In the world, we have labor laws — in Christ, we have labor grace!
1 Timothy 5:18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,”and, “The worker is worthy of his wages.”
Happy Labor Day weekend! This is when we celebrate our tough as nails American Puritan work ethic by taking an extra day off! We take a long weekend. Actually, in celebrating Labor Day, we’re celebrating the Americans who gave us the weekend! The folks who have worked tirelessly to make sure that conditions for workers are good.
Now as people of the Kingdom we have a very special relationship with work, and we have an equally special relationship with rest. Our Lord’s call touches both work and rest: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Mt. 11:28.
Well, I don’t know about you. But I’ve been working my butt off this year. And I’ve only gotten a little rest! Did I miss a memo – are there some retirement checks that Jesus sent out that got lost in the mail? I’m pretty sure Christians are among the hardest-working folks you’ll ever meet. And Christian saints aren’t exactly known for getting a lot of rest. It was Christian monks who invented the Book of Hours, so that we could wake up every hour of the night to pray. Doesn’t sound that restful to me.
But what Jesus offers you is a special kind of rest. He offers you spiritual rest, in the knowledge of His Father and the comfort of His Spirit. He reveals God’s love to the world, and makes peace between earth and heaven. When you believe that Jesus died for forgiveness of the sins of the whole world, and that he was raised so that you may be raised with him to a heavenly life, you have a peace that surpasses understanding. As in, you have so much peace it doesn’t even make sense! Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ. You are seated in the heavenly places with him even now. That’s the kind of rest Jesus gives you.
…but you’re still working your butt off, aren’t you? You sure are!
And you should. The first Christians said, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10). That’s the Christian way – you work your butt off! If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Friendly reminder: if you don’t eat, you DIE.
But Sean, that’s a far cry from Acts 2:44 — “The believers were all together and held everything in common.” Sounds like a free lunch to me! A lot of my friends, a lot of my generation, carry the hammer and sickle (so to speak), and say that Jesus did too, and the rest of the early Christians. And they say this verse is the proof that Jesus had a political preference for Communism. Pertinently, plenty of folks in the Labor movement that gave us Labor Day have said the same over the years.
Jesus was not a Communist any more than he was a Republican or Democrat. He wasn’t a Pharisee, he wasn’t a Sadducee, he wasn’t a Hellenist – he didn’t fit into any of the 1st century boxes they tried to put him in, so why would he fit into any of our 21st century boxes?
Nonetheless, Labor Day brings us a good opportunity to ask, how do we reconcile these two descriptions of the church’s work ethic? How do we go from Acts 2:44 to 2 Thess. 3:10 – from “everything in common” to “no free lunch”?
First of all, context. Second of all, charity.
First, context. Acts 2:44 wasn’t a description of the whole church. It was a description of the church in Jerusalem. And it was only the Jerusalem church who lived like this, because it was the only church who was told to. Reread Matthew 19, where he tells the rich man, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” In the first verse of this chapter, Matthew carefully notes that Jesus was in Judea. Where Jerusalem is.
Why does location make a difference? Not just location, but time. You might remember that Jesus later tells his followers that within the generation (time), the city of Jerusalem (location) would be compassed by armies and destroyed, and there were people standing there who would live to see it. Would you want to own property in a city that is about to be destroyed? You’d lose your investment. Best to sell before that day came. So Jesus isn’t just giving spiritual advice, he’s giving practical financial advice to the people of Judea. He’s telling them to liquidate.
It’s too bad Jesus isn’t a contributor to Wall Street Journal, a heads up would have been nice before 2008, or even 2020. But at least he gave those folks a heads up!
Now of course, he’s not just saying sell, but also, give — to the Poor. And this is the other contextual clue: the poor. Who are the Poor?
Well, St. Paul in almost every one of his Epistles solicits donations for the Poor – and in every case, the poor are the saints living in Jerusalem. When you see “the Poor”, it means the Jerusalem Church.
None of these other churches are poor from whom Paul’s asking donations. They’re also not asked to be poor, much less told to be. He says that the Corinthians are rich! They didn’t sell all their possessions; they weren’t told to. But Paul does ask them to give to the Poor.
