Holy Week and Work: Five Devotions
by Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Remembering Jesus in the Products of Work
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Several years ago while visiting a church on Sunday morning I saw a striking communion banner. It featured a creative and tasteful weaving together of wheat stalks and bunches of grapes. I appreciated the artistry that went into the design and production of the banner.
Yet—and I am in no way criticizing this banner—I find it interesting that Jesus actually did not use wheat and grapes to represent his body and blood. Rather, he used bread and wine. These elements were featured in the Jewish Passover meal, which formed the basis of the Last Supper. They were not only items with deep theological meaning; bread and wine were also products made by human hands and human tools. They were the result of natural elements refined by human work.
I wouldn’t want to make more of this fact than ought to be made. Jesus’s main point in the Last Supper was not about work, but rather about his pending death and its meaning. Nevertheless, I believe it’s worth reflecting on the implications of Jesus’ choice of elements for our work. For example, in the Theology of Work commentary on Matthew 26 we read:
We cannot pretend to know why Jesus chose tangible products of human labor to represent himself rather than natural articles or abstract ideas or images of his own design. But the fact is that he did dignify these products of work as the representation of his own infinite dignity. When we remember that in his resurrection he also bears a physical body (Matt. 28:9, 13), there can be no room to imagine the kingdom of God as a spiritual realm divorced from the physical reality of God’s creation. After creating us (Genesis 2:7; John 1), he chose articles of our handiwork to represent himself. This is a grace almost beyond comprehension.
I am not a farmer, a baker, or a winemaker. My work does not produce elements that would be used in a communion service. Yet even as bread and wine represent Jesus, I would also like the products of my work to reflect him in some way. I would like the things I do each day to honor him. I want my work to be an expression of my faithfulness to my Lord, an act of worship to the One who gave his life for me.
Something to Think About:
As you consider the fact that Jesus used products of human work to represent the meaning of his sacrifice, what thoughts or feelings come to mind?
In what ways does your work honor the Lord? How might Jesus be present with you in your workplace?
Something to Do:
The next time you receive communion, pay attention to the elements, to the feel and taste of the bread and wine or juice. Consider that these elements were made by human beings whose work helps to convey the deep significance of Christ’s death.
Lord Jesus, thank you for giving us in the Last Supper a tangible, visible representation of your pending sacrifice. Thank you for choosing products of human work to represent the work you were about to do on the cross.
Lord, for most of us, our work will not literally produce items for the communion table. But we would like our work to point to you, to honor you, to make a difference for you in this world. Help us to understand how this might be so. Help us to work in a way that contributes wisely and well to your work in this world.
Glory be to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Encountering God at Work
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
We know very little about the centurion who appears in Mark 15. He is first mentioned in verse 39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” A few verses later, when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the dead body of Jesus, Pilate summoned the centurion to find out for sure whether Jesus had died (Mark 15:44). When the centurion confirmed Jesus’s demise, Pilate let Joseph have the body (Mark 15:45). That’s all the gospels tell us about this particular centurion.
Roman historians tell us that the centurion was the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in the Roman army. The name “centurion” implies that he commanded a “century” of one hundred soldiers. The centurion would have been in charge of those who actually crucified Jesus, overseeing them nailing Jesus to the cross and making sure nobody rescued him.
We have no idea how the centurion experienced the crucifixion of Jesus. He could have been a cruel madman like the Roman soldiers pictured in the film The Passion of the Christ, though his response to the death of Jesus makes this unlikely. He might well have learned to shut down emotionally when he had to oversee a crucifixion. It was, after all, one of the most horrible aspects of his job, or of any job ever. Then again, it’s possible that the centurion in Mark 15 was somehow moved by Jesus as he was dying, though the text doesn’t say this. All we really know is that when the centurion watched Jesus take his last breath, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
The fact that a Gentile Roman officer acknowledged Jesus in this way has inspired centuries of Christian reflection. Yes, the response of the centurion to Jesus does foreshadow the eventual response of the wider Roman world to Jesus. But today I want to focus on something rarely mentioned among commentators: the centurion encountered God in his work. It’s not particularly unusual for people to meet God in their work. This happens – and should happen – all the time. But what is so striking in the case of the centurion is the kind of work he was doing when he had his divine encounter. He was supervising the torturous murder of three human beings, one of whom was the very Son of God. It would be hard to imagine work less conducive to encountering God. Yet, as he did his vile duty, the centurion looked upon Jesus and saw, not an executed criminal, but the Son of God.
Many of us would like to encounter God in our work, but our actual work seems to get in the way. We’re not supervising crucifixions, but we are doing work that seems far removed from God. Yet, if God could open the eyes of the centurion, if the centurion could encounter God in the course of his work, then surely God can make himself known to us as well. God, who is present with us always, will open our eyes to see him if we are open to it– and sometimes even if we aren’t.
