When Sunday Rolls Around

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 by John D. Pierce

When President Jimmy Carter hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for a long weekend at Camp David in 1978, they faced an unusual dilemma. Each was accustomed to observing a different day of rest according to his religious tradition.

For Sadat, Friday was the important Islamic day of congregational prayer. However, Begin was accustomed to observing the Jewish Sabbath from sundown that evening until sundown on Saturday. And Carter, like most Christians, considered Sunday to be the Lord’s Day.

The three religious men agreed, however, to work through this particular weekend in an effort to bring peace to a most troubled part of the world. Only the most legalistic observer could fault that decision. It wasn’t a golf outing or a fishing trip, but something of grave importance.

If these world leaders were wrong, they were in good company. Even Jesus was criticized for acts of love and healing on the Sabbath when he didn’t follow the many prohibitions set out by religious zealots who couldn’t see his love because of the laws they had erected in the way.

It helpful for us to remember that Jesus did not violate the Sabbath — only human rules about the Sabbath.

The Bigger Picture

Today, we have some interesting perspectives on the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” For many who profess to be Christian, “The Lord’s Day” is not a holy day at all, and not even thought of as the first day of the week. Rather it is the “second day of the weekend” and treated much like the day before.

On the other hand, there are those who get caught up in debating exactly which day is to be properly observed and what true observance entails. Since the early second century, Christians have generally replaced the Sabbath (Saturday, the last day of the week) with a Sunday observance in recognition of the Resurrection.

Some Christians, however, like the Seventh Day Adventists and the lesser-known Seventh Day Baptists, continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath. In some Christian circles, heated debates have ensued over Sabbath observance.

I’m not entering that fray. In fact, whenever I read arguments from proponents on either side, my sense is that both are missing the bigger picture and larger issue. Which is, God expects us to set aside one day a week to refresh ourselves physically and spiritually and to focus our attention on matters greater than ourselves and our daily routines.

Yes, physical rest is an important part of Sabbath observance. Wayne Oates, the late pastoral care giant, reminded us correctly that “You can either take your Sabbaths when they come or you will take them all at once.”

The Worship Priority

While the Fourth Commandment speaks primarily about rest and keeping the day of observance holy, I want to make a case for the priority of congregational worship. No, one cannot “get just as close to God on the golf course or while skiing.”

I’m no legalist, and haven’t earned a perfect attendance pin since the fifth grade. But I’m amazed at the people who claim to be Christian yet find no need for regular Bible study, worship and the kind of nurture and training that our children get at church each Sunday.

Since moving from the Atlanta-area (where we lived for nearly 19 years) to Macon more than two years ago, I’ve noticed three distinct differences in life here.

First, traffic reports here crack me up. They are pretty much limited to reminders to buckle your seat belts, drive carefully through school zones and watch out for speed enforcement.

Second, businesses in Macon seem to consider you trustworthy unless you give them reason to believe otherwise. We borrowed a wallpaper book from a home improvement store soon after moving here. To our surprise, they didn’t want a credit card, but simply asked us to write down our name and phone number.

And I’m still amazed at fast food restaurants here — like Chick-fil-A and Captain D’s — that take personal checks. In other words, honesty seems to be expected.

Third, I see many more people heading to church on Sunday morning than I did in our north Atlanta neighborhood. But still I am amazed at the numerous homes where church is not the priority it should be.

We have all heard someone critically claim, “Most people just go to church every week out of habit.” My response is, “Indeed, and it is a good habit that all of us should embrace.”

The Right Place

I have heard enough sermonizing over the years about what not to do on Sundays from attending sporting events to washing your car to playing Rook. What you decide to do on Sundays is between you and God. I agree with the conservative Bible scholar William Barclay that “The Lord’s Day is a day of rest, but rest must be interpreted according to the needs of the individual.”

I spoke by phone with my dad one Sunday several years ago after spending the afternoon planting a few trees and shrubs. He chided me for “working” on the Lord’s Day.

“It’s not work,” I responded, it’s rest. If I were a landscaper, it would be work. But I’m an editor, and this is rest and renewal for me.”

However, what I did that afternoon was not a replacement for the time of prayer, fellowship and corporate worship experienced in church that morning. Barclay is also right in noting that “the Lord’s Day is the day when in worship we realize the presence of God in order to go out and to walk in it through all the days of the week.”

Whether you are in church out of habit or on a rare occasion, you are in the right place!

The Church’s Role

In his revised classic, Baptist Polity, longtime Southern Baptist leader James Sullivan stated simply and accurately four things the Church is uniquely called to do,

1. We are to worship together. For some reason, God has designed salvation to be an individual experience — yet we are called to express our salvation in relationship with one another.

2. We are to proclaim the Good NewsPeter got it right: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” On that affirmation, said Jesus, the church will be built and will never fail.

3. We are to nurture and educate persons to grow in faith. It is interesting to see young couples with children getting reconnected to church. My former pastor, Bill Self, calls them “church alumni.” Many of us who benefited from Sunday-after-Sunday of Bible teaching from faithful teachers want that same foundation for our children. But we must also recognize that Christian discipleship has no age limit.

4. We are to minister to all with physical and spiritual needs.

A few years ago, the neighborhood we lived in was awakened by an ambulance one Saturday morning that arrived too late to save a young wife and mother from a heart attack. Being good neighbors, people tried to support the distraught family.

They cared for the children, sent flowers and other expressions of kindness. One woman on our street suggested collecting money and having pizza delivered.

By that time, however, my wife, Teresa, already had a roast in the oven and was preparing the complements. The large basket was out that would hold the dishes with her name scribbled on strips of masking tape.

She subscribed to the unwritten church motto that “Where there is grief, there ought to be a casserole.”

The neighborhood association offered help, but could they offer hope?

No, the church is unique. Our distinctions are that (1.) we worship God together; (2.) we proclaim the Gospel; (3.) we nurture and grow in faith together; and (4.) we minister to both the physical and spiritual needs of those around us.

The church is about offering both help and hope. And the very basis for who we are — and what we do —comes primarily from the times we gather each Sunday morning to worship so that we have the perspective and spiritual resources necessary for the demands of the next six days of the week.

We are different. We are not a campus fraternity, the Rotary Club, the band boosters, the VFW, the country club or the Little League or other good things. We are— with all our imperfections —the Church of Jesus Christ.

Being in the Lord’s house and respecting the Lord’s Day are not archaic, outdated ideas. They are at the heart of meaning living.

The Rhythms of Life

In his book, The Promise Restored, Wyatt Watkins recalls his disciplined pursuit of musical excellence while in college. He faithfully practiced the violin for five or six hours every day.

Late into his senior year, his professor suddenly thought to ask him about his practice regimen. When told, the professor reacted with alarm and exclaimed: “That’s too much. After four hours you have wasted your time.”

May I suggest that life has its rhythms as well. Six days are enough for the usual things. Anything beyond that is too much.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: “I have in my heart a small, shy plant called reverence; I cultivate that on Sundays.”

May we all. May we all.

 

John D. Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today in Macon, GA. This is the text of a sermon preached June 23, 2002 at Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, GA.