Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.
Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!
Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.
In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.
Why Should Christians Care about Sabbath?
Read: Luke 4:16-22
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth…he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom” (v. 16, NRSV).
When I was a teenager, I remember my grandmother saying to me, “Carol, pretty soon you’re going to have to stop burning the candle at both ends.” Forty years later I’m finally figuring out what she meant. Human beings—or all of God’s creatures for that matter—are not designed to be constantly “on.” We need time that is set aside for rest, reflection, and communion with others, with nature, and with God.
What a coincidence! God has designed just such a time, and it’s called Sabbath. Never mind that we’ve abused it or ignored it or misunderstood it in the past. The invitation still stands, and we desperately need to accept it—as individuals, as Christian communities, and as a culture.
So, if Sabbath is something we need, and if Sabbath is something God has woven into the very fabric of creation (see Gen. 2:1-3), why don’t we pay much attention to it anymore? Or to put it more positively: why should Christians care about Sabbath?
The short answer is: Jesus did. As Luke 4:16 illustrates, Jesus’ own Sabbath observance involved visiting the synagogue (see also Mk. 1:21and Lk. 13:10). Yes, he tangled with religious leaders who objected to some of his Sabbath activities, but to these nay-sayers he simply pointed out that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Then he calmly reminded them that he was, in fact, “lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:23-28).
Jesus’ early followers continued to observe the Sabbath, and often proclaimed the Gospel at Sabbath synagogue gatherings (Acts 13:14-16; 17:1-3). These gatherings would have happened on Saturday—the Sabbath Day. Sunday—the Lord’s Day—was also a day set apart for honoring Jesus’ resurrection, which, according to all of the gospels, had happened on a Sunday.
As Christianity began to spread into the Gentile world, we can assume that celebrating the Sabbath was one of those things that created some tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In Colossians 2:16-19, for instance, Paul counsels the Christians in Colossae not to “let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or Sabbaths.” Yet, this is a far cry from a condemnation of the Sabbath, which Christians from a Jewish background continued to observe.
It wasn’t until 321 C.E. that the newly-converted Roman Emperor Constantine declared that ‘the two should become one,’ so to speak. One wonders if he was worried about workers taking two days “off.” But in any case, he conflated the “Sabbath Day” and the “Lord’s Day,” and Christians have been following his lead ever since. To the extent that we have a “day of rest,” it is now supposed to be on Sunday.
What was lost in that sweeping decision so many centuries ago? Is it possible for contemporary Christians to recover those losses?
In this series, we will explore such questions. At the risk of giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that such a recovery is not only possible, but urgent.
There, Grandma—I hope you’re happy.
Prayer: Gracious God, we are weary and heavy laden. Grant us rest.