For the Life of the World 12

This post continues my reaction to the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

Before I really dive into this chapter on a Christian perspective of time, I want to comment on something that seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding within modern American Christianity. Deacon Hyatt speaks on it briefly in his podcast. I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright speak about it. And I’ve read and heard it from multiple sources. It’s never been a surprise to me, though, since I entered Christianity with a long-standing interest in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I knew the realities of that time, within which the Church initially lived and grew as soon it spread to the Gentiles.

The issue is the issue of Sabbath. I realized it was issue when a BSF class I once attended made the blanket statement that all ten commandments still apply and are still observed by Christians today, that they were somehow a universal “Law”. I immediately pointed out that Christians don’t keep Sabbath, so that’s at least one commandment of that ten which no longer holds for us. You would have thought I committed sacrilege from the reaction. Some just immediately responded that of course we do. Others, who knew a little bit more about the Holy Scriptures and about Sabbath acknowledged that we no longer kept it on the seventh day of the week (Saturday for us), but then went on to assert that we observe Sunday as Sabbath and so we simply shifted the commandment to a different day. (Never mind, I guess, that there’s nothing in Scripture to support such a shift.) One other person in my group understood my point and we spent a little bit more time explaining it, but realized it was a major issue for many in the class and dropped it. (And yes, the “official” BSF position on that question is one of many places they are simply historically and scripturally mistaken.)

Yes, Christians have always worshiped on the morning of the first day of the week. But that worship, in its origin, had nothing to do with Sabbath. Christians met and worshiped on that morning in order to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. He rose on the first day, and we will discuss that some in this chapter. He rose in the morning. And he is also associated in scripture with the rising sun. (Which is also why churches traditionally are built facing east and the west is associated with the devil and evil.) That is all true.

However, the Jews who became Christians in the earliest centuries continued to observe their “lazy day” (which is what the Romans called the Sabbath) on the seventh day of the week. And Gentiles who converted? They didn’t get a “lazy day” like the Jews did, either before or after their conversion. Arguably the relatively few wealthy converts might have been able to get away with adding such an observance to their week if there had been a reason to do so, though that would have drawn attention to their conversion to an illegal religion. For the vast majority of Gentile converts — slaves and poor — there was no such choice at all. So throughout the first centuries, the Church met for worship very early on the morning of the first day of the week and then everyone went off to their full day of work, Jew and Gentile alike. (Actually, the worship of the first day actually began in the evening of the day before. Christianity inherited that sense of time from Judaism and you still see that pattern in liturgical churches. It was probably that feast in the evening that Paul was particularly chiding the Corinthians over rather than their first day morning gathering. But that’s just a guess on my part. I haven’t particularly studied it.)

That pattern continued at least until Constantine made Christianity legal. I would have to do some refresher research, but either Constantine instituted the idea of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath or it came sometime after him. If it came later, it probably coincided with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire.

Now, I’m not saying the idea of Sabbath is not a good one. I believe it is a very good practice and discipline. I’m just saying that it is not a primary Christian belief or practice. Our focus is not on the rest of the seventh day, but the work of the new creation of the eighth day.  In the Gospel of John, which from his opening words is clearly (and daringly) a retelling of the creation narrative, the seventh “day” is the day Jesus rested in the tomb in death. Make of that what you will.

Well, I had intended to begin working through the book, but I’ve meandered down another rabbit trail. I’ll work my way into the book on my next post. I promise.

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