You may have read the title of this post and thought, "wow, he's really gone off the deep end; now he's calling himself the 'master of retirement.'" Well, let me assure you that's not the case, as you will see if you read on.
I know this may sound strange, but sometimes, when I'm attending Sunday morning worship and listening to a sermon, I get an idea for a blog post (or I hear something that I would like to use in one sometime).
I recently experienced one of those Sundays. (So you know, I don't think about the blog all the time and seldom in church unless someone says something about it or asks me a question. Typically, it's because I find that the topic has application to retirement, or stewardship in general, even if they're not explicitly mentioned in the sermon.)
Ironically, in this case, the sermon was about work, which is (in a sense) the exact opposite of retirement, at least as it relates to career and employment. But please bear with me—you'll see how it can be applied to all stages of life, including retirement.
Our pastors were preaching through Ephesians, and on that Sunday were in Eph. 6:5–9, a passage about bondservants and their masters. We can apply it to employers and employees in our current social context.
As I listened, my first thought was, "well, since I'm retired, this probably doesn't apply to me like it does many in the room." (Isn't it funny and sad how that's sometimes our default position when we hear a message: "this doesn't really apply to me"?)
Well, as we know, the Word of God applies to all of us, all the time. This reminds me of Isa. 55:11 (ESV):
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
The preaching of God's Word is not just the eloquent words of preachers that we can enjoy and then take and leave as we choose. We should assume that it always applies to us in one way or another.
Isa. 55:11 tells us that God's Word goes forth in the power of the Holy Spirit with the certainty that it will accomplish his purpose. And this purpose can be both corporate and highly individual based on God's ongoing sanctifying work in the life of each believer (Heb. 4:12).
The "elephant in the room"
The passage I referenced above is difficult because of what my pastor called the "elephant in the room"—the very real master and slave relationships that existed when Paul wrote the letter.
After pointing that out in his sermon, our pastor dealt with it by first reminding us that the institution of slavery which treated "those who are made in the image of God as a commodity or as a property to be bought, sold and owned is an evil against man and a sin against God."
He went on to say that although Paul did not directly condemn slavery in the letter, "that all of the necessary ingredients to condemn and abolish slavery are present in the passage." He explained that "what Paul says actually undermines the entire institution" and "how counter-cultural it would have been that Paul even addressed them at all." He called it a "dignity without precedent in Roman society."
He contended that what Paul said to the 'masters' in his day was counter-cultural and laid out foundational principles that would eventually lead to the end of the practice in the U.K. and U.S.; words that others like Wilberforce and King would echo centuries later. As our pastor elaborated,
. . . slavery had created a relational dynamic of property and owner. And Paul is closing that gap from property to person, but he's redefining the relationship from one of superiority and inferiority to that of equality. In fact, not just equals, not just equality, but as brothers; if truly Christian, to treat them as brothers . . . treated equally with dignity and respect as your brothers. Nobody else in the ancient world was addressing slave owners like that. This was so radical at the time that Christianity was distinctly unique in that way. For masters, for owners to be told that you are no better. And therefore you must treat your servant as a brother, as an equal with dignity and fairness and respect, that was unheard of.
Who's my master?
We no longer have master-slave relationships in our society, so the best application of these verses is to the employer-employee relationship or, more generally, any context where someone is subject to the authority of another.
Because I'm retired in the sense that I no longer work for pay, I don't have an employer per se. However, I do volunteer work in my church and community. In those contexts, I work under the authority of others (pastors, ministry leaders, etc.)—in a sense, 'masters.' I also work as a co-laborer with others.
Even as a writer (books, blog, etc.) I have a target audience I want to serve well. My readers are not my 'masters,' but I am responsible and accountable to them if they trust me with their time and attention (and for the books, with their dollars).
Our pastor reminded us that these verses apply "to all Christians, to anyone and everyone who finds themselves in the service of another . . . who finds themselves working under the authority of another."
Therefore, the teachings of Eph. 6:5–9 apply to me and probably most retirees in some way or another.
Even if you can't identify an earthly "master," if you are a Christian believer, you have a Master in heaven. In the words of our pastor,
. . . perhaps most importantly of all, there was this overarching principle that the Lord Jesus, that Christ himself was master of all. And therefore, if you were in this situation [referring to the reference to the bondservants in verse five] to think of yourself, not mainly as the subject of another human being, but to think of yourself, mainly as the subject of the Lord Jesus, and that overarching principle dominates everything that Paul says here in Ephesians chapter six . . . 'bondservants obey your earthly masters as you would Christ,' . . . 'as bondservants of Christ,' . . . 'doing the will of God,' . . . 'as to the Lord.' And so clearly, the challenge given here is the challenge to view one's service, to view one's labor, to view one's work, as an expression of one's worship.
