Formation

Reclaiming God’s Intent for Sabbath

The Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”, tends to invite legalism, rabid antinomian sentiment, or spiritual innovation from Christians. In each of those cases, the conversation about Sabbath-keeping focuses on the individual. Talking about the Sabbath in those terms cuts out the fact that it wasn’t given to individuals. It was given to a community, and is meant to be celebrated in community.

What Sabbath Is Not

For many, Sabbath-keeping is a rule-laden throwback to the social practices of our American Puritan forebears. Certainly our shared history still echoes today, mostly in the fading patchwork of unenforced antique blue laws still on the books in some towns, and the fact that Christian-owned businesses Chik-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby close on the first day of the week in order to honor a Sunday Sabbath. Some traditionalist congregations still hold Sunday morning and evening services in order to keep the Sabbath day set apart for worship. Those services are bookends on a day dedicated to a large noontime dinner followed by a quiet afternoon at home.

Other believers have thrown out both baby and bathwater in the name of freedom in Christ. Paul’s words became an exit clause for those who felt imprisoned by the notion of weekly Sabbath observance: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5) Those who claim these words insist that since in Christ we’re free from the Law, we don’t need to worry about keeping the Sabbath. Weekends are given to catching up on chores or ferrying the kids to soccer games.

Other believers take a cafeteria approach to Sabbath-keeping. Some have branded as Sabbath everything from experimenting with weekly pauses from technology to resting on Mondays (popular with church leaders) to weekend nature hikes with the family. These individual efforts have value in re-forming our souls, disconnecting them from our 24/7, always-on world. They reorient people toward a Sabbath rhythm, but the individualistic nature of these choices also disconnects them from the deeply communal practice the Sabbath was meant to be.

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A Weekly Rhythm

I discovered this during my first visit to Israel eight years ago. I was stunned by the way in which Jerusalem, whose volume knob seemed permanently set on “11” during the rest of the week, dialed way down to a holy hush as Shabbat approached. Even non-religious Jews in the city had no choice but to live according to this weekly rhythm. The shuttered shops, public transportation running on a minimal schedule, and the ancient habits of gathering for a special Friday night meal with family and friends echo that rhythm, even into the lives of those who don’t believe in the One who gave Shabbat as a gift to his creation.

While there is plenty of legalism in the observant Jewish community about the way in which Shabbat must be observed, there was also a sense of expectancy each week that there would be space each week to rest and reconnect with God and others. Jerusalem shifted for me how I understood the Fourth Commandment.

It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with Jewish Shabbat practice before that – I am a Jewish follower of the Jewish Messiah, and came to faith in him in the waning days of the Jesus Movement. My non-believing parents had more in common with the secular, culturally-Jewish characters depicted on Seinfeld than they did with those who sought to live a religious Jewish life.  Even so, my parents sought to make sure I understood my Jewish identity. One way in which they did so was by kindling the two candles that welcomed the Sabbath into our home each Friday night. After those moments of ritual connecting us to the larger Jewish community, we’d eat dinner, then go back to doing our own individual thing each weekend: chores, shopping, or watching TV.

I’ve spent four decades in the Church, and have discovered that the Sabbath is one of those topics that few want to discuss. If it made its way into a sermon, it was treated as a sort of spiritual cage match: Sabbath versus Jesus. Jesus didn’t just sit around like a slacker on the Sabbath! He did stuff! From this orientation, it was easy for most to conclude that Sabbath-keeping was nothing more than a bygone relic of the Old Testament. It seemed incongruous to me that the other nine of the Ten Commandments were never ignored or invalidated in the non-denominational churches in the same way Number Four was.

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The Lord of the Sabbath

When I read the New Testament, I saw Jesus and his Jewish followers participated in the Jewish feasts and joined their kin in community in synagogue and at table on Shabbat. Jesus wasn’t abolishing the Sabbath – he was asking his followers to engage more deeply in the meaning of the Sabbath as a time to celebrate our Creator, and connect him with the hope the Jewish people had carried for a Messiah who would come to usher in the new creation. He told his followers that he’d come to fulfill the Law, that he was Lord of the Sabbath.

Fellowships committed to mission have the DNA to move past suffocating legalism, cultural accommodation, or D-I-Y Sabbath practice. As we begin to think, speak, and pray together about how to receive God’s gift of rest in community, it can become a signpost inviting others around us into the kind of rest, restoration, and renewal that is the very lifeblood of the kingdom of God. Sabbath is nothing less than a weekly taste of that eternal reality.

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