Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Labor of Love

Over the past several weeks, I've been thinking about a few choice words and phrases that we use in the English language which have biblical origins. There are literally thousands, but I have one more...“the labor of love" - a phrase that has come to refer to any act done out of the motivation of lovingkindness. The words come from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians v. 3. "We always give thanks to God for all of you...remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."

Recently, I listened to a fascinating introduction and reflection on the bestselling book, The Shack by author Wm. Paul Young. You can listen to this introduction by downloading the link that I provide on this blogsite (top of the page, right column). One of the stories he shares centers around his mother Bernice when she was a nurse in training in Canada…it was 1948 when there was no neonatal care for premature infants available. As it happens a mother, who was also the wife of an Anglican priest, came into the hospital bleeding internally. The doctor on call decided that the baby would have to be taken to save her life. He removed a fragile one pound baby from her womb, put the tiny life on a kidney tray, and instructed Bernice to dispose of it.

As a nurse in training Bernice wanted to be professional and respectful toward this doctor, but she was also a woman of deep faith. And so in that moment she performed a labor of love; that labor which love requires: she wrapped the tiny life in a towel, still barely alive, and set it in on a warm sterilization unit as she continued to attend. Later she began feeding the baby with an eye dropper. When the doctor discovered what she had done he was furious…he had already told the family the baby was dead. “You’re responsible for this. You created this problem and you’re going to take care of it,” he said. So, she proceeded to nurse the baby to viability for weeks until mother and child were able to go home…a miracle of neonatal care in 1948. There’s more to this story, but let me say this… Bernice knew that while we can be professionals in many areas, we must never be professional Christians. She knew that there’s a difference between laboring with our hands and what Paul calls, “the labor of love.” On this week after Labor Day, let's try to understand that difference.

The labor of my hands is my professional occupation. The Bible puts great value on daily labor. Genesis 2:1ff. reminds us that God calls us to a rhythm of work and rest, and observed it himself in the act of creation. Jesus affirmed the call to work, “My father is still working and I am working” he says in John 5:17. And again, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Matt. 24: 46).
Nevertheless some like the Thessalonians, who awaited the Second Coming, thought they could just "chillax" until Jesus returned. It became a license to be lazy. Against this view, Paul reminds this young church of his own example: “Remember our labor and our toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you….” (1 Thess. 2: 8-10). Then, in 1 Thess. 4:11 he has this advice: “Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may … be dependent on no one.” And just in case they didn’t get the point, he says it again in 2 Thess. 3: 10-12: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord and to earn their own living.”
Why is work so important? I can think of several obvious reasons:
  1. Our work enables us to earn a paycheck and provide for our families. In the depression era, putting food on the table and a roof over ones head was the overriding concern.
  2. Our work may enable us to pursue a lifelong passion; and contribute to the greater good of society.
  3. Our work may add to our sense of self-worth – and give more meaning to our daily lives.
  4. Our work may bring future rewards, like a paid vacation, medical benefits, or a pension.

But while being a professional may be biblical and certainly beneficial -- it’s not the best way to be a follower Jesus. Why? Because our walk with Jesus is not a 40 or 60 hour/week job…it’s a 168 hour/week way of life. I’m a pastor; but God save me from becoming a professional Christian. John Piper pleads with pastors, saying, “We are NOT professionals….There is no professional childlikeness; there is no professional tenderheartedness; there is no professional panting after God” (from John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals). Though I need the paycheck, I don’t want my deepest convictions and beliefs to be reduced to a paycheck.

In reflecting on this truth, it's occured to me that the biggest measure of my desire to follow Jesus is not how hard I work at my sermons; or how many people I visit in the hospital, or how well I provide leadership to our Session. The biggest measure of my desire to follow Jesus is probably how I act when I walk through the front door of my house at night; how I treat my wife and children. The other, might be the level of compassion I have for people when I am away from the church; or my desire to pray and to listen to his voice when no one is looking.

Most of you reading this right now are not “professionals” in ministry like I am, but I think there is a similar temptation for any follower of Christ to treat his/her spiritual life like a 40 hour/week job, what we do when we’re at church or around church people, instead of a 168 hour/week eternal calling. So it’s not surprising that in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he makes a distinction between two kinds of work…the labor of our hands, and the labor of love. Listen to Paul's words again from 1 Thess. 1:3 - “We always give thanks to God for all of you… remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Paul calls their faith and service to Christ “a labor of love.” What does that mean?

The labor of love is my voluntary cooperation with God in his work. The labor we do for God is always a labor of love or it is nothing at all. We do it freely, voluntarily, in response to God’s freely given love for us. Unlike the labor of our hands, it is a work motivated not by profit, prestige, or personnel reviews, but by God’s love for us; and our love for God and other people.
Friends…we are not called to be professional Christians. We don’t follow Christ for a paycheck…but out of love for God and compassion for the lost.

Can we be professionals (teachers, nurses, builders, writers, caregivers, domestic engineers, students, pastors)…and Christians? Not only can we be, WE MUST BE. We can be certain that God desires Christians who are professionals; what he doesn’t desire is Professional Christians. God desires those who will join hands as his “fellow workers” (see Timothy's example in 1 Thess. 3:2); follow him out of the church, and into every arena of life.

I began by telling you the story of Bernice who stepped out of her professional role to perform a labor of love; that labor which love alone requires. Flash forward to 2005 when Bernice had discovered that the tiny baby whose life she saved had grown up to be a healthy, 6 foot 4 Anglican priest in British Columbia named Harold. She and her sister decide to visit Harold at his parish on a Sunday. What a meeting that must have been! Before the Communion Service, Harold identifies Bernice and says, “This woman saved my life”…and tells the whole story. As communion is served, a woman sitting next to Bernice apologizes: “In our tradition you are only allowed to receive communion if you’re a member of our church.” Bernice was very gracious, and conveyed her understanding.

But then, as the service came to a conclusion, Harold removed his outer vestments, and with the bread and cup in hand he walked to the back of the sanctuary where Bernice and her sister (who was not a believer at this time) were sitting. Harold knelt down before Bernice and said with tears, “Bernice, this bread is Christ’s body, broken for you…and this is his blood poured out for you.” Do you see what Harold did? Harold loved someone more than his profession or his power. He loved Jesus and this woman more; and so he removed his outer vestments, these signs of his profession and priestly authority, and (for Jesus' sake) honored this woman who saved his life so many years ago for Jesus’ sake – truly a labor of love.

My wife Lisa reflected on this story with me as we were talking the other night and pointed out the fundamental question that it raises: What are the vestments and the outer trappings of professionalism and power and pride that Christ is asking us to remove or lay aside in order to serve and honor and love someone in HIS name? Jesus set the example! He humbled himself, he took the form of a servant, laying aside the power and privilege he shared with the Father before the world began…so that he could live with us and lay down his life for us on the cross – the greatest labor of love this world has ever seen. God save us from becoming professional Christians; and like our Lord, help us to do the labor that love requires.

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