Something to Think About:
What do you think enabled the centurion to see Jesus as the Son of God?
Can you think of times in your life when you encountered God at work, perhaps in a most unexpected way?
Something to Do:
Today, as you begin your work (or tomorrow, if you’re reading this in the evening) ask the Lord to make himself known to you in your work. Then, pay attention. See if God might encounter you in an unexpected way.
Gracious God, how thankful we are that the centurion appears in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s death. Though we know little about him, his testimony to Jesus as the Son of God moves us. It also reminds us that you can make yourself known in the midst of our work, even work that seems far removed from you.
Help us, Lord, to be open to seeing you in our work. May we be ready to welcome you into our work and to honor you in all we do. Even as you once surprised the centurion, surprise us with your inspiring presence. Amen.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
We were created for work. And work as God intended it was to be good. As creatures made in God’s image, we were to do the good work of being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, governing it, tilling it, and caring for it.
But then something happened to corrupt the goodness of work. Sin happened. Human beings chose to seek their own good rather than God’s goodness. Through sin, the world became warped, with work caught in the ungodly twisting. A primary result of sin was the corruption of work. Yes, human beings would still work, fulfilling their created purpose. But now their work would be filled with pain, sweat, and struggle. All of us know something of this reality. Some of us feel the brokenness of work every single day.
When it comes to work, therefore, the cross of Christ makes a great difference. Now if you tend to think of Christ’s death as bringing only personal salvation or as delivering us out of this world, then what I just said won’t make much sense. But if you think of Christ’s work in light of the whole the biblical story, if you understand his death as the central piece of God’s plan to restore all things, then you can begin to see how the cross makes a difference for our work.
Because of the cross, the day will come when creation is restored and renewed. In that day, we will experience work as God intended it to be. That is part of our future hope in Christ. Yet, as is the case whenever we talk about God’s future, through Christ we begin to experience the future today, however incompletely. Thus, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” This new creation touches everything, including our daily work.
Thus, as we reflect upon the meaning of the cross during Holy Week, let us consider how our experience of salvation through Christ might make a difference in our work.
Something to Think About:
In what ways do you see the cross of Christ as relevant to your work?
If because of the cross you have been reconciled to God, what difference might this make in your work life?
Do you think we will work in God’s future? Why or why not? If you think we will work, how do you envision our work?
Something to Do:
As you go about your work, put a small cross somewhere you can see it. It could simply be a cross drawn on a sticky note. The point is not to display this cross to your officemates. Rather, this cross is meant to remind you that the death of Jesus matters for your work. As you do your work today, do it as an expression of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice.
Gracious God, thank you for the cross. Thank you for taking our sin through the death of Christ. Thank you for acting in Christ to forgive us, renew us, and restore us. Thank you for the fact that if we are in Christ, there is a new creation. Thank you for the privilege of experiencing this new creation now, however incompletely.
O God, even as our work reflects the stain of sin, may it also begin to receive the grace of salvation. May the renewing, reconciling work of Christ be experienced in our workplaces. And may those of us who know you through Christ live each day so that Christ is glorified in all we do and say. Amen.
Washing Feet or Carrying Boxes?
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in which Christians remember how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The name “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, or “command.” After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus gave them a “new command,” namely, to love one another (John 13:34).
As we read the account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we see in his action a powerful theological statement about his identity and mission as the Suffering Servant of God. Because we know Isaiah’s prophecies about this Servant, and because we know that Jesus was soon to offer his life on the cross as the ultimate act of servanthood, we rightly see deep meaning conveyed through his foot-washing activity. In many Christian traditions, foot-washing ceremonies provide a way for brothers and sisters in Christ to express their deep commitment to and care for each other.
Such theological reflections and traditional enactments are quite appropriate and quite wonderful. Yet they can also keep us from seeing it as it would have been originally seen. For the disciples of Jesus, foot washing was an ordinary, necessary, and common activity. Because feet got dirty from unpaved roads and paths walked while wearing open footwear, and because people reclining at meals tended to put their feet where others would encounter them, it was necessary for feet to be washed before meals. People of limited means would provide water for their guests so they might wash their own feet. If the host of a meal was well enough off to have a servant or slave, then foot washing would be part of this lowly worker’s duty.
Thus when Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet they did not think lofty theological thoughts or feel inspiring religious feelings. Rather, they saw their Master doing the work of a servant. They saw him humbling himself to do the work that nobody else would have chosen to do. It’s no wonder that at first Peter declined Jesus’ gesture (John 13:8).
After Jesus finished washing the feet of his disciples, he interpreted what he had done. He called upon his disciples to imitate his example by washing each other’s feet. “I have set you an example,” Jesus said, “that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14). Jesus was not setting up some new religious ritual. Rather, he was instructing his disciples to serve each other in tangible and humble ways.
