Rodney Petersen: The Sabbath and Social Renewal


Earlier in the year, a friend sent around an email reporting that a radio station, known for its conservative brand of Christianity, held a discussion of the Ten Commandments, of which it was said only nine are still valid. This led the talk show host to ask, "Well, which one is done?" "Oh," said the guest, "the fourth, about Sunday." This prompted another friend to say when he heard someone boast about not taking a day off. "And what other commandment are you proud of breaking?"

The value of the Sabbath in the teachings of Jesus remains unbroken. We might understand Sabbath to be a kind of "covenant renewal." This idea finds grounding in Jesus' teaching and in Jewish practice. German theologian Karl Barth adds theological resonance to this. He writes that, "the Sabbath commandment explains all the other commandments, or all the others are forms of the one commandment. It is thus to be placed at the head" (Church Dogmatics, III: p 53).

The Sabbath commandment is often called the "hinge" commandment because of the way it stands between and links commandments about the nature of God with commandments about relationships in society.

Spiritual formation among Christians finds its first point of definition in the recognition of the resurrection of Jesus. This gave power through the Holy Spirit to the Christian community described in the book of Acts. Consciousness of this point of departure was so powerful that worship became organized around what was referred to as the Lord's Day or Sunday in recognition of the resurrection of Jesus, following in Revelation 1:10. The early church gathered together not only for worship on this day but for the weekly collection for the poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), providing continuity with the deep inner connection between worship and ethics in Judaism (Isaiah 58:6-14; Mark 2:23-28). This Sabbath gathering for prayer and collection for the poor follows from the two tables of the law, love of God and love of neighbor (Matt 22:37-40).

Whether as local assemblies of the faithful - or as communities of faith today - this Sabbath/Sunday gathering was a kind of summary of faith and "covenant renewal" within a defining narrative. It forecast the life of prayer and work through the week, providing a rhythm for spiritual vision and character formation. Sabbath/Sunday observance provided the community a place and a time to work out the inevitable conflicts of life. It gave scope to the recurring challenges of how to live in community, how to live with the earth, how to understand the meaning of economy, and how to engage others. It marked the spiritual unity sought for in Jesus' prayer as described in John 17:20-26.

We live in a society that is becoming unhinged. The Sabbath commandment (the Fourth Commandment as reckoned in Judaism and Reformed Protestantism) is a means for "re-hinging" our lives. It was a map for social restoration for Israel as much as it is for us today.

The given context for the Ten Commandments is that of an abused and fragmented people, the Israelite slaves of Egypt, seeking to find social coherence and the social moorings that make society possible. According to the text of Exodus 20:2, these commandments, or sayings, were given by "the Lord God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt"; out of 24/7 slavery and vitriol.

The Ten Sayings or Commandments are foundational concepts for establishing a functional social order. In this light we might ask:

Can there be security of our person from acts of violence? Well then, we will not cause anger or murder, as proscribed in the Sixth Commandment.

Or, can we foster healthy personhood in our deepest intimacies and core identity? Well then, we will not commit adultery, the point of the Seventh Commandment.

Can we foster security in our communities? Well then, we will not steal or take what is not ours, as raised in the Eighth Commandment.

Or, so important today, are social agreements meaningful and contracts to be trusted? Then we cannot lie as argued in the Ninth Commandment.

Do we wish to build a society of deep trust and the common good? Do we wish for a society as described by Martin Luther King, Jr., as the "beloved community"? Well then, we will not give way to covetousness as envisioned in the Tenth Commandment.


Our gathering, you see, together in community to acknowledge the Sabbath Commandment is a kind of covenant renewal to live in community as free citizens under God, whose identity as defined in the first three commandments, is greater than any political reality.

When I lived in Switzerland, I was struck by the tradition and pageantry centered around Swiss Independence Day, August 1. Citizens of each city, town or canton would gather together in the civic square to affirm allegiance to the governing covenant or constitution. And at the end of the day, bonfires would be lit on mountain tops to celebrate the renewal of the covenant.

This is our Sunday, a weekly celebration and covenant renewal, to make possible personal coherence, social stability, and our "re-hinging" after six days of labor.

Boston-area physician, co-minister with her husband of Bethel AME Church, Gloria White-Hammond writes of the fragmentation of our society and of our need for Sabbath in an article, "Home Alone - Seeking Sabbath." She writes:

We must raise up the solid foundations of our homes that have been chipped away at by the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things; repair the broken walls of our fractured churches which, because they have been divided against themselves, have not been able to stand; and restore the streets of our neighborhoods with dwellings that signify life, real life, rested life, for us and for our children, and that is the life that is more abundant. It takes Sabbath space - and many of us ground this in Sunday as Sabbath.[i]


Friends, we have a social mandate to foster Sabbath. By encouraging Sunday as Sabbath, we are one with Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of this society so that social righteousness may prevail, and hope be given to all.

As the Rabbis put it, "Jews keep the Sabbath, and the Sabbath keeps the Jews." We might also say, "Christians keep the Sabbath, and the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) keeps the Christian."

