Sabbath and Community
Read: Acts 16:11-15
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. (Acts 16:13, NRSV).
Is it possible to celebrate the Sabbath by yourself?
This may not be a question that keeps you awake at night. If you have been following this series on Sabbath, however, it may be something you want to consider.
Individualism is the air we breathe in contemporary North American culture. That this was not the case in Paul’s day is obvious from a couple of details in this passage. First, he and his companion assume that there will be a place of prayer where Jewish believers will have gathered on the Sabbath. This assumption proves true, and they engage the women gathered at the river’s edge in conversation—presumably about Jesus. This brings us to the second significant detail in the story. When the Lord “opens the heart” of Lydia to Paul’s message, “she and her household” are baptized. A similar “household” baptism happens later in this same chapter when Paul and Silas’ jailer becomes a believer (see vv. 25-34).
Much ink has been spilled over the centuries regarding the implications of passages like these for Christian baptismal practices. For our purposes, however, it’s sufficient simply to note the communal character of religious practice in general. Lydia and the other women are praying together on the Sabbath. She and her household are baptized, and afterwards, she prevails upon Paul to come and stay at her home. Paul and Silas return there to “encourage the brothers and sisters” after their miraculous jail break (v. 40). While individual decision obviously plays a part in these stories, it never occurs in isolation. These sheep, in other words, move in flocks.
Contemporary Christians who decide to celebrate Sabbath often find it frustrating to “go it alone.” It’s one thing to “step off the wheel” yourself, but if no-one around you is stepping off with you, it can prove to be a problem. Children, spouses, friends, and employers do tend to show up with expectations. Responsibilities don’t miraculously stop just because we as individuals have decided to be more intentional about keeping the Sabbath.
Another problem with “going it alone,” is that there is something inherently communal about Sabbath.
I’ll never forget my first experience celebrating the arrival of the Sabbath with a Jewish family. After the mother lit the two Sabbath candles and said the traditional prayer welcoming the Sabbath to the home, the father came to stand beside her. Then the children clambered to their side to receive a blessing. Mind you—this was not something they did with an eye roll; it was something they clearly looked forward to. Putting their hands on each child’s head, the parents prayed that they would be like Ephraim and Manasseh (for boys) or like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (for girls). Then they pronounced the “priestly blessing” from Numbers 6:24-26 for each child, saying,
May God bless you and keep you.
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.
Though I have no complaints about my religious upbringing as a Christian, I confess that I was seriously jealous of that profound ritual of belonging. Perhaps this is what Barbara Brown Taylor means by “holy envy.” But in those words of blessing, I sensed that the children of that family were joined with generations of the faithful. These young sheep were abiding within a vast and ancient flock.
So, let’s return to the question with which we began. Is it possible to celebrate the Sabbath by yourself?
I think I would say that it is challenging, but not impossible. It may require being intentional about shoring up your individual commitment by covenanting with a few others who have made a similar commitment. Welcome the Sabbath together—on whatever day you choose—with a shared meal or even a shared FaceTime prayer. Let those around you know about your decision to celebrate Sabbath so that they can do their best to support you in that choice. But whatever you do, know that you are abiding within a vast and ancient flock.
Prayer: Bless us and keep us, gracious God, as we seek to recover the blessing of your Sabbath. Show us your favor and be gracious to us. Show us your kindness, and grant us your peace.
Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:
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.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, 2019).