers, even competitors and enemies.

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 3:10-13 (the fortnight after we’re commissioning our workers and students on return to work). There the Baptist brings fire and brimstone down on the pseudo-religious and righteous, challenging God’s people to re-enter the promised land of the Kingdom through baptism of repentance at the Jordan. When the crowd asked ‘what shall we do?’, John shifted repentance from privatised and domestic ‘religion’ to right action, in the direction of God’s coming reign of right and reconciled relationships. ‘Repent on the Job!’, is John’s cry. Not necessarily 'Repent from the Job', for all of John’s ascetic lifestyle out in the desert. Instead, share your food and clothes; tax collectors, stop lining your pockets; soldiers, don’t extort, coerce or falsely accuse. Whatever occupation (paid or unpaid) we’re in, we’re to ‘bear fruits fit for repentance’.

These roles, especially working for the imperial Romans, were full of temptation and compromise. But in warning them to flee the immanent judgement John doesn’t tell them to flee their jobs, but to transform them, from the inside out. Clement of Alexandria's 3rd Century AD Exhortation agrees: ‘Practice farming,’ we say, ‘if you are a farmer, but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. Has knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander, who orders what is right.' In the first two cases (farmer and sailor), Clement counsels focussing on God. Hence the same likely applies to the soldier told to listen to the true Commander, Christ. Your earthly commander or boss doesn’t get a blank cheque. A mediating interpretation could be, in line with Romans 13, that if commanders/bosses serve and minister ‘what is right’, they should be obeyed, but if not, not. ‘We must obey God not men’ (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19).

The Baptist and Paul speak to people already in particular workplaces. This is different to going complicitly into a place of blatant compromise, e.g. one involving killing. Given that the broadly accepted Apostolic Tradition says that a soldier preparing for baptism must be told not to kill, the implication would appear to be not to go into the army, as killing is intrinsic to it. An ex-soldier and student of mine, now minister, justified use of deadly force when on guard duty one night in East Timor when he saw a distant shadowy figure heading towards him. Assuming them to be an enemy soldier, he was about to fire when a comrade identified the stranger as a friendly peasant. Close call. What disturbed me was not his being in the army, though Christians rightly debate that, but that he said he’d have no qualms of conscience about killing, even an innocent. I wonder if his conscience was asleep on the job, not discerning nor repenting on the job, what we sometimes do in ambiguous situations, when even the enemy bears the face of God. Let’s take that back to work with us.

Rev. Dr Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos.                             

This article is also appearing in The Gippsland Anglican, February 2016.

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