This is a sabbath story. It’s not a story written on the sabbath day (although I’m starting this only five hours from the beginning of a sabbath, in Jewish terms), but one about the sabbath. And it’s actually three stories, not just one.
For illustration, I’ll use thoughts from (1) a former student/acquaintance, (2) a friend, and (3) a well-respected scholar/thinker/writer. I take the first two as representative of many others, but I won’t use their real names.¹ The third, in my view, is a typically helpful theologian (a category I don’t often uncover!—see here for more on that).
Mandy seemed popular, and she was one of my students. She had real talent and was an energetic player. There was something about her that struck me as discontent, even rebellious, and later information bore that out, but that’s beside the point. At the time, I myself was also in survival mode, or even fight mode, so I wasn’t going to judge her.
In a Christian collegiate institution that legislated Sabbath (read: Sunday rest) observance, Mandy submitted for a while, but apparently fumed. I did, too, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying much, and no one kept me out of my office if I felt like going there on a Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, students were effectively banned from any classroom buildings, including the music building.
Aside: here, it’s good to be clear that when Christians speak of “sabbath,” 99% of them are talking about Sunday. That in itself should send one scurrying to the pages of what we call the “New Testament” to see if Sabbath is there. Paul didn’t really write about Sabbath (other than perhaps a negative reference in Colossians), and that fact should cause us to question any weekly New Covenant application.
Back to Mandy. One week, Mandy reacted to institutionalized, legislated Sabbath, by means of a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper. She appealed to the College administration and the whole community to open up the Music Building and let her have “sabbath” recreation by making music. I saw and supported Liz’s point, but I was more concerned with the overall issue of legislating that which belongs more in the realm of Jewish religion than Christian devotion.
Marlena wasn’t a student of mine but quickly became a friend through another friend. She is as sincere, intelligent, studious, and devout as they come, and she could be both serious-minded and appropriately silly.
On multiple occasions, Marlena articulated a reasonable, genuinely pious view of Sabbath. She supported it, practiced it in various ways, and in doing so encouraged others to do the same. I recall feeling an inclination to do as she did, a twinge of guilt that I didn’t, and also a wistful wish that she wouldn’t attempt to transport Sabbath into our time. Mostly, I felt a longing to be as spiritually devoted as Marlena seemed to be.
Enter N.T. “Tom” Wright, in a podcast interview. There, Wright said as much about sabbath in a few short sentences as the sum total of what I’ve ever heard or thought. Here is a transcript of excerpts:
“The Messiah is Israel in person as well as being the Living God in person.”
“The point of the Sabbaths is that they are the weekly anticipation of the Age to Come, the Coming Age. That when the Shabbat comes, we are living, in advance, in the Age to Come.” Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” We are now in ‘perpetual Sabbath.’ That’s why in Luke 4 he says, “This scripture is fulfilled.” It’s the Jubilee. It’s the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Because he’s here.
And you don’t put up signs saying ‘This way to London’ in the middle of Whitehall, because you’re there already.”
Then by strong implication if not outright statement, Wright says it’s just as inappropriate to declare that Christians should observe the sabbath,” because we’re there already. You can find the complete podcast(on the Christian and the Old Testament) here, or through your podcast app.
Note to my Sabbath-loving friends and other readers
These final comments are especially for the ones who feel Sabbath is more than a principle and is actually a thing to be observed under the New Covenant.
First, it is my sincere wish that all of you would realize Sabbath observance per se is something that is done away with. There is no such thing as a weekly Christian Sabbath, and it’s high time we realized that. We can enjoy believers’ gatherings and napping and reading on Sundays, sure, and I myself take a steps to make Sundays feel different from other days. Rest and re-creation are important, and I need to give attention to them. The when and how are choices, though—not laws. Understandably and admirably, “Mandy” reacted to a false law. Equally understandably and admirably, “Marlena” went beyond said law and made “sabbath” a principle for good. But it isn’t a law at all anymore, and that is key.
With that said, more important than the above is the positive, as spotlighted by N.T. “Tom” Wright. We Christians are living in the fulfillment of sabbath rest constantly. Jewish shabbat anticipated rest, and Jesus brought awareness of that rest in a renewed understanding, and living, of God’s kingdom.
So be it
B. Casey, 2/21/20 – 3/1/20
¹ I’ve actually used the names of daughters of other women with the same names as the actual people. This little stratagem will help no one identify the people, but it might help me remember them one day when I look back on this!