226: Fruitfulness on the frontline

‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.’  What?? Sometimes a verse of Scripture leaps across time and culture without missing a beat. This is not one of them. The word ‘slave’ is jarring; slavery itself demeaning, dehumanising. What’s worse, slavery in all kinds of new and malign forms, is flourishing under the surface of our hi-tech 21C world. What, therefore, is Paul talking about?

Words for the Week

Ephesians 6:5-8

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

Collosians 3:22-24

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism.

In a strange way the spiritual life isn’t ‘useful’ or ‘successful.’ But it is meant to be fruitful. And fruitfulness comes out of brokenness… Success comes from strength, stress and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability, and the admission of our own weakness.
Henri Nouwen

Writer’s Thoughts

These verses are a sharp reminder to read Scripture in its context, to discern the writer’s purpose so as to hear the Spirit in the text rather than jump to conclusions. Paul is not addressing the universal practice of either slavery or servanthood in the ancient world. (There are very helpful comments on this issue in Tom Wright’s commentaries – Paul for Everyone) Paul is addressing a completely different question. Can we find freedom and fruitfulness wherever the shoreline of life meets the sea of society, in all circumstances, whether chosen or imposed? For many of us, this ‘frontline’ is the workplace.

As it happens, all my examples have a prison connection: one Biblical, one political, and one personal.

  1. Joseph is the first inspiration. In his case, he read the dreams of his cell mates rather than languish in frustrated self justification. His gifts released him but more profoundly, his generosity of heart set him free.
  2. “She writes like an angel trapped in hell.” So one reviewer describes Irina Ratushinskaya, a 28 year old poet sentenced in 1983 by the failing Soviet Empire to seven years prison and hard labour. Despite the cruelty and torture, her tone is exuberant. Prophetically, she wrote “Grey is the colour of Hope” – the that illustrates beautifully how loyalty, friendship and freedom of spirit liberated the ‘politicals’ from the powers that paradoxically, held their gaolers captive.
  3. Many years ago I spent time living in an experimental probation hostel where, it was hoped, the residents would be reformed via intensive group work, and so be socialised into healthy living rather than habituated by jail to a criminal lifestyle. This was ‘Prison without Walls’ so to speak. Far from being a shining light on the front line, I felt inadequate and intimidated within this criminal subculture. An uneasy disconnect existed between the church home group I attended each week, and my daytime group at work. To be honest, I felt a fraud. Where was the real me? Paul’s implied question, “Who are you really serving in your work?” broke the deadlock. I began to consciously practice my worship at work.. not by self righteously singing choruses (I’d be long dead ) but by remembering to live by the Spirit. I knew things must have changed when one of the guys commented: you seem very cheerful these days. What’s happened?

In a strange way the spiritual life isn’t ‘useful’ or ‘successful.’ But it is meant to be fruitful. And fruitfulness comes out of brokenness… Success comes from strength, stress and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability, and the admission of our own weakness.
Henri Nouwen

Own it personally

• Where are my front lines? eg the office, school, groups, peers. How might I be a force for positive change there?

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.
Thomas Merton

• Can we go beyond pleasantries and start some new conversations on the front line about things that matter, like someone long-term dream. A recent BBC programme explored listeners motives in choosing a career: Was it for love or money? Interestingly and significantly, the vast majority of people didn’t recommend the money option even if they themselves had been trapped by it in their early years. Most people wanted more from life.

• Would you leave your job if you felt that was an option? If so, what would you really like to be doing? Discuss with someone a life / career change.

• Identify one “front line” in your world. What could be planted now that would lead to fruit in season?

Speak it Out – Pray and Prophesy

Fruitfulness is not something we strive to produce. It’s a natural outcome of life when we find or create the right conditions. I imagine it’s like digging the garden and planting seeds or cuttings. Ask the gardener what needs to be done.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

Hearing and understanding follows from attention and receptivity. What is / has / or would you like to hear God speaking to you about? What specific situation or person?

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. Matthew 13:23

The beginning of faith is the beginning of fruitfulness; but the beginning of unbelief, however glittering, is empty.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


One thought on “226: Fruitfulness on the frontline

  1. Fruitfulness for me was influencing others towards Christ, a life of hope & change such as I had. This is helping me to explore my inner frontline. The challenges I face daily. Thank you and thank God Who sustains me.

    Liked by 1 person

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