Why do you work? Whether you are a school teacher, an electrician, or a volunteer at an animal shelter, what motivates you to give your time, energy and attention to projects and organizations beyond yourself?
For many of us, we work because we feel we have no other choice. Bills need to be paid, and the money has to come from somewhere. Millions of us feel trapped in jobs that seem purposeless, staying mostly out of fear of what could happen if we lost our income.
Surely this is not what God intends for us! Each of us is created with a unique set of gifts and a purpose for our lives. Our daily work is one of the main areas where we are invited to express those gifts and purpose. What would it look like for our work life to be oriented around God’s mission and plan for us, rather than the endless pursuit of paying bills?
In contrast to the fear-based economy that so many of us struggle in at present, we read in the Book of Acts that the first Christians were known for their radical generosity and freedom in community. These early followers of Jesus did not work for themselves, but rather for the good of the entire church, as well as the non-Christian communities where they found themselves. In a very real sense, they worked for God, not money.
Why did the early Church have such a different relationship to work and money than most Christians today? The answer may be found in the unique way that the early Christian community viewed the purpose of work.
Today, we tend to see work in terms of personal fulfillment. A job provides money for the individual to pay bills, and hopefully provide some entertainment and luxury items in addition. If we are lucky, our job may also provide a sense of identity and status. It is no coincidence that when we meet people we often ask, “What do you do?”
The early Christians saw things differently. Paul writes that we should “labor and work honestly with [our] own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Here, just like in the Book of Acts, we see that the early Christian community viewed work in terms of giving rather than receiving. Through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, they lived in a world of abundance, trusting the Holy Spirit to provide. They engaged in a gift economy, where each person worked to care for the needs of others, knowing that others would care for them, too.
How would our lives change if we lived into this New Testament vision of work? What would it be like to see both our labor and our wages as property of God, meant to be poured out in the service of our brothers and sisters in Christ – and anyone who has need? How would it feel to know that our community stands ready to help anyone who gets hurt and can’t work – to provide real, tangible support for those who have fallen behind on their mortgage or water bill? Can we imagine this economy of love, where everything is a gift and the fruits of our labor are meant to be shared?