And that brings us to our second point, charity. The church operated on charity. Annias and Sapphira may have dropped dead over their financial contribution to the Jerusalem church. But it’s not because it wasn’t a big enough contribution – but because it wasn’t charitable. They were dishonest about giving it all charitably when in fact they only gave some begrudgingly. Peter says, “Did it not belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?”
Peter’s saying, you had every right to keep whatever you wanted. It was justly and rightly yours. That shows us that the church didn’t expect a contribution, and never acted entitled to it – much less forcibly confiscate people’s property.
Instead, it was meant to be an act of charity. Voluntary giving. This is why Acts 2:44 doesn’t fit into the modern Communist box. It doesn’t even fit into a modern model of taxation.
And this is where we begin to understand what Jesus meant for us when it comes to labor and rest. He wanted the laborer to have his rest – but the worker is still worth his wage. In the world, workers are forced to part with his wages, or forced to work for none at all. There’s no rest there. These were the heavy burdens Jesus was talking about,
But in His world, in His Kingdom, in his Church, workers are not forced to part with their wages, and they’re never forced to work for nothing.
But they can choose to do either if they choose, and they are encouraged to do so in the name of charity.
This is much bigger than you think.
I want you to put on the Apostles’ sandals for a minute and take a mile-long walk in them. Specifically in Jerusalem. You’re devoting your life to preaching the Kingdom of God. You know you’re probably going to die for the Gospel, because Jesus basically said as much. And you know your beloved city and your beloved temple, the capitol and spiritual heart of your nation, is going to be destroyed by the end of the generation.
So, knowing all this, what exactly are you doing with your life? Why all this effort for the Kingdom? Why all this labor? In other words, why make such an extreme investment? What is the return?
Because you believe in the Kingdom of God. You believe the preaching of Jesus, John the Baptist, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. The worldly Kingdom is crumbling and shaking around you, but you have faith that out of this crucible will emerge an unshakeable Kingdom, whose growth and increase will be without end. That’s the promise of the Prophets. And you believe Jesus when he said, “The Kingdom of God is already at hand, and the Kingdom of God is within you.”
I’m trying to emphasize that the first Christians were the founders of a reborn Israel whose foundation and constitution was not the Law and Letter of Moses but the Spirit and Body of Jesus Christ. The Israel that they’d known up ‘til then was a shadow of what was being revealed in their own day. Instead of law, grace; instead of slavery, liberty; instead of works, faith; instead of obedience, charity.
“For the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Apostles, in other words, were moving away from labor laws toward labor grace.
Can you imagine if that suddenly became true of America? No more Constitutional law, but instead – grace? Who could imagine such a thing? It’s impossible with man. We can’t make a nation the way God can.
But in the nation of God, the spiritual Israel, all these things are possible. And no matter what mortal country we live in, the immortal country of God is spread out before us, amongst us, and within us. That means, no matter what the labor law is, we still live under labor grace.
What this means for us Christians as we observe Labor Day is, ask yourself, have you given the worker his due wages? And as you work, ask yourself if your work is charitable. Because the Bible tells us, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [or charity]” (Gal. 5:6). God isn’t going to force you to treat the worker fairly, nor is he going to force you to work for charity yourself. He left it up to you.
There are plenty of laws now in America that are here to protect the worker, to protect the business owner, and to protect the consumer. We owe a lot of that to the Labor movement, which is what Labor Day is about in America.
But we’re Americans second, and citizens of the heavenly Kingdom first. No matter what the laws in our earthly nation, no matter what our context, we are called not just to law and justice in these matters, but beyond that to grace and charity. And charity begins in the heart. We are grateful to those who have worked hard to improve the lot of workers in America, and it’s good that they’ve worked so hard to get worker-friendly laws.
But as Christians, our job is to be workers with worker-friendly hearts. We should be willing to work hard, and excel in all our work. That’s that hard-as-nails Puritan work ethic. But we should be equally willing to give folks a break – to, like Jesus, give them rest.
And a good way to start is by giving yourself a little break! So, this Labor Day, enjoy your day off, you earned it! And in all things give thanks to the One for whom we labor, Amen.