Sabbath and Sunday Matters

by Rodney L. Petersen, Executive Director

Law and Gospel

In Jewish tradition the Sabbath days that fall in this season of the year run for seven weeks from the celebration of Passover to that of Shavuot. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments. If Passover celebrates freedom from bondage, Shavuot acknowledges the importance of the rule of law which gives purpose to freedom. Both come together in the weekly practice of Sabbath (the Fourth Commandment) around stories of deliverance, the giving of the law, and times of communal worship.

Similarly, in this season of the year Christian practice moves from Easter to Pentecost. Easter celebrates the resurrection and grows out of a profound understanding of divine forgiveness while seven weeks later (fifty days) Pentecost marks the giving of the Spirit. Easter and Pentecost shape Christian worship and define the basis of congregational life. They signal a yearly liturgical cycle grounded in stories of forgiveness and new life in the spirit, giving form to spiritual formation.

Christians and Jews have often felt that they were in opposition to each other with these sets of holidays acknowledging, as it were, law or gospel rather than law and gospel. Sabbath and Sunday, days of covenant renewal for each religious tradition, have often served as flashpoints for difference and the deep divisions that have marked their separation through the years.

What if we were to recognize both sets of holy-days for what they uniquely represent? In Passover and Shavuot we find freedom balanced by order – both necessary for communal life. In Easter and Pentecost we find forgiveness balanced by a Spirit-directed conscience – something that gives meaning to freedom. To borrow language from the domain of human rights, civil and political rights are often dependent upon social and economic circumstances which, in turn, are often dependent upon third order conditions like development, peace, health – and forgiveness. What we do on Sabbath and Sunday matters.

Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation among Christians finds its first point of definition not in Passover but in the forgiveness grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Consciousness of this point of departure was so powerful that Christian 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).

Similarly, Sabbath is the heart of Judaism and of Jewish spirituality. In observant Jewish homes, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday with the lighting of candles and the recitation of stories of Jewish identity. While Judaism encourages discerning God in all things, consciousness of the stories of Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the giving of the law, Shavuot, become key to Jewish understanding and spiritual formation.

Judaism offers humanity the gift of freedom balanced by the giving of the law. Christianity has been shaped around forgiveness and gift of new life understood through a Spirit-suffused conscience. Sabbath and Sunday unite these in the rhythm of time. So it is, “Jews keep the Sabbath, and the Sabbath keeps the Jews.” And, “Christians keep the Sabbath, and the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) keeps the Christian.” Both days provide a way forward to connect spirituality and ethics in our world today.