Sunday as Sabbath – God’s Valentine to Humanity

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Sunday as Sabbath – God’s Valentine to Humanity:
A Vision for the Lord’s Day Alliance in the USA
Rodney L. Petersen, PhD

Introductory Comments:

A friend sent around an email in January reporting that on Moody radio (a station known for its conservative brand of Christian faith), on the program the Market Place (WRMB, Boynton Beach, FL), there was a discussion of the Ten Commandments, of which only nine are still valid, said the guest. The talk host asked, “Which one is done?  “Oh”, he said, “the fourth, about Sunday” This was not challenged on the air.

This email prompted another friend to remind us that a third friend once commented that when he heard someone boast about not taking a day off he would respond with, “And what other commandment are you proud of breaking”?

A Social Mandate:

We live in a society that is becoming unhinged. The Sabbath commandment (the Fourth Commandment) is sometimes referred to as the “hinge” commandment. It is found between those first three commandments oriented toward our regard of God and the balance of the commandments oriented toward our regard of neighbor. It is a means for “re-hinging” our lives.

The given context for the Ten Commandments is that of an abused and fragmented people, the Israelite slaves of Egypt, seeking to find social coherence and the social moorings that make society possible. According to the text of Exodus 20:2, these commandments, or sayings, were given by “the Lord God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”; out of 24/7 slavery and vitriol.

The Ten Commandments are foundational concepts for establishing a functional social order. In this light we might ask:

  • •  Can we develop an intergenerational society? Then we will honor and not “dis” parents and children (Fifth Commandment).
  • •  Can there be security of our personal identity from acts of violence? Then we will not anger or murder (Sixth Commandment).
  • •  Are our most intimate relationships, those central to our identity, sacred? Then we will not commit adultery (Seventh Commandment).
  • •  Is our means of livelihood, the product of our labor and extension of our very being to be protected? Then we will not steal (Eighth Commandment).
  • •  Are social agreements meaningful and contracts to be trusted? Then we cannot lie (the Ninth Commandment).
  • •  Is our attitude one of abundant trust in God or fear when faced with scarcity? Then we will not covet (Tenth Commandment).

Our gathering together in community to acknowledge the Fourth Commandment is a kind of covenant renewal to live in community as free citizens under God whose identity as defined in the first three commandments is greater than any political reality.

When I lived in Switzerland I was struck by the tradition and pageantry centered around Swiss Independence Day, August 1. Citizens of each town, city, or canton would gather together in the civic square to affirm allegiance to the governing covenant with arms raised. And at the end of the day bonfires would be lit on mountain tops to celebrate the renewed covenant.

This is our Sunday, a weekly celebration and covenant renewal, God’s Valentine to Humanity, to make possible personal coherence, social stability, and our “re-hinging” after 6 days of labor.

Boston area physician, co-minister with her husband of Bethel AME Church, mother and CEO Gloria White-Hammond writes of the fragmentation of our society and of our need for Sabbath in an article, “Home Alone – Seeking Sabbath.”

We must raise up the solid foundations of our homes that have been chipped away at by the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things; repair the broken walls of our fractured churches which, because they have been divided against themselves, have not been able to stand; and restore the streets of our neighborhoods with dwellings that signify life, real life, rested life, for us and for our children, and that is the life that is more abundant. It takes Sabbath space – and many of us ground this in Sunday as Sabbath.[1]

We have a social mandate to foster Sabbath. By encouraging Sunday as Sabbath we are one with Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of this society so that social righteousness may prevail and hope be given to all.

Sabbath as Sunday is God’s Valentine to humanity.

A Theological Mandate:

Our social mandate is not only grounded in apodictic scripture referencing but also in good theology. The value of the Sabbath in the teachings of Jesus remains unbroken. An understanding of the Sabbath as a “covenant renewal” finds grounding in Jesus’ teachings and Jewish practice. German theologian Karl Barth’s argument adds theological rationale for this: that “the Sabbath commandment explains all the other commandments, or all the other forms of the one commandment. It is thus to be placed at the head.”[2]

Or, as we said earlier, it is the “hinge” commandment.

