Friday, November 19, 2010

Theological Competence Exam Question #2 - Sabbath

Although I did earn the "Satisfactory" grade on this response (the same as both of the other two questions I answered), one of the comments left for me on this response did have a bit of constructive criticism that I think is worth sharing.  That comment suggested that a stronger response would also have drawn from the life and actions of Jesus in regard to the Sabbath to demonstrate how (as the gospel says) "the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath."

As pastor, you are leading the worship committee of the session in a discussion of the concept of Sabbath.  You share the following section from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment? A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and Christian education be maintained, and that I diligently attend church, especially on the Lord's day, to hear the Word of God, to participate in the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need.  Second, that I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus being in this life the eternal Sabbath. (4.103)
Write an essay reflecting on the theological meaning of Sabbath for life today from a Reformed perspective.  Base your essay on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least one (1) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology.
This part of the exam was closed book.

Even among Christians, we often struggle between the desire to go to Church on Sunday and the desire to do… well, pretty much anything else. This is nothing new. Even King James (the same King James who is known for the Bible translation which bears his name) produced a book on “sport” that made it clear he didn’t see any problem with non-religious activities on the Lord’s Day. While this may seem like nothing unusual to those in our congregations who anxiously await the end of the benediction so they can get home to watch the afternoon football game, this was actually pretty scandalous to church leaders of the time. Then, as now, we need to articulate a clear idea of what it is about the Sabbath (whether we celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday in recognition of the day on which Jesus Christ was raised from the dead or, as some would have it, on Saturday) that is special and worthy of being kept as sacred.

Obviously, God is worthy of worship at all times, not just on one day of the week. Speaking of the Sabbath as a particular day of worship and/or reverence may seem to dilute that, but it doesn’t need to. The commandment to keep one day holy, given in Exodus 20, was certainly not given to suggest that God’s people didn’t need to worship God on other days! It was given so that people would remember God in a special way. By remembering the Creation story of Genesis, whereby God rested on the seventh day, God’s people establish in their own weekly rhythms of life a constant reminder of who God is and what God has done. Even though God has power and resources that far exceed anything we humans possess or can even imagine, God rested. If God rested, so also we, beings that actually need rest once in a while, should also rest.

To make the Sabbath “holy” also means that it should be “set apart” in other ways. It is a day to gather together as God’s people. We can (and should!) worship God when on our own as individuals, but we are not called “the body of Christ” so that we can remain as individuals. We are called to gather together. In this way, we truly become a “body” of believers in which the individual members can strengthen and unify the whole in the love and worship of God. Being with other believers can help us to understand God more fully than we can understand God on our own. We learn from those who God has gifted with more knowledge than we have. We can get help and assistance from those who God has gifted with more resources than we have. And, if we have need of correction, we can get Christian discipline in those times in which we need it. John Calvin considered the health of the church to be at its strongest where the word was rightly preached, the sacraments rightly distributed, and where disciple was rightly exercised.

The Sabbath is also to be observed by setting time aside for prayer and for reading God’s Word. This can (and should!) be done in church worship gatherings, but can and should also be done in one’s personal life. Again, this is something that can be done on other days of the week, as well. The Reformed tradition recognizes this, and even hints at an “eternal Sabbath” in the Heidelberg Catechism. But by encouraging these actions “especially” on the Sabbath, one establishes a liturgical pattern in one’s life that helps serve as a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness to us, and especially of the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This thereby encourages behaviors that draw one’s self closer to God.

Up to now, I have focused on those actions that should be especially encouraged on the Sabbath, but what about behaviors that should be discouraged? Is it permissible to watch football after church? Perhaps. But it is nonetheless the case that we are to “cease” those actions which are evil or which keep us from God, and keeping the Sabbath can remind us of those behaviors which are simply not helpful. It is probably obvious that a person who steals on the Sabbath is failing to fully observe the Sabbath in his or her life, but there are actions which are less obvious, as well, and remembering Sabbath observance can be a way in which God opens our eyes to these behaviors and gives us strength to discontinue them. If watching football keeps us from this recognition of God, then it is probably a problem.

However, football need not necessarily be a problem. God works in all aspects of life, and our enjoyment of whatever good things God has created may serve as reminder of what God has done. Perhaps engagement in sports helps us to remain healthy and take care of the physical bodies God has given us. Perhaps that person holding the “John 3:16” banner reminds a viewer of the fact that Jesus died for them. Perhaps the testimony of a particular player (and there are a great many Christian sport players) helps someone understand God a little better. Whether or not a particular activity is in keeping with a Sabbath observance is ultimately left up to a matter of personal conscience. But that doesn’t mean it is to be determined entirely on one’s own. Again, this is one reason why God gives us the church. We are not to give up on meeting together, but by coming together, especially on a regular pattern of Sabbath observance, we are reminded again and of what God has done for us, and taught more and more of how God wants us to live.

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