The rule of Sabbath and its practice has been a long and continuing study for many years for me. Recently, it has been a near obsession as I have helped with presenting a study to my local church and our network of small groups. The past few days found me reading a gospel narrative from Mark 2:23—3:6; my thoughts were drawn to the following words:
“Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.” (Mark 3:1-2 NLT)
The first thought that came to my mind was that the religious community can sometimes be suspect of God’s working, especially when God’s work usurps the power of said religious community.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)
It is so easy to get hung up and distracted by our ingrained presuppositions, insecurities, and false expectations. So much of Israel’s identity (in the time of Jesus) was connected to Torah. Right or wrong, they were people of the Law. They were people of the rule, and naturally, with rules came expectation to obey or follow the rules. What was missed, however, was God’s Spirit undergirding and embedded within those rules—and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.
In the Gospel text from Mark, the religious leaders were seemingly already assuming the worst. “Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand…” There seemed an assumption that the sanctity of their rule (Sabbath) was potentially going to be violated over the preservation and sanctity of human life—a life created in the image of God.
The question I think we hate asking is this; How often do we protect our rules and institutions over the sanctity of humans and their flourishing? What is the better rule? Is it better to protect the structure or protect the ones the structure was created for?
Jesus teaches us, I believe, that life and quality of living of humans is the highest order. God wants his living images to flourish and thrive.
I would also promote the belief that where structure constricts or confines growth and well-being, we break the structure. Perhaps, even more, I would suggest we consider wrestling power away from those who believe otherwise. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
I am not an anarchist. I believe in rules and order. I believe in structure. I simply do not believe that structure is intended to be a concrete tomb. Perhaps a better illustration is that of a small plant, that has the potential to grow into a large, fruit-bearing tree planted into a small pot. If the small plant is not removed from the tiny potting container, the plant will get root-bound, unable to grow to its potential and likely never growing edible fruit. This is a tragedy of cosmic proportion, and yet it has been happening for millennia…and continues to happen today.
How do my thoughts relate to the Sabbath rule?
I believe everything is connected to relationship. Relationship with God and relationship with one another. A relationship is defined by intimacy. Intimacy is the depth of relationship where the walls, guards, secrets, and suspicions all come crumbling down. Intimacy is the place where we are free to be who we are with one another without putting on fronts or living into the false expectations of others. This is the place of rest where we can enjoy the presence of God and the presence of one another. Intimacy and the oneness of divine unity with God (and others) is the primacy of all things in the created order of God. I think this intimacy is best defined in the character of love illustrated in the teaching from 1 Corinthians 13:1-8. If our relationships are not producing the evidence of this love, we are missing the mark, and tragically, our efforts toward any other goal are meaningless.
All the fruit of God’s goodness flows out of this intimacy—and it begins with Sabbath as it has been narrated from its earliest introduction in the Genesis narrative of the Old Testament Scriptures. The practice originated as a seedbed for relationships. The rest of God is to be with God and the highest form of this “being with God” is expressed through the unity of oneness one with another.
“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” –Jesus (John 17:21-23)
Sabbath is important, but not as a rule. The spirit of the Sabbath is what is important. The fruit of the Sabbath is even more important. As Jesus illustrated, Sabbath, as a rule, can be life-taking instead of being life-giving as it was intended. How we do Sabbath or what we do with the Sabbath is not material to our practice of it. What is material about Sabbath is that it produces oneness with God. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”