Lauren Winner writes of what she misses in Christianity in reference to her Jewish background in a book entitled, Mudhouse Sabbath. "Shabbat is like nothing else. Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away.

New England Pilgrims and Puritans were recognized as Sabbath keepers, often known by the phrase, "Good Sabbaths make good Christians" - even if it meant Saturday-prepared, day-old Boston baked beans and cod.

Well, Brooklyn Congregational Church's minister David C. Fisher reminds us of how easy it is to turn God's gifts into obligations burdened with rules and regulations. The tension between the free exercise of faith practices with what was to become the social enforcement of Sabbath/Sunday adherence and "Blue Laws" restricting commerce, illustrates a tension we find and continue to live with between corporate worship and individual spirituality. Fisher adds, "Jesus was often a critic of the Sabbath practices of his day - but he never opposed the Sabbath itself. He kept the Sabbath. He opposed rules and regulations that twisted the Sabbath rest out of its original intent. He declared that God created the Sabbath for humankind and our enjoyment; God didn't create us for Sabbath keeping" (Mark 2:27).

We live in a day characterized by individual expression and religious plurality which complicate corporate worship and individual spirituality. We might discern in Fisher and Winner two practices that allow us to honor Sabbath, the "hinge" commandment, as we seek social coherence and renewal. The first practice comes from Fisher: Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath, a revolutionary teaching that has never been given adequate reflection in the church with respect to Sunday: What would a day devoted to the Lord Christ be like? The second practice follows Winner's suggestion: What if we were to draw into Christianity the Jewish Sabbath rhythm of marking the beginning of Sabbath on Saturday evening? The Puritans did. They followed the Jewish tradition and marked the beginning of Sabbath on Saturday evening. A ritual meal was shared, and God invoked and welcomed into the Lord's Day of Rest.

Today, Sabbath is a foreign concept for many in our society. The restoration of Sabbath is counter-cultural. It will not be easy to reconnect. Our lives are complicated, busier and getting busier and more complicated all the time. Work is creeping into all of life. The digital revolution makes work impossible to leave at the office. And if you are a parent like I am, you are being stretched in every direction. Abraham Heschel, one of the great Jewish theologians of the last century, writes in his book, Sabbath, that: "Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week, we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day, we try to dominate the self." Heschel reminds us that beyond the sociological and theological value of Sabbath, there is psychological healing of the soul in its weekly practice.

So, what might be the effect on the church marked by these two practices?

The first practice, identified by Fisher, allows for the freedom of choice in a society characterized by religious plurality and yet counsels serious theological engagement and mature ethical decision making. It upholds the rhythm of creative activity with voluntary self-restraint. The popular "WWJD" - "what would Jesus do" - comes into play as parents and children in the context of a community of faith wrestle with how to apportion out the obligations of life in the midst of a commitment to relationships, including that with the God in whose image we have been made (Exodus 20:11) and whose work we do (Deut 5:15).

The second practice, that identified by Winner, alerts us to the importance of relationships. John Paul II writes in Dies Domini, that "Sunday should...give the faithful an opportunity to devote themselves to works of mercy, of charity and of the apostolate"[ii] This might include the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam), a concept deeply ingrained in the Jewish community and understanding of the creation story. The scholar Elizabeth Spellman writes that the work of "repair" is so central to our human character that she thinks of humanity as homo reparans.[iii] What might this look like? Well, let me suggest a few ideas.

  • First, the restorative work of the prophet Nehemiah comes readily to mind as the rebuilding of a just civic order is required in the context of civil violence.
  • Second, from the field of biology and the health care sciences we are reminded of the need for rest for cellular renewal, a concept that has deep resonance with Sabbath rest as envisioned by the author of the Book of Hebrews (4:1-11).
  • Churches that are experiencing deep fragmentation can come together around Sabbath as Sunday for purposes of human flourishing.
  • A commitment to human flourishing offers much by way of networking with other religions and secular groups.
  • Finally, embedded in Sabbath practice is a deep commitment to concepts of gratefulness and appreciation - of all that we have been given. The Genesis text (2:1-3) reads that God rested, blessed and made holy the seventh day. And, by this, we are reminded of the sacred nature of the environment and world in which we live, a world that psychologist Richard Louv reminds us in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), that we lose at our peril.

The Sabbath work of repair, restoration, renewal, human flourishing, networking for the common good and appreciation are all aspects of a Sabbath spirituality that flows from living out Sabbath as Sunday considering its constituting the Lord's Day. This is the way to the "Beloved Community." As it is written, "'Come.' And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift." (Rev 22:17)

And in conclusion, we say "Amen" or "Let it be so."


[i] Gloria White-Hammond, "Home Along - Seeking Sabbath." in Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend: Managing Time in a Global Culture, ed. by Edward O'Flaherty and Rodney Petersen with Timothy Norton [Eerdmans, 2010]

[ii] John Paul II, Dies Domini: On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998. p 75.

[iii] Elizabeth Spellman, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2003.