As we seek to follow Jesus in our daily work, we should not feel obligated to literally wash the feet of our coworkers. Rather, we should consider how we might serve them in ways that are neither required of us nor worthy of our station. I think for example of a friend of mine who was an executive in a large company. One day he noticed that one of the company’s custodians was struggling to carry several large boxes up some stairs. The executive stopped to help.
For several minutes the two of them labored over the boxes until they were put away. When this sweaty executive turned to say goodbye to the custodian, he noticed tears in the other man’s eyes. “I’ve worked in this company for many years,” the custodian said. “Before today, no boss ever stopped to help me. Thank you so much. You have no idea what this means to me.” Sometimes foot washing is not foot washing, but box carrying.
Something to Think About:
As you consider the foot washing story in John 13:1-20, what do you see? What strikes you about this incident?
Can you think of actions in our day that are more or less similar to foot washing in their cultural meaning?
Have you ever taken the role of a servant in your relationship to others in your workplace?
Something to Do:
Take some time to think of how you might serve your colleagues at work in a way modeled after Jesus. Literal foot washing is probably not the answer. But perhaps there are other ways for you to serve in a way that is both humbling to you and affirming to them. Ask the Lord for wisdom and then do whatever is in your heart.
Lord Jesus, thank you for taking the role of a servant as you washed the feet of your disciples. Thank you for humbling yourself to serve them. Thank you for giving us a picture of how we are to serve others.
Today I ask for wisdom to know how I can imitate your servanthood. It’s unlikely that I will be washing feet today, Lord. But there are many other ways I can serve. Guide me by your Spirit, I pray. Give me the courage to break through cultural barriers that would keep me from serving others in imitation of you. May all I do be for your glory and honor. Amen.
Reconciliation in the Workplace
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Today is Good Friday, the day when Christians commemorate the death of Christ on the cross in a special way. It is a day for sober reflection as we consider what it cost God to deal with our sin. Usually, and quite appropriately, we think about how we have been personally touched by the cross. We consider how Christ took not just sin in general but our own sin upon his shoulders. We are struck once again by the awesome grace of God for us personally. As we survey the wondrous cross, we remember once again that “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Yet there is another dimension of the cross that we sometimes overlook on Good Friday. We see this dimension clearly in Ephesians 2:14-16, where the death of Christ on the cross brings reconciliation not only between people and God but also between alienated people groups. According to this passage, Christ is our peace in that he has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between hostile peoples, in this instance Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). Christ sought “in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). Yes, the cross enables reconciliation between human beings and God. But it also enables reconciliation among human beings.
This makes sense when we remember what happened when sin first entered the world. In Genesis 3, the very first thing human beings did after sinning was to cover up themselves and hide from each other. From a theological point of view, we would rightly say that the immediate result of sin was a breach between people and God. Yet in the telling of the story in Genesis the primary evidence of this is a breach between formerly unified human beings. Therefore, if the death of Christ deals with the fundamental problem of sin, we would expect one implication of this to be actual reconciliation between people.
In thousands of workplaces today we sense a deep need for reconciliation. Coworkers are divided against coworkers, workers against management, executives against other executives, and so it goes. In many cases, systemic injustices divide people according to race, ethnicity, gender, or class. How much we need to experience true reconciliation that doesn’t just gloss over problems but rather embodies the fullness of God’s peace and justice.
The death of Christ doesn’t instantly bring reconciliation to divided workplaces. But it does lay a foundation for true, deep, lasting reconciliation in every sector of life. Moreover, it enlists those of us who have experienced reconciliation with God through Christ to be agents of reconciliation in the world, including the places where we work. If Christ gave his life to bring reconciliation to a broken world, surely those of us who follow him will seek to bring reconciliation to the places in the world to which God has sent us, including our workplaces.
Something to Think About:
In your life, how have you experienced the power of the cross when it comes to reconciliation between people?
If the justice and peace of Christ were to be present in your workplace, what difference might this make?
How can you be an agent of reconciliation where you work?
Something to Do:
Ask the Lord how you might bring his reconciliation to your workplace. You may also want to consult a wise friend about this. See if there is something you can do that will help bring reconciliation in a tangible way, even if it is just a small start.
Gracious God, on this Good Friday we thank you for the cross. We thank you taking our sin upon yourself in Jesus Christ. We thank you for reconciling us to yourself through the cross, so that we might know you intimately and serve you with all our lives.
We also thank you, Lord, that the cross brings reconciliation between people. We thank you for undoing what sin has done. Help us, we pray, to be agents of your reconciliation in every part of life, including our work. May we be quick to apologize and forgive. May we be ready to fight systemic injustices that divide people at work. May we treat others in a way that reflects the grace and love you have shown us in Jesus Christ.
To you be all the glory! Amen.