Spiritual formation among Christians finds its first point of definition in the recognition of the resurrection of Jesus. Consciousness of this point of departure was so powerful that worship became organized around what was referred to as the Lord’s Day or Sunday in recognition of the resurrection of Jesus. The early church gathered together not only for worship on this day but for the weekly collection for the poor (I Corinthians 16:1-2), providing continuity with the emphasis on the deep inner connection between worship and ethics in Judaism (Isaiah 58:6-14; Mark 2:23-28). This Sabbath gathering with prayer and collection for the poor is a mark of spiritual formation. It follows from the two tables of the law, love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40).[3]

Whether as monastic communities or local assemblies of the faithful then – or as communities of faith today – this Sabbath/Sunday gathering was a kind of summary of faith and “covenant renewal” within a defining narrative.[4] It forecast the life of prayer and work through the week, providing a rhythm for spiritual vision and character formation.[5]Sabbath/Sunday observance provided the community a place and a time to work out the inevitable conflicts of life. It gave scope to the recurring challenges of how to live in community, how to live with the earth, how to understand the meaning of economy, and how to engage others. 

Sunday as Sabbath Keeps the Christian

As the Rabbis put it, “Jews keep the Sabbath, and the Sabbath keeps the Jews.” We might also say, “Christians keep the Sabbath, and the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) keeps the Christian.”

Lauren Winner, a winsome spiritual writer, writes of what she misses in Christianity in reference to her Jewish background in a book titled, Mudhouse Sabbath. She details and applies Jewish Sabbath customs to her new Christian life, citing another convert to Christianity:

On Friday afternoon…we’d rush home. Flying into the kitchen we’d cook ahead for the next twenty-four hours….Sometimes I’d think how strange it was to be in such a frenzy to get ready for a day of rest. Shabbat preparations had their own rhythm, and once the table was set and the house straightened, the pace began to slow. [After showering] I’d linger in the bathroom…taking as much time as I could to settle into a mood of quietness. When I joined [my husband] Michael and his son for the lighting of the candles, the whole house seemed transformed…. Shabbat is like nothing else. Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away. A feeling of joy appears. The smallest object, a leaf or a spoon, shimmers in a soft light, and the heart opens. Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty. [6]

This special regard given the Sabbath is matched by the president of a Jewish college whom I know who does no email on Shabbat.

Martin Luther eliminated “Saints Days” from the medieval calendar in favor of a weekly celebration of the resurrection on Sunday. Among the Reformed, New England Pilgrims and Puritans kept the Sabbath. They were often known by the phrase, “Good Sabbaths make good Christians.” And they got it right! A day devoted to the Lord – we call it “The Lord’s Day” – is a good and necessary gift from God – God’s valentine to humanity even if it meant Saturday-prepared Boston baked beans and cod.

Brooklyn Congregational Church’s minister David C. Fisher reminds us of how easy it is to turn God’s gifts into obligations burdened with rules and regulations. “The Sabbath,” he writes, “meant to be a day of sheer enjoyment and rest, got lost in a in a thicket of rules, regulations, and laws. The Puritans were notorious for enforcing church attendance and forbidding recreation, sports, even travel on Sunday.”[7]  The tension between the free exercise of faith practices and what was to become the social enforcement of Sabbath/Sunday adherence, enshrined in Sunday Blue Laws keeping stores closed on Sunday until fairly recently, illustrates a tension we continue to live with in our churches.

Fisher adds, “Jesus was often a critic of Sabbath practices of his day – but he never opposed the Sabbath itself. He kept the Sabbath. He opposed rules and regulations that twisted Sabbath rest out of its original intent. He declared that God created the Sabbath for humankind and our enjoyment; God didn’t create us for Sabbath keeping” (Mark 2:27).

We might discern two practices from the tension between our desire to keep Sunday as the Sabbath but allow for freedom of expression in a society characterized by plurality.

Practice One: Jesus went on to call himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Fisher reminds us that this is a revolutionary teaching that has never been given adequate reflection in the church with respect to Sunday: What would a day devoted to the Lord Christ be like?

Practice Two: We might follow Lauren Winner’s suggestions: What if we were to draw into Christianity the Jewish Sabbath rhythm of marking the beginning of Sabbath on Saturday evening? The Puritans followed the Jewish tradition, marking the beginning of Sabbath on the previous evening, and so might we. A shared ritual meal, the invocation of the divine presence at a meal Saturday evening would establish a whole new tonality for welcoming in the Lord’s Day of rest, Sunday.

Sabbath is a foreign concept for many in our society. The restoration of Sabbath is counter-cultural. It will not easy. Our lives are complicated, busy and getting more busy and complicated all the time. Work creeps into all of life. The electronic revolution makes work impossible to leave at the office. And if you are a parent like I am, you are being stretched in every direction.

