At our house, Marc and I share housecleaning duties. We clean together on Saturday afternoon. Pretty much he does the floors and I clean the surfaces—dusting the furniture, cleaning the countertops, and so on. But we take turns cleaning the bathroom; one week he does it and the next week I do it. This is a job I really don’t like to do. I don’t know why—I just don’t like to do it. In fact, I kind of dread it when my week rolls around.
So, you can imagine how delighted I’ve been when, for my past two birthdays, I’ve opened a box from Marc and found a little booklet inside. The booklet is made up of 10 handmade cards, stapled together. Each one reads, “‘Labor of Love Coupon.’ This coupon entitles my love to enjoy a weekend off from cleaning the bathroom.”
Marc knows Scripture pretty well, but he probably doesn’t know that the phrase “Labor of Love” first appeared in the King James Bible in 1611, in verses 2 and 3 of our passage for today: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a translation from the Greek language that the New Testament was originally written down in.
We hear the phrase “labor of love” so often, and usually we use it so lightly, that we miss its full meaning. The Greek word Paul uses for “work, in the phrase “work of faith,” means what we typically think of as work: what we undertake as our business or employment, what we accomplish by using our hands or minds, in art or industry. It’s doing what’s expected.
But the word Paul usesfor “labor,” in the phrase “labor of love,” means something more than routine and expected duties. It describes something much more demanding than the day-to-day tasks we carry out. It is work that necessitates intense effort. It may even involve pain. One of my dearest friends became a grandmother this past week. While she waited through her daughter’s labor and delivery, we remembered our own experiences of childbirth. That’s the kind of work Paul is describing in his phrase, “labor of love.” This kind of labor may leave us bruised.
The labor that Paul is thinking of costs something, and it can exact a high price. But, it is undertaken with no expectation of personal benefit or reward. It is work that is performed out of what Paul calls agape–love that is entirely focused on the good of the other. It’s not a sticky sweet Hallmark-card type of sentiment, or even an enduring commitment to someone else. It is not simply an emotion but something we do. This is what Paul is remembering in his prayers—the demanding, costly, painful work, performed by the church at Thessalonica, of loving God and loving others, and not expecting any benefit for themselves. Their labor of love was difficult, and it required self-sacrifice.
Just being a Christian in the first place would have been hard for the Thessalonians. Their city enjoyed a special relationship with Rome; the city’s loyalty to the Roman emperors had secured for it the status of a “free city,” one with an independent government and resources from Roman patrons both at home and abroad. It was a center of worship of many gods and goddesses, including the imperial religion that made the emperor himself a god.
It’s not surprising that the Thessalonians would be persecuted for their faith. To call God “Father” was in direct opposition to the emperor’s claims. Proclaiming that peace and security could only be found in God through faith in Jesus and describing Jesus’ expected coming as that of a returning king shattered the false idea that the Roman empire alone could offer true peace and security. And, a true commitment to Jesus ruled out participation in any of the other religious groups in Thessalonica. Gentile Christians would have had to give up all their former associations and connections with other religious groups. It meant that they were essentially committing treason against the imperial government when they refused to worship the emperor as a god.
But in spite of this, the Thessalonian church held on. It engaged in the work of faith and the labor of love with steadfastness of hope in their Lord Jesus Christ. We can gather from the rest of the letter what their work and labor may have consisted of. The hospitality they showed to Paul and his companions was well-known. They had cared for each other, encouraging one another and building each other up. They had cared for those outside their own community, reaching throughout the region of Macedonia. Their faith had become an example for other believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
They shared the word of God in every place they went. Even though they suffered persecution because of it, Paul says of them, “The word of the Lord has sounded forth from you.” They were not content to hunker down once their own eternal future had been secured. They shared their faith in such a way that Paul didn’t even have to speak of it; it was already well known throughout the region. Even though living and sharing their faith put them at risk of persecution, they persisted in their labor of love. They persisted in the dangerous work of helping others learn of salvation through Jesus Christ, with no expectation of reward, at great risk to themselves.
Paul says of them, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” The gospel they had accepted was one which the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer said, “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. . . It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” The Thessalonians accepted and lived out that costly grace through the labor of love.
