Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Work

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”
A Message on John 6:22-27
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 24, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

John 6:22-27 (NRSV)

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

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As we continue our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer I want to begin today by doing something that I forgot to do this past week, and that is to say the prayer together:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Now to understand today’s scripture from John’s gospel better we need to explore the backstory a little bit.

Back at the beginning of chapter 6 in John’s Gospel we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish, donated by a young boy. (Kind of the original Hello Fresh.) The people were there because of Jesus. As he traveled around doing miracles and teaching he drew quite a following. No matter where he went, crowds followed him.

For the human side of Jesus, it must have been overwhelming. We read in verse 15, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

He did this often, just to get away from it all and pray to God. This time when he went up the mountain the disciples didn’t follow. They got in a boat that night and started rowing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). After three or four miles a storm blows up and the waves get huge. This is when Jesus comes to them walking on the water, freaking them out. And as soon as he got into the boat the wind and waves calm down and they arrived at their destination.

So now Jesus and the disciples are on the northwest shore of the sea. You would think that they wouldn’t have to worry about crowds anymore, but that’s not the case. As we read in the scripture today the people find some boats and follow Jesus across the sea so that they continue to follow him.

So even though he crossed the sea he finds himself being followed by crowds once again. That’s when Jesus gives them a lesson about the important things in life, and he uses bread as a metaphor. Here is how The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” John 6:26-27

Jesus is using bread as a metaphor, which I think is brilliant.

I love bread, especially homemade bread. Mmmmmm, there’s nothing better to eat than the crispy heel of still-warm fresh baked bread with a little butter spread on it. Oh my, it tastes so good!

But bread doesn’t stick with you long, does it? You can eat bread until you are stuffed and then not too long afterwards you find yourself hungry again. The people following him are the same people who ate the bread he made at the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And if Jesus made the bread, can you imagine how good it must have tasted? Oh man!

So they are showing up and hoping for a second course of some tasty bread, but Jesus, knowing why they are there, turns it into a learning moment,

Earthly bread lasts only a little while. You eat it and it’s gone. Then you have to get some more. But the bread of heaven…

Jesus tells them that instead of putting their efforts into things that are temporary they should be focusing more on the things that are eternal. And in addition to bread, he uses another metaphor: work.

Now some translations say labor, but the meaning is the same. Don’t work for temporary things, work for eternal things.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

And that’s where the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we will be exploring today comes into play: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”

Now there are two meanings to the scripture and the line of the prayer when it comes to “work” or ‘employed.” The first is the literal meaning. Most of us have jobs, employment, occupations.

If you are young and still in school your occupation, your job, is to learn, to become educated.

For older folks it’s how we make a living. We perform a particular skill or ability and in return receive remuneration for it; we get paid, in other words.

If you are a cook at Dairy Queen, for example, your skill is to prepare and cook food to eat. You have the skill and ability to determine how long to leave a hamburger patty on the grill. If you leave it on too long it will be burned and not taste good, and if you take it off too soon it might still be raw inside, and that’s not a good thing. And in return for your services in cooking you get a paycheck from the owner of the restaurant.

That’s the first meaning, the literal meaning. The second meaning is metaphorical. What work are you doing for the kingdom of God? As a follower of Christ, how are you working for the bread of eternity, to make disciples (the mandate given by Jesus at the end of the Gospel of Matthew)?

Now many Christians separate those two things and think that their work, their occupation, has nothing to do with the work they do for the kingdom of God. I want to challenge that, however. I think that both meanings can “work” together to serve the greater good.

Back in the 1600s over in France there was a man that went by the name of Lawrence. He was known as Brother Lawrence because he worked as a lay worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France.

He grew up in a poor family and when he got old enough he joined the army just so he could have something to eat and a place to stay. He fought during the 30-Years War, a bloody affair in central Europe, and was wounded, making him lame. After the war he worked for a while as a footman, but the horrors of war led him to revisit the religion of his upbringing.

At the age of 26 he entered the monastery as a lay member and was given the assignment of being a cook for the people living there. He served as a cook there until his war injury forced him to do something else, at which point he became a cobbler that made sandals for the monks.

Even though he was not one of the monks, he gained a reputation as someone who developed a very close relationship with God. He offered advice to others on how to do this, and eventually a big-wig in the Catholic church, Abbé Joseph de Beaufort, came and visited with him and wrote down those sayings in a book titled, The Practice of the Presence of God.

For example, Beaufort wrote, “The most excellent method [Brother Lawrence] had found for going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.”

Here’s another: “We ought not weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

Okay, let’s think about this. Here’s a guy working away in a kitchen in Paris, France. But unlike the movie Ratatouie, this kitchen isn’t in a fancy restaurant but a monastery. (For some reason I think of the movie “Nacho Libre” when I think of Brother Lawrence. “Can’t we ever have like a salad or something?”) I can just picture him there peeling potatoes or parsnips or whatever in a cold, damp kitchen, day after day after day. But instead of being dismayed and depressed by it, he is content and filled with a sense of well-being because he does his work while being present with the Lord.

Paul writes in Colossians, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

We can learn from Paul, from Brother Lawrence, from John the Disciple, and from John Wesley: no matter what our “work” is here on earth, do it to the best of our ability as if we were doing it for God.

It doesn’t matter if we are the head of a Fortune 500 company or if we pick up cans on the side of the road, or even when we are unemployed (what Wesley calls, “laid aside”) when our hearts are set on God we serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is honor and dignity to be had in our work. Unfortunately we sometimes tend to look down on certain jobs and the people that do them. Take the people that pick up our trash and haul it off. It’s a hard job that they have to do in all kinds of weather. Can you imagine starting out before dawn on one of our cold winter days with a drizzly rain riding on the back of the truck out in the elements, stepping up and down off the platform at the back over and over again, emptying trash cans into the back of the truck? (Kind of like the original step aerobics.)

And there’s the messiness and the smell in addition to the physical exertion. And to top it off the job doesn’t pay very well, either, with very few paid holidays.

And yet, if those people didn’t do their jobs and pick up and properly dispose of our trash, can you imagine how our lives would change? Those workers are doing honest, honorable work, work that we ourselves don’t want to do. We should respect them for that.

You get the idea? No matter what we do, we can honor God by our labors. (With the exception of some illegal and immoral jobs that don’t count. If you are a human trafficker, for example, I don’t believe you can honor God by your labors.)

Remember Jesus’ words: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Remember John Wesley’s words: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”

So my challenge for you this week is to be present with God while you work. As you work for the “bread” that you pay your bills, also be working for heavenly bread that never goes bad. Work with your best effort, as if working for the Lord instead of for others, and while doing so praise God for all his blessings and especially for his son Jesus Christ.

Remember that God’s son, Jesus Christ, worked as a carpenter and also for his heavenly father. We should also.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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