Ethics of Christian Love: “And What of Sunday?” (part 5 of 13)

Mark 2:23 – 3:6


We have been reflecting on the Ten Commandments together under the title “The Ethics of Christian Love.”  This is a process of asking ourselves some hard questions about our ethics, about our understanding of the values that guide our living.

Whatever happened to Sunday?  It seems like the issues used to be so clear, so simple.  As a child growing up in Western Michigan “keeping the Sabbath Day holy” was a command from God that was obvious in its implications for life.  For us it was a weekly ritual that started on Saturday — the house was cleaned, the car received its weekly bath, the dog got a bath, we all got a bath.  Then usually a brief Saturday evening to prepare for our New Testament Sabbath — a evening in which Sunday School or Catechism lessons were reviewed and bed time came early.

First 9:30 worship, then Sunday School, coffee time, a chicken dinner, a nap, an hour or so at grandma’s house (with adults talking about church), back to church after a hurried supper, friends over for coffee — THIS WAS SUNDAY.  It was all so clear to me that these were the things that God meant when he said: Keep the Sabbath Day holy.  Just as it was clear that Sabbath breaking involved riding bikes, swimming, going to restaurants, working, mowing the grass, etc.  I recall being impressed by a rather lengthy discussion on whether pulling weeds in the yard (defined as work) was a sinful act when done on Sunday afternoon.  The lines were carefully drawn.  It was OK to be at the lake on a vacation Sunday as long as we attended church and did not swim.  I confess bribing some friends to throw me in on a couple of particularly hot Sunday afternoons.

It was all so clear, but come to think about it, even then grandpa worried over what was happening to us.  Having left the small farming community and moving to the suburbs of the city seemed to him the beginning of liberalism.  He saw the thing breaking down when my mother peeled potatoes on Sunday morning instead of Saturday night like grandma did.  He expressed his concern over the influence of pagan neighbors who mowed their grass and watched TV on Sunday.  I guess I didn’t notice the questions being asked then already.  I do, however, remember feeling very righteous sitting in church on Sunday evenings listening to sermons to those Sabbath breakers who were not there.

Whatever happened to our New Testament Sabbath?  Perhaps Aunt Jenny was right when she said that too much education would mess up the children.  I suppose we all get to the point eventually that we have moments in which we look back wistfully at the simplicity of well-defined rules, to have one’s living spelled out in clear, unquestionable terms, knowing what God meant.  At a point past adolescent rebellion, we find ourselves looking back with a little more understanding of the process.  Somewhere my ancestors made some decisions about how they wanted their behavior to demonstrate their dedication and loyalty to God.  That most admirable decision, unfortunately quickly became a series of laws we did not really understand.  But before we too glibly dismiss that set of behaviors we need to ask two questions: First, do we understand the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy?  And second, are we sure that our children will not associate the Sundays of their family lives with something as irrelevant as chicken for dinner?

As we have looked at the moral law of God, we have seen that these ten statements are not the arbitrary whims of God that came out of the blue.  We begin to see that these laws get at the very nature of who we are and what our needs are as human persons.  They are very practical, and they were given for our good.

If there is one crucial or central thing in our study it is for us to see that it is our rebelliousness and immaturity that makes us view the law as an oppressive task-master.  It is the stance of unbelief that sees the law coming from an angry God who will get us if we don’t knuckle under.

For the children of God, these words were given from our Father to teach us real freedom and love.  These words come to us from a Father concerned about our growth, about our spiritual, emotional and physical health.



                In reading these verses from Mark it becomes clear that God is concerned about our needs.  “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” is Jesus clear statement.  It only makes sense that ignoring these commandments is not only about disobeying God, it is being self-destructive.  Because of his love for us self-destruction is always immoral.

The Creator understands our needs.  He understood that working seven days a week will eventually kill us.  God, in his wisdom, built a work-rest cycle into all of creation, emphasized by his own example.  Genesis tells us that on the 7th day of creation, God rested.  God first of all gave this commandment for the sake of our physical health.  I imagine this made a lot of sense to those people who gathered around Mt. Sinai.  They had seen the destructiveness of uninterrupted slave labor.