Abraham Heschel, one of the great Jewish theologians of the last century, writes in his book, Sabbath, that: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week, we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day, we try to dominate the self.” Heschel reminds us that beyond the sociological and theological value of Sabbath, there is psychological healing of the soul in its weekly practice.

Sunday as Sabbath Keeps the Church

What might the effect be on the church of marking the Lord’s Day with these two practices? The first practice allows for the freedom of choice in a society characterized by religious plurality and yet counsels serious theological engagement and mature ethical decision making. It upholds the rhythm of creative activity with voluntary self-restraint. The popular “WWJD” – “what would Jesus do” – comes into play as parents and children in the context of a community of faith wrestle with how to apportion out the obligations of life in the midst of a commitment to relationships, including that with the God in whose image we have been made (Exodus 20:11) and whose work we do (Deut. 5:15).

What might Sunday activity apart from times of worship and relationship-building look like? Donald Conroy, President of the International Consortium on Religion and Ecology, reminds us of work on this topic by Pope John Paul II in Dies Domini, that “Sunday should … give the faithful an opportunity to devote themselves to works of mercy, charity and apostolate.”[8]

This might include the work of repair (tikkun olam), a concept deeply ingrained in the Jewish community and understanding of the creation story. Elizabeth Spellman writes that the work of “repair” is so central to our human character that she thinks of humanity as homo reparans.[9]

  • •  The restorative work of the prophet Nehemiah comes readily to mind as the rebuilding of a just civic order is required in the context of civil violence.
  • •  From the field of biology and the health care sciences we are reminded of the need for rest for cellular renewal, a concept that has deep resonance with Sabbath rest as envisioned by the author of the Book of Hebrews (4:1-11).
  • •  Churches that are experiencing deep fragmentation can come together around Sabbath as Sunday for purposes of human flourishing.
  • •  A commitment to human flourishing offers much by way of networking with other religious and secular groups.
  • •  Finally, embedded in Sabbath practice is a deep commitment to concepts of gratefulness and appreciation – of all that we have been given. The Genesis text (2:1-3) reads that God rested, blessed and made holy the seventh day. And, by this, we are reminded of the sacred nature of the environment and world in which we live, a world that psychologist Richard Louv reminds us in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008) that we lose at our peril.

The Sabbath work of repair, restoration, renewal, human flourishing, networking for the common good and appreciation are all aspects of a Sabbath spirituality that flows from living out Sabbath as Sunday in light of its constituting the Lord’s Day.

This is living in light of the resurrection; receiving God’s valentine to humanity.

 

 


[1] Gloria White-Hammond, “Home Alone – Seeking Sabbath,” in Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend: Managing Time in a Global Culture, ed. by Edward O’Flaherty and Rodney Petersen with Timothy Norton (Eerdmans, 2010).

[2] Church Dogmatics, III: p. 53.

[3] This material is taken from my chapter, “Just Peacemaking and Overcoming Violence: Formation for Ministry” in Formation for Life Just Peacemaking and Twenty-First Century Discipleship, ed. by Glen Stassen, Rodney Petersen and Timothy Norton (Eugene, OR:Wipf & Stock, 2013): 277-278.

[4] The value of the Sabbath in the teachings of Jesus remains unbroken. An understanding of the Sabbath as a “covenant renewal” finds grounding in Jesus’ teachings and Jewish practice. Karl Barth’s argument adds theological rationale for this: that “the Sabbath commandment explains all the other commandments, or all the other forms of the one commandment. It is thus to be placed at the head.” (Church Dogmatics, III: p. 53).

[5] Horace T. Allen, Jr., “The Lord’s Day as Anticipation and Promise in Liturgy and Word,” in Edward O’Flaherty, S.J., and Rodney L. Petersen with Timothy Norton, eds., Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend. Managing Time in a Global Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010): 93-104.

[6] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Paraclete Press, 2003); as cited by David C. Fisher; at http://www.plymouthchurch.org/news/PCsermon030809.pdf (accessed February 2014).

[7] David C. Fisher; at http://www.plymouthchurch.org/news/PCsermon030809.pdf(accessed February 2014).

[8] John Paul II, Dies Domini. On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998): 75. See Don Conroy, “Sabbath in an Age of Ecology within an Emerging Global Society,” in Edward O’Flaherty, S.J., and Rodney L. Petersen with Timothy Norton, eds., Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend. Managing Time in a Global Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010): 164-178

[9] Elizabeth Spellman, Repair. The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World (Boston: Beacon, 2003).