It’s hard for us to imagine undertaking this kind of labor of love. Sometimes it’s because we prefer what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: accepting the gift of forgiveness without accepting our call to engage in the labor of love. In Bonhoeffer’s words, it is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross…”
But it may also be that for us, in this time and place, there doesn’t seem to be much need—or opportunity, if you will—to engage in the risk-taking labor of love. lf we try to share our faith with someone, we risk only embarrassment if they shut us down. If we undertake some project, it’s not likely to be seen as a treasonous attempt against the government. No matter how involved we are in our church, we still join other clubs and are able to maintain our social and family ties with others who don’t share our faith.
But to the extent that we do what is difficult—that we do what costs us something, that we do what opens us up to the willingness to be bruised by our efforts, that we do what doesn’t promise to reward or benefit us—we too engage in the labor of love. I’ve seen it here. I’ve seen how many of our people have given hours and hours of time and purchased many dollars’ worth of supplies as we worked to prepare the parsonage. I’ve seen how people have accepted responsibilities beyond their committee job titles to get that job done.
I’ve seen how many people gather to provide food for hungry families and to become friends and mentors to local children. I’ve also seen your willingness to take a risk with the upcoming TAP dinners, so that we can reach out in a new way to the families of the children we are already serving here. I suspect that there is a great deal of laboring in love going on here that I haven’t learned of yet.
Today the United Methodist Church observes what is called Children’s Sabbath. It’s sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund as a way for people of all faiths to celebrate children as sacred gifts of the Divine and to affirm our responsibility to care for, and protect and advocate for all children—you might say, though the labor of love. It is intended to unite people of faith in a common commitment to improving children’s lives and working for justice on their behalf. The theme this year is “Moving Forward with Hope: Love and Justice for Every Child.” Fulfilling our commitment to children is a work of faith and can be the labor of love when we are willing to do what is difficult and sacrificial. Working to offer love and to secure justice for all children can and should be a labor of love for us.
The more we enter into the work of faith and labor of love, the wider our eyes are opened to the needs of the world. The wider our eyes are opened, the greater our call to do “more and more,” as Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to do. Because the gospel has come to us, like the Thessalonians, in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, we will find that there are more opportunities to share the gospel and serve the world.
Paul was thankful for the Thessalonians’ work of faith and their labor of love. And, he was also thankful for a third thing: their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Their hope, like ours, is in the promise Jesus has made to us—of eternal life in the presence of God. They could maintain their steadfastness—their endurance in the face of persecution, their patient waiting for Jesus to come again—because they experienced Jesus’ presence in their lives, just as our steadfastness comes from our experience of his presence in ours.
I’ve been thinking that the places where we experience Jesus’ presence are much like the place where Marc undertakes his labor of love for me. Jesus comes to us when we need to feel surrounded by comfort and peace, like being immersed in a warm bath. Jesus comes into our lives in the place we go when we are sick, in body, mind, and soul. He comes to us in the place where we shut ourselves away to weep with rage or grief or frustration. Jesus comes to us in the place where we need to be cleansed—where we feel soiled by anger or jealousy or selfishness or any of the things that make our hearts and souls feel grimy.
Jesus stands beside us as we look in the mirror. When we look at ourselves and smile at what we see—a face happy in anticipation or celebration—he smiles back at us. But, when we look into the mirror and see signs of illness, he says, “I will strengthen you.” When we look into the mirror and see a person who is alone and lonely, he says, “I will not leave you.” When we look into the mirror and see discouragement or worry or grief, he says, “I will give you rest.” When we look in the mirror and see someone we don’t like very much, he says, “I can make you new.”
We can rely on these promises because of the labor of love he has already completed for us. With no expectation of human reward, and at times even rejecting the rewards the world offered, he spent his short life teaching and healing, often at great risk to himself. With no thought for his own well-being, he faced the sin of the world and went to the cross rather than allow it to keep him from his mission of reconciling the world to God. His preaching of the nearness of God’s kingdom was a labor of love for us. Conquering sin on the cross was a labor of love for us. Conquering death through his resurrection was God’s labor of love for us. Jesus’ entire life was a labor of love—the difficult and often painful task he undertook without thought for his own personal gain and completed as a gift for others—as a gift for us. And when someone undertakes labor like that on your behalf, you can believe that he loves you.
Paul said to the Thessalonians, “We know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” We, too, have been chosen and are part of God’s beloved community. Joined in Christ, may we engage in the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope which is the evidence of the costly grace we have received. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young