God also gave this commandment because of our emotional needs.  His motive is demonstrated all around us in men and women who are consumed with the need to succeed so that their children do not know who they are.  If we expect to be emotionally healthy we need to back-off from the intensity of routine work.  We need to be revitalized.  We need time to weekly re-establish those precious relationships with spouse, children, friends.  We need time to look inside, to re-evaluate our goals, to look at our life-style, to check our feelings about what is taking place around us.  Look at the growing resentment and misunderstood motives in families that fail to play together, fail to share dreams and frustrations, fail to share precious time in work and worship.  To fail to take this seriously is to ask for serious physical and/or emotional problems.  The price of disobedience is our health and the health of our families.

Very clearly, the commandment is also about our spiritual needs, about our need to be re-sensitized to the involvement of God in our lives.  Without prayer, Bible study, worship, and reflection on our relationship with God, our distance from God increases.  We deteriorate spiritually.  Instead of faith being the source of our strength for life, we either become more rigid or more distant.  This relationship is like all of our other relationships.  If we do not take the time to work on the relationship, it dies.  If I do not talk with or listen to my wife for the next week, it is predictable that we will be distant from each other.  If we keep it up, we will eventually begin to doubt our love and commitment.  Just as we need to share our goals, our feelings, our joys and struggles in our marriages, so we need to do that in our relationship with God.  The Psalmist says, “He knows our frame.“  He knows us so well, and knowing us he set aside a day every week for the protection of our spiritual health and the prevention of spiritual sickness.

In all of this we see God’s concern for our needs.  He calls us to keep the Sabbath holy.  Holy means “set apart” for God.  It is a day set apart from all others to respond to the fact that God is calling us to be whole, healthy, alive, people who carry his name.  Looking at all of this we begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”



But still, we are left with the question of working this out.  Our ethics, the values which guide our behavior, are based on God’s Word for us.  We have seen that God demands behavior that ensures our health and the health of our relationships.   God wants us to trust him enough to stop everyday activity and rest in him.  Our world demands us to be driven people who sacrifice health and family on the alters of ego and success.  HOW DO WE EXPERIENCE AND SHOW OUR CHILDREN the meaning of the love of our God in the New Testament Sabbath?  How do we celebrate every week the joy and freedom we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  God’s demand is that we take time for him, for ourselves, for our families, for community in Christ.

The significance of the “Sabbath” of my childhood that I began with, is finally the fact that my grandparents did try to show their commitment and obedience to God.  However, all of that turned too quickly into rules instead of understanding God’s love for us.  The Jewish religion of Jesus’ day had 200 rules governing their Sabbath.  It hardly seems restful and healing keeping track of all of that.  Jesus kept getting into trouble because he understood the issue, understood God’s intention.  They judged him to be immoral because he said that picking corn to eat, pulling weeds, or 1000 other “do’s and don’ts” is not the issue.  It all becomes ludicrous.  They could pull an ox out of the mud, but he was not supposed to heal on the Sabbath, as in Luke 13 where he healed a woman who had been sick for 18 years.  In frustration, he finally asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”

It is much easier to have a bunch of rules that control our behavior than it is to have an ethic born in the love and will of God.  Our Lord is Lord of our N.T. Sabbath, not to communicate 200 rules to grudgingly follow, bur for giving and renewing life.  Our Sunday, our Sabbath is a celebration of the resurrection – of life and renewal.

Such healing and renewed life in the context of relationship with the Lord means many different things to each of us.  It certainly means worship, different activity than our daily labor, healing spiritually – emotionally – relationally – physically.

What of Sunday for us?  What of our Sabbath?  God is loving us, telling us to take care of ourselves – ordering it, in fact.  The question of rest and renewal is relevant to all of us whether single, in a young family, or retired.  What are we teaching our children about Sabbath?  Are we telling them they are victims of the demanding slavery of success, or do we with God, show them how to take care of ourselves and be healed.  What will our children remember?  Practice?

There is one more, deeper concept running through all of this in what the Bible means by Sabbath rest.  We will discuss that this evening in our approach to celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

God is saying, “You don’t have to work all the time.  Trust me.  You are just destroying yourselves and your families if you do.  That is immoral.  I want you to trust me so you can have a Sabbath every week and be healed.”  What of Sunday for us?  What does your ethic tell you?  Can we hear God loving us here?