Talking about Jesus at work can be awkward. But living the counter cultural truths of his gospel can open the door to fruitful conversations.
Do you feel the tension of wanting to be faithful to your boss, while at the same time being loyal to your Savior? I do. And I tend to resolve that tension with the most ridiculous behavior. When my conscience pressures me to speak up, I try to sneak Jesus into the conversation in weird and unnatural ways.
It’s not only awkward; it’s downright counter productive, producing a net loss.
Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.
Lately, however, I’ve found a better way of bringing Christ into the marketplace. It’s tucked into the brief New Testament letter of Philemon.
And it’s all about being a lizard instead of a frog.
The Apostle Paul was a frog. He was called to preach the gospel, which he did faithfully in the cities of first century Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. We know about many of these churches because of the letters Paul wrote to follow up his visits.
Philemon was a lizard. He was a business man who became a Christian under Paul’s ministry, probably in Ephesus. After converting he didn’t quit his job and go to seminary, he became a member of the Christian community and even housed the newly formed church in his hometown of Colossae.
Philemon had an ordinary calling—like you and I do—and apparently he was good at it. I’m good at my ordinary calling, too. You probably feel the same way about yours. But like you and me, Philemon might not have been good at talking about Jesus.
(Thought experiment. Picture Philemon trying to figure out how to tell his neighbors in the Lycus Valley about Jesus. Like me, he might have prepped extensively, practicing the right words and phrases, but then choked when the opportunity came. Can’t see him knocking on doors.)
But God still used him, by turning his ordinary calling into a gospel opportunity.
Behind the Scenes
It happened like this. As a wealthy businessman, Philemon had both employees and slaves. Now, don’t picture the slavery of the American South, but something more like an indentured servant, who worked for wages and eventual freedom. But Onesimus turned out to be “a problem employee” as my husband called him in a recent sermon. This problem employee seized the opportunity to escape and made a run for it, all the way to Rome.
Naturally, the big city was the perfect place to get lost in the crowd. But God was at work behind the scenes.
First, God brought Onesimus into contact with Paul (the frog, remember?), who was under house arrest, awaiting trial. Second, Paul recognized Philemon’s slave, probably heard the whole story of his escape, and explained the gospel to him. Finally, Onesimus believed, becoming a Christian while in Rome.
This presented a problem to the new believer. Runaway slaves didn’t fare well if they were caught. But, under Paul’s influence and his recent conversion, Onesimus was willing to risk returning to his master. In his hands was the letter Paul had written to his former master.
One question remained: how would Philemon respond?
Not only was it unusual for a runaway to return, it was unthinkable that a returning slave would go unpunished. It just wasn’t done. Such laxity would affect the whole community, undermining the entire economic and social order.
However, the message of Christ isn’t concerned about fitting in with the prevailing culture. It resists being co-opted by any particular human culture whether in Paul’s time or ours, but stands apart from them. In fact it stands over them. That’s because the message of Christ is the message of the King. And his Kingdom is counter cultural.
The message of Christ is the message of the King. And his Kingdom is counter cultural.
Paul had coached the slave, now he would coach the master. The very letter Onesimus was carrying contained Paul’s measured diplomacy.
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)” Philemon 1:10-11
Thus a slave became a son. This is the very heart of the gospel. Isn’t that beautiful?
The message of Christ is counter. It isn’t just counter cultural, it’s counter intuitive. That means, it’s not something we would have come up with on our own.
We love money and power and pleasure. We barely need to think about it when the opportunity arises to gain any of them. Our gut reaction is to do whatever will bring us more of the big three. If we can’t get all three at once, we will settle for the best two out of three. Or only one, if it comes to that.
What Onesimus is doing is counter intuitive. A slave does not willingly return to his master after running away. What Philemon is being asked to do is counter intuitive. Onesimus’s escape had cost him dearly. Surely severe consequences had been planned, if and when he was found. After all, someone had to pay.
But Philemon was a believer. Christ had paid his debt. Furthermore, Paul offered to pay his returning servant’s debt.
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account…I will repay it.” Philemon 1:18-19.
Grace added to grace. The antidote to retribution.
But Not Counter Productive
Back to our opening question. Can it be counter productive to bring Christ into the marketplace? Yes, if we lead with our words, instead of our lives.
Another way to ask it is this. Could bringing Christ into the marketplace cause me loss? Yes, if my life does not back up my words, then I will suffer loss. But if my character reflects the beauty of Christ, then my words will have a purpose. Then they are actually needed.
In our ordinary callings we get to slip into all kinds of places and quietly live out the gospel in counter cultural ways. Sometimes people will simply scratch their heads. But sometimes they will ask why.
And we will tell them.