The Sabbath

August 26, 2007

Sermon for Trinity 11 Yr. C Isaiah 58, 9-14. Luke 13, 10-17

A verse from today’s gospel: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath”. And another verse from St. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 2: “The Sabbath was made for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the Sabbath”.

Sabbath observance is one of those thins on which Christians are expected to have a common mind. I remember an atheist friend of mine starting a conversation with me some years ago by saying: ”What about all these shops opening on Sunday, then? I bet you don’t approve of that!”. But I was not sure what to answer, for I don’t think the situation is that simple.

The word “Sabbath’ comes from the Hebrew ‘to desist’ or ‘to break off’. This weekly day of rest from work seems to have been a custom peculiar to the Jews. It is given as one of the Ten Commandments, although different reasons are given for it’s observation: in Exodus, in memory of creation; in Deuteronomy, as a thanksgiving for release from slavery in Egypt. Whatever the reason, its effect was to separate the Jews from their neighbours who followed other religions, for you could not marry or work for any foreigner who would not allow you to observe the Sabbath.

The Jewish Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, and begins with a special meal where candles are lit and a blessing said over bread and wine. Jewish law defined 39 different actions that were forbidden on the Sabbath; but because it was seen as a time of joy, regulations were also made to enhance the joy of the day as a time for worship, spiritual and intellectual growth, and fellowship. The Sabbath was the approved time for study and for rituals such as circumcision; the rabbis encouraged people to wear their finest clothes and eat the best food on the Sabbath, and even told married couple it was the best night for making love!

Over time, however, religious legalism meant that the sense of joy was becoming lost, and by Jesus’ time the host of Sabbath regulations had become oppressive. We see from the Gospels how often Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities over Sabbath observance. He opposed those regulations which made the lives of the poor and sick more difficult. He saw the day as one which should serve people’s deepest needs – freedom from hunger, danger, illness and exploitation – and a day when concern for people’s welfare should be given positive expression.

Christians, of course do not observe the Sabbath. But when the early Christians abandoned the Jewish Sabbath as their holy day in favour of Sunday, they did keep it as a ‘sabbath’ in something like its original form, meeting for a fellowship meal on Saturday evening and for worship at daybreak on Sunday. They did see Sunday as a day of joy, thanksgiving for the Resurrection, and fellowship. Fasting and penitential kneeling for prayer were forbidden on this day. At first, observance of Sunday was a voluntary matter for the Christian community. However, once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, laws were passed to prevent people ( apart from farmers) from working on that day.

However, sport and recreational activities were not forbidden. In the middle Ages, Sundays and holy days were the only times people were free from work, and were times of celebration and relaxation.

Excessive Christian Sabbatarianism came with the English and Scottish reformations, in particular after Nicholas Bound published ‘The True Doctrine of the Sabbath’ in 1595, which advocated a strict enforcement of Sabbath observance along what he thought were Old Testament lines. From this followed the laws of Puritan times, which forbade not only work, but also music, dancing, sport, theatrical performance and any kind of recreation – even walking! Although Charles II did modify these laws a little, a German visitor to London in 1701 was moved to observe that a visit to see the crowds at St. James’ was the only possible entertainment to be had in London on a Sunday, since all else was forbidden, and his hostess would not even allow any musical instruments to be played. He concluded, rather sourly, that Sabbath observance was the only sign that the English were Christians at all!

Yet, Sabbath observance tended to be a privilege which only the rich could enjoy. Domestic servants and farm labourers had to work on Sundays, and, after the Industrial revolution,, many factories and mines were kept running seven days a week. Only the Factory Acts of the 19th century secured Sunday as a ‘day off’ for industrial workers; and the older ones among us can remember having deliveries of post and milk on Sundays until the latter half of the last century. It is only comparatively recently that sports venues, shops and theatres have been allowed to open on Sundays.

Given all this, what should the contemporary attitude be to Sunday observance, and to Sunday trading? And how do we decide?

The Sabbath laws of the Pentateuch see one day in seven of recreation and rest from servile labour as being part of God’s plan for the welfare of all human beings – and modern research would support that. The same laws recommend a periodic rest from work as good for animals and a rest from exploitation as being beneficial for the land – again practices which get support from more recent research. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath rest is commanded for slaves and aliens as well as Jews – and this reminds us of our duty to protect the interests of the more vulnerable members of our society. Jesus’ miracles remind us of our duty to take action to ensure the physical and spiritual welfare of our neighbours on this day. The way this day was observed by the Early Church, as The Lord’s Day, characterised by joy, fellowship and living the ‘New Creation’ brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus, should inform the way we mark it. The writings of the Jewish rabbis, echoed nearer our own time by the poet, George Herbert, in his poem ‘Sunday’ remind us that both Sabbath and Sunday should be times for spiritual growth, and a foretaste of heaven.

Our decision will be influenced by what we know of the Scriptures and Tradition – but ultimately, the most important factor in our decision will be the practice of Jesus.

Jesus taught by example. He never imposed his views on others. This seems to me to indicate that Christians should not try to use the laws of the land to impose a so-called ‘Christian’ Sunday on everyone, regardless of their faith. In the past, this has resulted in oppression, and a view of the Body of Christ as composed of gloomy kill-joys. Today, when only a small proportion of the population attends church, even on Christmas Day, it is fundamentally undemocratic.

One day a week free of labour, for relaxation, for study, for the enjoyment of fellowship, especially with the family should be something that Christians support. So they may feel justified in supporting the Sunday opening of theatres, cinemas, concert halls and sports facilities, and also opportunities to by books, DIY supplies and garden equipment. In these days of fridges and freezers, however, there is no real need for food shops to be open seven days a week.

However, there is a need to protect the vulnerable from exploitation by their employers. Many married women work in shops from financial necessity, and it is easy for employers to demand that they work on days when they would prefer to be at home with their families, if the law gives them no protection, nor the right to choose a regular day off. But not all shop-workers are Christian. It would seem, therefore, that the loving way to protect the rights of individuals and defend the vulnerable is to enshrine in law the rights of all workers to have one day off-work each week – either the holy day of their religious community, or another day of their choice.

Christians need to take positive steps to demonstrate the character of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Many will feel it right not to shop or attend any sort of commercially organized activity on that day. Wearing special clothes, eating in a more formal way, with all the family, meeting with fellow Christians for worship will all mark the day as special. So would using the day for study, for activities designed to promote spiritual growth, activities with the family and enjoyment of the wonderful world God has created for us.

Some Christian will feel obliged to work on Sundays, particularly if their work is necessary for the health, welfare or safety of their fellow beings. For all Christians who follow Christ’s example, the demands of charity to the poor and vulnerable will take precedence over their own wants on this day.

But, as with other aspects of our faith, it is easy with Sabbath observance to become ‘Sunday Christians’, following Christ’s example on Sunday, but reverting to the ways of the world on all the other days of the week, The values which make Sunday ‘the gate of Heaven’ according to George Herbert are also the values which would help to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth if they were applied during the other days of the week: a wish to put God’s will before ours; space to attend to our deepest spiritual needs; actions which demonstrate that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

Christians should not seek to ‘Keep Sunday Special’ by acting differently on that day from all the rest. Rather, Sunday should be the ideal towards which they strive to transform all the other days of the week. It should be the day which provides them with the spiritual energy to do this, until ultimately both Sundays and weekdays become for all humanity days of brightness and mirth, in which we can ( in George Herbert’s words) ‘fly hand in hand to Heaven’.

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