“Come, Labor On.” Most Episcopalians will know that hymn, #542 in our 1982 Hymnal, to the tune of Ora Labora (Pray Work). It’s not my favorite, probably because I have for so long identified with its sentiment that I recognize its sentiment as a lifelong adversary. Nobly the hymn calls us to vigorous, unceasing labors in the work of the gospel until the coming of our Lord: “[W]ho dares stand idle?”; “redeem the time”; “no time for rest”; cajoling us that while we sleep the devil is at work: “he slumbered not.” If you are among those who believe you are praying when you sing hymns, you may be disinclined to implicate yourself so thoroughly and take up humming instead.
Taken at face value, the hymn’s sentiment is a recipe for short-lived ministries, if not for short lives. As with most such calls to duty or vigilance, the dutiful and vigilant take it personally while the slothful remain oblivious to the call. For the former, the singing of the hymn opens a mental flood gate of “things left undone,” becoming a tool of the Accuser, which is no fault of Jane Borthwick, who was, unsurprisingly, a prolific hymn-writer.
I don’t suppose there would have been any place to have slipped in a verse or two about how the God who commissions our labors also commanded a Sabbath or that the Lord who drew our attention to the “fields white unto harvest” also himself took leave of duty in order to rest. Such qualifications have a way of diluting the force of the exhortation, which is why we see so few hymns where verse three starts with “On the other hand, . . .”
Though it is neither my favorite tune nor perhaps the most balanced gestalt of the faithful life, “Come, Labor On” might nonetheless point us in the right direction, even the compulsively rest-less among us. The hymn finishes by reminding us that rest will be ours in the world to come:
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Servants, well done.”
Yes, you have to squint a bit to see it, but the hymn affirms that even should rest be scarce here, it will be abundant there. The rest that the hymn defers for the sake of its robust exhortation is granted us by our creating and redeeming God, who affirms not only that we need it but that we were made for it.
Rest is not just okay with God; it is established by God; it is modeled by God. On the seventh day of creation, he rested. Even allowing for a certain measure of anthropomorphism, the thought could not have been that God was worn out from his creative labors. To hear the story told, it didn’t take too much out of him to utter the cosmos and its furnishings into existence. No, God’s rest exhibits not his exhaustion from his work but his satisfaction with his work. And his enjoyment. When, following his lead, we take our permission to be absorbed into dusk or snow or starlight, we meet an inexhaustible God who rightly finds satisfaction in his works. And sharing in his satisfaction and noting that he made it not only for himself but for us, we ourselves are satisfied, rendering the quiet praise also known as “rest.”
God not only models rest, but he also commanded it in no uncertain terms. If the dutiful forgo rest for the sake of duty, let it be noted that they are forgoing a more primary duty in doing so. On the face of it, one might not think that rest should have to be commanded. Bodies run out of steam; darkness bids slumber. What could be more natural? Yet rest is not merely the need of individual mortal bodies, but a communal prospect, a pact to be shared among us. Should we not agree together to cease from our labors, our agonism is sure to get the better of us — as it has — and we won’t yield to others our claim on scarce goods and honor. For any of us to rest, we all have to rest. This is a command that can only be obeyed by those who believe that God can supply, that God is enough, that God works while we sleep, that God doesn’t need us. Thus understood, our rest-less-ness may be a sign of unbelief, even if we mean it as an offering of consecration.
As commandments go, the Sabbath is the wild card of the New Testament, neither repristinated nor repealed, but recast. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28 RSV). Here Jesus gifts what the law had commanded and, with an unassailable logic, shows it to have been gift all along. God, he reasons, did not create a Sabbath and then determine to populate the world with creatures obligated to keep this stricture; rather, having created human beings, benevolently, wisely, he sees what should make for their flourishing, and we come to see that the command was pure gift all along — as is the case with all commands for those who trust in him. However well-meaning his Pharisaical critics might have been — the urge to define precisely what is entailed in Sabbath-keeping and Sabbath-breaking is not unreasonable — by casting the duty as duty only, the gift only too easily becomes obligation alone, and resting, ironically, becomes striving.
Scripture’s final chapter on rest is rest itself, rest as destination, rest eternal. “So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10 RSV). Here bodies burdened with the lifelong threat of mortality and psyches afflicted by fear and inadequacy, unburdened and immortal, join the very rest of God which has been our destination since his creation of the world — an eternal Sabbath rest.
“Come, labor on?” Yes. But “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28 RSV). Yes, also that. For the time being, though we may find rest elusive in the press of duty and our faith too weak to trust God with “things left undone,” “He himself hath made us, and we are his.” And the same one who bids us labor, call us into his rest: “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 RSV).
Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is the President and Provost of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he also holds a chair as Professor of New Testament.