Our pastor then raised an essential question for each of us, retired or not:
How do I worship Christ through my working life, in my working life? And that is not a rhetorical question. It is the crucial question. So to all of us in this room who have a job, why are you working? . . . You might say, 'well, I'm working to get a paycheck, I've got bills. I'm working to get paid.' . . . Or you might say, 'well, I'm working to get to the weekend.' . . . Or, 'I'm working to just get to retirement.' . . . You're looking 20, 30, 40 years down the road.
He went on to challenge us with this question:
Are you working as a way to worship, not just with your eyes on a paycheck or looking toward the weekend, but actually working with your eyes on Christ and looking to him?
To drive home his point, he quoted this from John Stott:
Our great need is the clear-sightedness to see Jesus Christ and to set him before us. The housewife can cook a meal as if Jesus Christ were going to eat it or spring-clean the house as if Jesus Christ were to be the honored guest. It is possible for teachers to educate children, for doctors to treat patients and nurses to care for them, for solicitors to help clients, shop assistants to serve customers, accountants to audit books, and secretaries to type letters as if in each case they were serving Jesus Christ.
Serving the Master in retirement
I could easily add this to Stott's quote: ". . . and for retirees who are serving (working) at a part-time job, or who start a small business, or are making furniture or taking or painting beautiful pictures, or serving in the local church, or a school, or a homeless shelter, to serve as if in each case they were serving Jesus Christ."
That's what work (and life) looks like for the Christian in retirement—serving Jesus in everything we do. And by serving Jesus—setting him always before us— we will reflect his character and godly attributes to others. Not fully, of course, but something of his love, goodness, compassion, kindness, and mercy.
2 Cor. 3:18 reads as follows:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (ESV).
What a remarkable statement! The apostle is telling us that was we increasingly focus our gaze on the "glory of the Lord," we will be transformed into His image by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. And we can focus our gaze by, as Stott says, "setting him before us"—making him preeminent in every area of our lives.
Thus, everything we do—whether work (in all its many forms), leisure (including recreation and entertainment), or relationally (those we know and those we encounter as we live our lives)—presents an opportunity to serve and worship Jesus. And when we do, aspects of his character and nature, as embodied in the person and work of Jesus himself, shine through us.
As 2 Cor. 2:14 says, Christ "through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere" (ESV).
Life changes, but not our Master
One of the constants in life is change. As we age and our circumstances change in the different stages of life, we will have to adjust.
But knowing that we can serve Jesus in all sages of like causes us to repurpose our lives in ways that fully embrace those changes in Christ-serving (and therefore Christ-reflecting) ways.
Exactly how we serve Jesus (and people) in practical ways, our 20s and 30s will look a little different from it does in our 60s and 70s and beyond. However, setting him ever before us, and seeking to please and honor him in all that we do, is a heart disposition that should never change.
Instead of later life becoming confusing and disorienting, leading to a lack of purpose and direction as we age, it can rather be a time to reimagine retirement in a way that puts Jesus and his Kingdom first.
For example, since you are not spending all day working for pay, you could volunteer at a homeless shelter or a food pantry. And when you do, with your eyes fixed on Jesus and his love and compassion, you will grow in your compassion for the homeless and needy.
You could volunteer to teach, mentor, or disciple younger people in your church, leading them in "The Way" that Jesus has provided for us. You will reflect the love of Jesus for his people as you share your life experience as a child of God to help them experience the blessings of salvation.
God has given you gifts—time, talents, treasure, and testimony—that you can generously share what you have with others. We are encouraged in scripture to "sow bountifully" and told that "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:6–7). That certainly pertains to the giving of money and includes our time and talents. These are also gifts from God that we can use to serve Jesus by generously giving ourselves to our neighbors, churches, and communities.
Paul's words to the Ephesian church, telling them that the masters were no better than their bondservants and that they ". . . must treat them as a brother, as an equal with dignity and fairness and respect," were radical (and some might say revolutionary) because such a concept was unheard of in the culture and society at that time.
But think about the current cultural milieu we find ourselves today—only 150 years or so beyond lawful slavey in the U.S. and still dealing with many of its unfortunate consequences, and as the Christian church faces increasing challenges of humanism, relativism, and secularism and the open contempt and occasional hostility that comes with it. Paul's words are just as important today as they were back in Ephesus.
For the church to be the church—salt and light—each of us must endeavor to make sure that what we say and do reflects our love and worship of Christ, no matter the context, while also holding firmly to the truths of God's Word, including those most disagreeable to the culture.
Recall this reminder from Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (ESV)
But because our master is Christ, our words and deeds must be characterized by love, mercy, compassion, fairness, honesty, and integrity. As Phil. 2:3 reminds us,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (ESV).
If we live according to that verse, we will treat everyone, even those who disagree with us (and may even hate us), in the same way—with the love of Christ. We serve and worship Christ as we treat others as we would want to be treated, just as Paul instructed the masters and bondservants in his day. That will be just as counter-cultural today as it was back then.