Completing the Work
I love to wander through gift shops looking at wall plaques. I never buy any. If I bought all those that catch my attention, the walls of our house would be covered with them, and my wife would be furious. Instead, when I see one I really like, I copy down the message, then find a way to use it in a sermon or blog.
On a trip this summer I came across a message that really spoke to me. Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.” I quickly reached for pen and paper.
Might God have said to Jesus, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it?” We know that’s likely what happened. Jesus certainly didn’t finish God’s work while on this earth, but he never abandoned it either. In Gethsemane, when he prayed that, if possible, the torture and death he faced could be avoided, his Father might have said in reply. “No, it’s impossible. You are not free to abandon the work for which you were sent.”
Jesus himself may have said words to this effect before his ascension. The gospel writers give us differing versions of those last days. They only show us snapshots of that time, and not a full picture. Was Jesus enjoying what he knew was his limited time with his closest followers? Did he try to give them as much advice as he could cram in before his departure? Certainly both might be true. We can imagine those times, but we can’t have full knowledge of what happened.
Matthew tells us Jesus met his disciples for the last time on a mountain in Galilee, where he gave them his final instructions. He let them know in no uncertain terms that they were to carry on the work he had begun. We learn from Luke that they were told to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. There they would receive a more complete idea of what they were to do. Matthew tells us that Jesus gave them marching orders before he left them. The disciples were to go into all the world, preaching and teaching the things he had imparted to them, baptizing and making disciples.
They could not possibly anticipate what that would entail. They certainly couldn’t anticipate what the gift of the Holy Spirit might be. I imagine it didn’t matter to them. All that mattered was the sadness they felt at losing their Master, and a vague idea of the work he had given them. We find out from Luke (in Acts) how that work progressed during the early part of the first century.
The disciples did not complete the work Jesus had given them to do, nor did they abandon it. In many cases their endeavors cost them their lives—given willingly in God’s service—but they never stopped doing the work to which they were called.
Down through the ages this message has been transmitted. “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.” Apostles, martyrs, church leaders, ordinary Christians, rank upon rank, have taken up the challenge and the work, knowing they would not complete it, but could not abandon it.
Now it is our turn. We are the latest of those who have taken up Jesus’ challenge. We have been given a work to do. We know it will not be completed in our lifetime unless Christ returns before we die. We also know we can’t plan on that. Assuming that there will still be plenty to do after we’re gone, we soldier on, serving in our part of the vineyard, willingly spending our lives in God’s work, without a thought of abandoning it.