2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

PRESCRIPT: This weekend has marked Labour Day “long weekend” in the Australian State of Victoria.  To acknowledge this event, and to provide some theological reflection on its significance in the life of Christians, we at Mountview Uniting Church were privileged to have as our “guest preacher”, Rev. John Bottomley, Director of the Creative Ministries Network, an agency of the Uniting Church.  Rev. Bottomley preached on the theme: “God’s New Creation: Work, Recreation and Rest Reconciled”.  This sermon is reproduced with Rev. Bottomley’s permission.

Thank you for this opportunity to be with you this Labour Day weekend.  Tomorrow’s Labour Day commemorates the 8-hour day agreement made in the Victorian colony in1856, when stone-masons working on a construction site at Melbourne University reached agreement with their employer on a working day of 8 hours.  This agreement was the fulfilment of the catch-cry first voiced only a decade or so earlier in Scotland by Robert Owen: 8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest.

Robert Owen’s catch-cry and the Melbourne stone masons’ actions both expressed the desire for improved working conditions in the face of the unjust demands on labour in the early years of the industrial revolution.  But for the church today, the struggle for justice that resulted in the separation of work from recreation and rest has had a hidden sting.  While the struggle for an 8 hour day met workers’ demands for wage justice in the middle of the 19th century, today it seems the Church is divorced from any public commitment to justice in people’s working life.  So how did this happen?

The 8 hour day highlights the importance given to economics and to political struggles about what sort of work and workers the industrial world needed.   As the world became more industrialised, economics and political struggles seemed to be the really important matters in determining life’s purpose and the value of human lives.  So the 8 hour day symbolised what most people believed in the 1850s, that the role of faith had no place in the public world; that economics and politics were what shaped public life; and that faith should be confined to the sphere of our personal recreation.

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was commonly believed that social progress would be a lot more efficient without any need for God.  Therefore Christian worship was best seen as a leisure option in the private world of personal recreation.  The pride of the industrial age was that God was irrelevant to public life and human progress.  For the most part, the church in Australia has fitted in to the recreational sphere of life, and quite happily ignored the public world of work for the past 150 years or so.

When the church was a chief provider of recreational activities through to the 1960s, we flourished, but as commercial recreation providers moved into this space, we have declined.  When we took our place in the recreational sphere, and largely ignored the public world of work, and the economics and politics that shape our working lives, we set out on a path that has left the church with little to say about the major justice issues in people’s lives today.

Today, how should we view this situation that culminates more than 150 years of human history?  St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians – ‘From now on …. We regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” (516)  Paul is urging us to look more deeply at the human situation the industrial world has taken for granted.  Because the eye of faith can see the human Jesus died and was inexplicably raised to new life by God’s love, life is never fully understood by the observable facts of human existence.  Because of God’s action in Christ, life has a dimension that cannot be grasped by mere human powers of observation.  Faith sees life and our work differently from the scientific perspective of economics and politics.

But I did not see the church’s role in society from this point of view when I began my ministry in 1974 in the Knox Methodist circuit.  I accepted almost without question the church’s separation from the world of work.  The church was for me a world of its own.  So now, when I have looked back on nine years of congregational ministry in Knox, I noticed that I had never preached on work issues, or prayed for the work concerns of members.  Work was a world away from my suburban ministry.

This changed when a set of circumstances first led me to take up a research consultancy for the union shop committee at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard.  My research project in 1984 was to look at workplace health and safety amongst a blue-collar workforce of almost 1,500 men.  For a time, I was like a fish out of water.  But my sociological and ministry training came together as I listened to workers’ concerns when I interviewed them.  Some of the union delegates noticed I was a good listener, and would come to my work station to debrief their many tough issues.  One morning an electrical trades union delegate was sitting at my desk when the time came for morning tea.  He took out his lunchbox and unwrapped a round of ‘salada’ biscuit cheese sandwiches, and asked me if I would like a share of his sandwich.  And before I could say anything, he held the sandwich out and broke it in two.  The gesture of breaking bread took my inner vision directly to our Lord’s Table and as I received the gift of broken bread, I knew Christ’s presence there in the union office of a naval shipyard.  I saw for the first time Christ’s presence in the world of work.

