What is your life's work? And is that the same thing as the way you have made a living?
This week, a fire broke out at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a friend and colleague posted on Facebook that we should give thanks that no one was hurt but also grieve how much must have been lost. "A whole lifetime is in many of our offices," she wrote. She's right. I can't imagine what I would do if I lost even my computer (yes, I back up) not to mention my office.
What is your life's work? Do you get paid to do it? Do you get paid doing something else so that you can afford to do the thing you really love to do? Whether we get paid or not, our life's work is the thing that consumes us. It is the occupation that fills our days and sometimes our nights. Sometimes it empties them, too. And it is easy and natural for us to associate our work with our living, but I'm not sure that's always the case.
In last Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), we hear a lot about what work is and what work is not. Jesus tells the crowd that seeks him, "Don't work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life." The crowd, however, isn't spiritually minded. They're after him not in search of ethereal enlightenment but physical nourishment. They don't understand what he means. "[If God is the one who will give us that eternal food], what must we do to perform the works of God in order to attain it?" Literally, they ask, "What must we do to work the works of God?" In other words, they're still thinking about the kind of work that gets you paid and fed. But Jesus has something else in mind.
"This is the work of God," he tells them, "that you believe in the one God has sent." And all at once their preconceptions begin to fall apart in their minds. Believe? Work? What does that mean?
My colleague Pam Morgan, in her sermon on Sunday, drew us back to the Garden of Eden--back to the paradise where Adam and Eve were given the fruit of every tree and plant in the garden to eat except for one. When they disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, their eyes were opened, and, when God found out, he drove them out of the garden and told them that, for the rest of their days, they would have to work for their food. Pam reminded us that the ground would only yield to the human produce after he toiled over it. Work and bread, she said, were forever linked.
The most fundamental pursuit in our lives is to seek nourishment. We toil and labor in order that we might pay the bills and eat our daily bread. It's easy, therefore, for us to assume that work also defines our relationship with our creator--that just the ground is cursed by God in order that we might have to work in order to reap its harvest, we, too, must be cursed in order that we would have to work our way back into God's graces--back into the garden of paradise. But that's not true. It's never been true.
Jesus came to show God's people--to show us--that God's eternal provision isn't the kind of bread we have to work for. On the contrary, in order to receive it--to participate in it--all we are asked is to believe in it. "What must we do to work the works of God?" the people ask. "This is the work of God," Jesus says, "that you believe in the one God has sent."
What is your life's work? What is your deepest calling? Jesus knows that your stomach needs to be filled, too. He made sure to provide bread for the 5,000. But that was only a sign--a sign that pointed to something much bigger and much more important. No matter how it is that we work for the bread that perishes--that gets crusty, stale, and moldy--we are beckoned to make our principal occupation--our life's true work--the work of believing in the one whom God has sent, our savior Jesus Christ. Believing in Jesus won't fill your belly. Most of us still have earthly work to do in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. But when it comes to our place at God's eternal table--when it comes to belonging to God for all time--that work has been done for us. All we are asked to do is believe.