Lesson 3: Sabbath and Sunday
Luke 4:16-22 and Acts 16:11-15
I told a friend I was working on an article about the Sabbath and asked her what it means to her to keep the Sabbath. She replied, “I am not sure I know what that means. I cannot imagine spending all day reading the Bible.” I mentioned that, in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath was a time of rest, worship, enjoyment of God, family, friends and God’s creation. “Oh, I like that,” she replied.
My friend had the image of sabbath as a day strictly devoted to God. Certainly, those who learned the catechism were taught this. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 60, describes the sabbath as “a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly and recreations as are lawful on other days, and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except as much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”
As defined by the Westminster Catechism, celebrating a sabbath day has never been a part of my life. My family went to church every Sunday, but there was no other special element to the day. As a pastor, there has been a lot of work on Sunday and taking another day for rest and refreshment has been difficult to do. Recently, I have, on occasion, embraced the “sacred” Sunday nap.
Culturally, Sunday is no different from any other day. On my way to lead worship on Sundays, I pass the area NASCAR track, which can be packed with cars and RV’s on race weekends. On the same route I always notice the large area for yard sale vendors and all the open stores. Many people have to work on Sunday and a day without work is a luxury.
What did sabbath originally mean? The Jewish Sabbath in the first century included a full day of rest from work, the enjoyment of a family meal and worship in synagogues. Synagogue worship included readings from the Torah done by several people, and a sermon, with prayers interspersed throughout the service. Being a faithful Jew, Jesus went to the synagogue for worship on the Sabbath. In Luke, chapter 4: 16-22, Jesus was given the scroll of Isaiah to read. Then Jesus sat down, in the position of a teacher, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If it was a sermon, then it sounds like the shortest on record.
Christianity spread through the Jewish community when believers witnessed to what they had experienced with Christ. Early Christians continued to attend synagogue on Saturday and many also engaged in worship on the first day of the week as a “little Easter.” Worship on Sundays happened when people got off work. Gradually, Christian Sabbath shifted to Sunday only, but the elements of Jewish rest and worship remained.
Keeping the Sabbath day holy has eluded me for most of my life. Reading Receiving the Day, Christian Practices for the Opening of Time, by Dorothy C. Bass, changed my perception of what the Sabbath can be. After writing about how difficult it is to have a day of rest from work, Bass talks about her own exploration of keeping the Sabbath in a time when she did not. “At first (and even now, several years later), just having the word sabbath at the back of my mind was illuminating. Even if I was not sure if or how I could or would change my behavior, that little word stood as a sentinel. It pointed at my obsessions, the preoccupations I could not let go — shopping, housework, work brought home from the office. It reminded me to relax when a worship service that ran a few minutes late caused impatient fidgeting up and down the pew. It shepherded my attention away from bills that needed paying toward what was going on in the backyard, where my children were at play. Just having the word was a good beginning.”
As Bass’ book progresses, she gives her attention to ways we can set apart a time or a day for sabbath. If our work primarily focuses on the computer, then a sabbath practice could be gardening as a quiet form of meditation. If our life is solitary, inviting people for a pot-luck could be a means of bringing joy into our sabbath day. The sabbath day could be a day when we set aside worry, by not paying bills, or set aside fretting about people who make us angry. We can make worship a priority and enjoy this time more fully by leaving our watches or phones at home. For Christians, who no longer dedicate a whole day to rest and enjoy God, we can take small steps.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.