sabbath keeping: Kierkegaard’s contribution

In Presbyterian circles, when the idea of Sabbath observance comes up, you inevitably come up against the Presbyterian myth of the Sabbath. It goes like this: When I was a child we went to church on Sunday morning, and then again on Sunday evenings, and the rest of the day you had to rest. You could read a book on Sunday afternoon, but that was about it. No playing sports. No running around in the house. There was certainly no cutting the grass, and no working in the garden. We wouldn’t have dreamed of going shopping on Sunday – and even have if we wanted to pick up a few things for dinner, the store would be closed. Things sure have changed, haven’t they?

When we think about our Sabbath myth, we have to ask what it means for us. And it seems to me that there are at least two ways to look at it. On the one hand, this Sabbath myth points to a religious practice that we are glad to be done with. In this sense our Sabbath myth points to an time when we were a bunch of legalists, a people that didn’t know what it meant to attend to Spirit rather than the letter of the law. From this point of view, the fact that all those old rules have fallen to the wayside will be seen as good news. Thank goodness, we might say, those days of rigid legalism, of stoic Presbyterianism, have come to an end.

But in our contemporary context it seems that our Sabbath mythology might also function in quite a different way as well. Perhaps our Presbyterian Sabbath narrative serves also as a kind of nostalgic wishing after something lost. Today we experience so much fatigue – how could we not experience fatigue in a world drive by materialism, consumerism, and individualism. And since we have so few concrete practices to give substance to our spiritual lives, perhaps we wish for a time when things were simpler. Maybe we long for a time when keeping the Sabbath was something undertaken with social and cultural support. In this sense, when we think about those quiet Sunday afternoons – when we think about the fact that we couldn’t go shopping or play sports – maybe there is a kind of longing for simpler days. Our Sabbath myth represents our longing for days when Sabbath rules gave structure to our spiritual life and gave a meaningful simplicity to life.

Perhaps our Sabbath myth has both of these aspects to it at the same time. It reminds us of an age of cold legalism and forced conformity that we are glad to be done with – but also reminds us of an age of structured rest that seems forever lost to us.

Out of all of this, perhaps we take this fundamental realization – that in many respects we lack resources for keeping the Sabbath today. We don’t have a Sabbath story for today. We know little or nothing about what it might mean to keep Sabbath at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Obviously we can’t solve the problem of Sabbath observance in one sermon. But this morning we are going to explore the question of Sabbath with some help from the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Perhaps he can shed some light on our path toward Sabbath-keeping. In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard offers a series of reflections on the Apostle Paul’s idea that love is the fulfilling of the law. And in important ways Kierkegaard’s discussion of this idea – that love is the fulfilling of the law – can help us think carefully and well about Sabbath observance.

The first thing to notice his Kierkegaard’s insistence that law and love are not opposed to each other. Of course that’s what the Apostle is saying too. Kierkegaard writes these words: “Only foolishness sets the Law and love at loggerheads…or even speaks ill of the one to the other.” Whatever the relationship between law and love, we can’t see law and love as standing in opposition to each other – which in fact is a very common way of thinking in our culture today. We constantly hear that we should just forget about the law, forget about rules, and love people. But how can we set law and love in opposition to each other if they both have their source in God. To set law and love against each other is to set God against himself.

Of course in exploring the relationship between law and love, it’s not enough to say that both find their origin in God, and that they aren’t opposed to each other. And it’s here that Kierkegaard goes on to develop a metaphor that helps us through this idea.

Here’s what he says:

When an artist sketches a plan, the design of a work, however accurate the sketch is, there is always something indefinite in the sketch. Not until the work is finished, not until then can one say: Now there is not the slightest indefiniteness, not of a single line, not of a single point…Thus,” Kierkegaard continues, “the Law is a sketch and love the fulfilling and the entirely definite; in love the Law is entirely definite. There is only one power that can carry out the work for which the Law is the sketch – namely love.

two-dancers-resting-edgar-degasScreen Shot 2014-01-29 at 1.41.55 PMUltimately, then, if the law of God, the commands of God, provide a sketch of how we are to live and who we are to be, then Christ himself is the fulfilling of law – Christ is the painting. The law, according to Kierkegaard, makes demands…the law exacts…the law requires, in such a way that the law by itself starves the life out of us since we can’t meet its requirements. But if the law demands, if it exacts, if it requires, then love gives. Christ gives. And the law is fulfilled in his love. So it’s not that God’s law disappears in the love of Christ – rather, it is that the law is fully expressed in his love. In his love, the law becomes what it was meant to be. Love fills out the sketch – love adds texture – love adds colour, so that a rich and beautiful painting might emerge. As we live in obedience to the law – as we live in the love of Christ – as we live in the Spirit’s joy, then our lives correspond to the fullness expressed in the painting itself.

