Preached by The Revd Canon Peter Moger, Sub Dean, On Sunday 2nd of June.

It was a standing joke in York that if you wanted to catch a member of the Minster congregation after the Sunday Eucharist and they weren’t at coffee, then you’d be sure to find them in the food hall of Marks and Spencer! Unlike the world in which many of us grew up, Sunday is now, in many ways, just like any other day of the week.

So it was an enormous shock to the system when Heather and I moved to the Isle of Lewis in 2019. Because there, Sunday is utterly unlike any other day of the week. The shops are shut, petrol stations (apart from 1) are shut, pubs are shut, and the sports centre and playing fields are closed. Lewis is one of the last surviving bastions of ‘Sabbath observance’ in the UK. It was a culture which visitors found it difficult to engage with.

The notion of Sabbath rest is embedded in the first of the two creation stories in Genesis:

On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. (Genesis 2.2)

And then it becomes enshrined in law through the Ten Commandments, as we heard in today’s first reading:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work. [Deuteronomy 5.12-14a]

The problem with anything being demanded by law is that there is always a danger that it will be interpreted legalistically. In other words, a law designed to benefit human beings, can become an end in itself, so that observance of the law eventually becomes more important than the principle which the law set out to enshrine. Somehow, along the way, the spirit of the law is lost, and we are left with only the letter.

The Bible is clear that Sabbath rest is a gift. Isaiah writes:

If you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD, (58.13-14)

The key word is ‘delight’. This is about joy and well-being. The sabbath is seen as a gift from God (it is, after all the ‘holy day of the Lord’): a day for stepping aside from our own affairs and focussing on the worship of God.

By the time of Jesus so many regulations had been added to the law about sabbath observance that it had become burdensome and complicated. Jesus was clear that his task was not to abolish the law but to fulfil it—to embody it, and give it meaning—but sometimes that meant stripping back the additions of centuries to discover the principles underneath. Why did the law say this, or that? What was it really getting at?

Jesus found himself in serious conflict with the local gatekeepers of traditional religion because he saw observance of the Sabbath not as an absolute, but as a means to an end. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples are criticised for plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath, and Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand whom he heals. But the Pharisees can’t cope that Jesus has acted outside the box. He has healed, but in doing so he has broken the law, and are not those who break God’s law accursed? Jesus gets to the point:

‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. [Mark 3.4]

It seems that Jesus, in focussing on how the law was to be fulfilled, had a more elastic approach to the Sabbath that the religious leaders of his day. The Sabbath was primarily a gift – a gift designed as a means to wellbeing, to delight and joy. The man whom Jesus had healed had experienced wholeness and wellbeing, delight and joy in bucketloads. And so by healing the man, Jesus is able to point back to the original purpose of the Sabbath.

Now of course, Christians don’t keep the Jewish Sabbath—the seventh day of the week, Saturday—but we keep the first day of the week, Sunday. This and every Sunday Eucharist is a gathering of the Lord’s people around the Lord’s table on the Lord’s Day - the day of his resurrection. As Mark’s Gospel reminds us:

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, [Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome] went to the tomb. They .... saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. [Mark 16.2,3b]

Every Sunday, therefore, is a mini-Easter Day. When we gather for worship on a Sunday, we’re not celebrating God’s Sabbath rest on the 7th day of creation, so much as God’s gift of new life through Jesus’ resurrection. In the words of the Eucharistic Preface which we shall hear almost every Sunday between now and the end of October:

From sunrise to sunset this day is holy,
for Christ has risen from the tomb
and scattered the darkness of death with light that will not fade.
This day the risen Lord walks with your gathered people,
unfolds for us your word,
and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
And though the night will overtake this day
you summon us to live in endless light,
the never-ceasing sabbath of the Lord.

The day of resurrection is the first day of the new creation –the down-payment on what is still to come: God’s new heaven and new earth. For Christians, there aren’t really seven days of creation but eight, with the eighth being the first of the new creation. That’s why so many baptismal fonts have eight sides – because baptism is the sacrament of our being born anew into the risen life of Christ. It’s why, over time, so many buildings and artefacts have been designed with 8 sides: from baptisteries in early Christian Rome, to the octagonal lantern tower at Ely Cathedral, to Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, to John Wesley’s 8-sided dining table! And so Sunday—the day of the new creation—is less about rest, but about life.

In healing the man with the withered hand, Jesus gave him a new start in life. Set free from the affliction which had limited him, he had got his life back, and would now be able to live fully within his community. And, as with all gifts of new life, this was a foretaste of God’s gift of eternal life. Sometimes Jesus’ healings extended to people who had already died. The son of the widow of Nain, for instance, or Lazarus, were brought back to life – not given a resurrection life, but a new earthly life, nonetheless. (The time would come when they would die.) All Jesus’ healing points in a lifeward direction. Celebrating Sunday is not about rest, but life.

But the principle of sabbath rest is still important. As, over the centuries, the Christian Church developed its celebration of the times and seasons of the year, as well as remembering the resurrection on Sunday, there grew an understanding of the significance of other days, particularly Friday and Saturday. Friday is kept as a day on which to remember Jesus’ death on the cross. Each Friday is, if you like, a paler reflection of Good Friday, when we contemplate the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. (We express that here by having no organ music at Friday Evensong.) And if every Friday is a little Good Friday, then every Saturday is a little Holy Saturday. It’s no coincidence that, as Genesis tells us that God rested the seventh day, so the Gospels have Jesus resting in the tomb on that same day: the day between the cross and the resurrection. That was Jesus’ sabbath rest.

Jesus had to rest before he rose, and that’s important for us too, as we put an understanding of sabbath rest alongside our celebration of resurrection life. We need God’s gift of sabbath rest if we are to experience the well-being, the joy and delight of resurrection. 

I discovered on the Isle of Lewis that there is much about Sabbatarian culture which is extremely positive. A day without work, without unnecessary activity, does us all good. Whether or not islanders happen to be people of faith, there is still a sense that Sunday is recreational: a time for family and friends, for walks, for re-charging the batteries. That can only be good. The tendency across all professions to work every hour that God sends has done us no favours. And electronic communication, rather than easing the burden, has only made us capable of doing more work more quickly. We have yet to see the long-term effects of this on the generation currently in its middle years. The observance of sabbath rest—for whatever reason—cuts across this tide of frenetic activity, makes us stop and take stock.

What matters is that we recognise the spirit in which sabbath rest is given us: that it is a gift – and that it is the springboard to celebrating resurrection, rather than seeing ‘the sabbath’ as a day of ‘don’ts’. That way, as Jesus was at pains to point out, lies the trap of rule-keeping: a way of negativity, and which flies totally in the face of a positive Gospel that is life-enhancing.

O Lord Jesus Christ, 
who came that we know life in all its fulness, 
give us grace so to use well the time that has been given to us,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast your gift of everlasting life;
to your honour and glory. Amen.