My eyes were open to Paul’s good news ‘“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  (517)   Christ came to me as he came to the disciples who walked with him on the road to Emmaus.  He came to me in the breaking of bread.  And through this worker’s generous act of hospitality and welcome, I stepped into a deeper life in Christ.  I stepped into a larger world for the church’s mission than I had ever seen before.  I stepped out of the world of my private faith into the world of paid employment and knew that my life and my vocation had become something new.  But Paul reminds us that God’s good news in Christ is not for yours or my personal benefit.  Everything has become new!  This was the moment of new creation; a new world was being opened up.  And already, ‘everything old has passed away!’

Today, it feels increasingly that everything old is passing away.  Life is draining out of the Uniting Church, and many of the structures that nurtured most of us have already disintegrated and gone.  But Paul is not speaking about the church for its own sake.   No, Paul’s good news is for the sake of the world. Perhaps today, economics and politics cannot alone create work that is just, or work that gives people their human value.  Perhaps it is time for the Church to proclaim that the understanding of life divided into segments represented by the 8-hour day movement has short-changed working people.   Perhaps we can never achieve justice at work while we live as if work is more important than other parts of our lives.

For Paul, to separate the worship of Christ from the struggle of living and working under the oppressive and violent rule of the Roman Empire was unimaginable.  For Paul, only a person with faith in Christ could see that the coercive economic and political power of the Roman Empire that crucified Christ was defeated, and was already passing away.  It made no sense for Paul to think the Corinthian church could worship Christ and live in freedom and with human dignity if the power of the Roman Empire had not already been defeated by Christ through his death on the cross.  God’s new creation emerges because the powers of the old order are dying before our eyes.  So what is this new creation?

This new creation Paul proclaims is a world reconciled to God in Christ.  The world that divides 8 hours of work from 8 hours of recreation and rest is finished.  It is an offence against God to believe God can be confined to our leisure time, to our time of recreation.  Paul declares we trespass against God when we divide the world up, as if we could contain God to the parts we think most efficient for our own ambitions.  The 8-hour day movement grew out of an industrial age that believed it could get rid of God from the world because the power of human industry and work would provide for all our human needs.  Today, God is undoing the pride and hubris of the industrialised world, so that God may recreate us in justice.  Listen some more to the apostle – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (519)  To us.  To you and me, Paul says, ‘we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (520)  We are both called and equipped by Christ to entreat those we work and live amongst to be reconciled to God.

I met Michelle after her brother was killed by a reversing truck on a road construction site.  She was angry and bitter at the company,  and at the world.  She found it difficult to do her own work.  Then one Sunday, Michelle attended a Service of Remembrance our Network organised for those bereaved by a work-related death.  As a Catholic sister sang the Taize chant, ‘Pace Dominum’, Michelle felt Christ’s presence and experienced a sense of peace she had not felt since her brother died.

Later Michelle told me she needed to talk with the CEO of the multinational company her brother had worked for.  I was able to get this message to the CEO in Sydney through a work contact, and the CEO arranged to fly to Melbourne to meet Michelle and her mother. When he met the two women, the CEO apologised for their loved-one’s death; he apologised to them for the trauma caused to them by the legal proceedings his managers had taken.  He spoke generously about the high regard in which Michelle’s brother was held by the company.  As a result of this meeting, the CEO committed his company to renew their efforts to improve workplace health and safety.  And as a result of this meeting, Michelle’s broken heart began its healing.

Michelle subsequently applied for and was appointed to a management role in a church office as she rediscovered her Catholic faith.  Today Michelle has chaired our agency’s Board for five years, and has been an inspiration for our development of a restorative justice service to help bereaved families meet with the companies where their loved ones worked.  “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” Paul says, “since God is making his appeal through us.  …. So that in (Christ) we might become the justice of God.” (520-21)  The justice of God is never only about money.  The justice of God is fundamentally about reconciliation, and a movement towards a new order, a new way of being.

What looked like justice in the 8-hour day movement can’t deliver the justice of God today, simply because it shut out God.  The 19th century struggle for economic justice has 150 years later left us with too many workplaces where the value of human life is only ever measured in economic or dollar terms.   But to know God in Christ is to know a Spirit of justice that reconciles and puts right what has been destroyed or torn apart by injustice.  And when we are put right with God, our human worth is also restored.  Human dignity is a measure of God’s justice. That is what the new creation looks like.  It is a reconciled world built upon the justice of God, a justice that both Michelle and Paul testify can transform injustice; a justice that heals suffering; a justice that shows us a new world of restored relationships.  “See,” says Paul, “everything has become new!”  Let us open our hearts and minds to God’s new creation, that we may be ambassadors for God’s new world of reconciliation and justice in our work, in every sphere of life.

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