We come back to the Sabbath, and we read in Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son nor daughter, nor your manservant nor maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in Six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

In the first instance, Sabbath observance is in some sense a command of God – it is the law of God. God’s intention for us is often expressed in the language of the ‘you shall’ or ‘you shall not’. Jesus himself declared, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Of course our age resists any spirituality or ethical framework expressed in the language of command. One Canadian Presbyterian, writing about the Sabbath command of Exodus chapter 20 has suggested, for example, that this command should be seen as more of an invitation to rest – an invitation to remember the Sabbath. Of course there is an element of truth in this. But we should notice that the word ‘remember’ is written in the imperative voice: Remember the Sabbath. And the law continues by saying: “On the Sabbath you shall not do any work…” Command is at play here.

To return to the Presbyterian Sabbath myth with which we began, we might say that resistance to law is part of the equation. Our Sabbath practices bound up with law – in such a way that they had become legalism. So now we tend to associate any Sabbath command with legalism and joylessness. But part of our recovery of the rest that God intends for us will involve our getting over our resistance to law. Law and gospel, law and love, can’t be held apart from one another – can’t be set against each other. Both law and love find their source in God.

In fact our particular strand of Christian faith – the Reformed tradition – has always seen the law as a guide for life with Christ. The law of God has been seen as a positive resource in the life of faith – it provides us with direction and structure. And this was also part of our reflections as we started out this morning. Thinking back to our Presbyterian Sabbath myth there is a kind of longing in us for a structure that will provide shape to our spiritual lives. We are finite beings, and that means we need structures and rules in order to live and flourish. Our Sabbath myth points to a time when we had some of these structures and rules. Without them we are left to our own spiritual path – almost adrift in the world – cobbling some things together in our own particular way, if we can. But we are finite, bodily creatures, which is to say that without a structured community life, and without the positive direction of the law of Sabbath, it is difficult to get to heart of our humanity – difficult to get to the heart of our identity as God’s children in Christ. When we lack the guidelines and structure provided by the law, Sabbath observance becomes something we can only long for.

But… But … remember the painting. The law…structures…rules, can only ever provide a sketch of what it means to be human. Even the law as understood and embraced in the most positive sense, can only ever be a sketch of the way things are and the way things should be in our lives. If we appeal only to law, if we rest only in structures and rules, our lives remain a shadow of what God desires for us as his children. In many ways, of course, that is what the Sabbath became for Presbyterians – we contented ourselves with law, and so could never receive the fresh, new Sabbath that God was giving in Jesus Christ. As Kierkegaard said, again, the law starves out, as it were; with its help one never reaches fulfilling, since its purpose is to take away, to require, to exact to the utmost. No wonder people wanted to be done with law.

According to the author of the book of Hebrews, the rest that God gives, the rest that God intends for us in the Sabbath, is given in Jesus himself. Immediately before his discussion of rest, the author of Hebrews says that while Moses is worthy of honour, Jesus is worthy of more honour than Moses. This is because Moses (who represents the law) testified to things that would be spoken later. Which is to say that the law testified to the final word that was to be spoken in Jesus Christ, who is love and who is the fulfilling of the law. Jesus Christ himself is love, and as we dwell in him and in his love, then the law is fulfilled also in us. As we are united with Christ, we also experience the rest, the sabbath, that God commanded and gave as a gift on the seventh day.

It is clear, then, that our Sabbath keeping and our Sabbath rest simply cannot be defined in terms of law or rule-keeping. Rather, our Sabbath keeping and our Sabbath rest will be defined by Jesus, who is Lord of the Sabbath. And we remember that the Lord of the Sabbath did not hesitate to confront or resist any proscription or rule or institution that that did not reflect the love and joy of his kingdom. The truth is, we will never enter into the rest that God intends for us by following rules, or laws, or institutions. While we are finite creatures, and while our Sabbath observance will require certain concrete structures and rules and institutions, these offer only a limited anticipation of the rest that God intends for us in Christ Jesus. This means that any structures or rules we construct around Sabbath observance must have an open-ended character. They are not the end of the story. Sabbath is so much more than law could ever wrap its mind around. Sabbath is an invitation to enter God’s rest. Sabbath is an invitation to rest from our labour. Sabbath is an invitation to remember and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Sabbath is an invitation to resist the dominant consumeristic spirit of the age. Sabbath is an invitation to delight in the good creation of God. Law could never wrap its mind around all of this.

As we conclude this morning, perhaps the final command or invitation should come from Kierkegaard. His command or invitation would simply be that we keep both the sketch and painting before our eyes – meaning that we should never allow one or the other to dominate – never setting one against the other. The law of Sabbath gives shape and structure, but we reach well beyond its shape and structure to the rest, the peace, and the kingdom of peace that are coming to us in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.


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