Keeping Sunday Special: does it still matter?

(Photo: Robbie Ribeiro)

We're not very good at rest, are we?

A new book by American minister Kevin DeYoung – entitled "Crazy Busy" – sums it up well: "Most mornings," he writes, "we drag ourselves out of bed, start the day's routine, and hope against hope that we can simply hold our ground."

And yet Christians are called to model something different. And that's why – whatever the result of the case, and whatever our precise views on Sabbath-observance – we should salute the courage of a Christian care worker's attempt in the Court of Appeal to argue for the right not to work on Sundays.

Celestina Mba has taken action because, she says, the Children's Home for which she worked backtracked on an agreement that she would not have to do Sunday shifts – so that she could attend church. Her legal team have pointed to a recent case in the European Court of Human Rights which declared that "all employers should provide reasonable accommodation for the deeply held spiritual beliefs of all employees".

But quite apart from that, breaking a working agreement in the way alleged raises questions of natural justice in my mind – though I do not know the full details.

However, there are much wider issues here. In Britain, we sometimes forget how radically the rhythm of our working week has changed in recent years. In the 4th century, the Roman Empire recognised Sunday as a day of rest and Christian worship – and that pattern basically remained in place until the Thatcher administration introduced Sunday trading.

One of the results of this momentous change has been that Christians have got swept along in the increased consumerism and frenetic pace of the society in which we live, and have lost sight of the gift God gives all humanity in the Sabbath.

Now it would be true to say there are varied views about how Sunday relates to the Old Testament command to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," (Exodus 20v8). Is the Christian Sunday the same as the Jewish Sabbath – apart from the change of day prompted by Jesus' resurrection? Or is it something rather different?

Kevin DeYoung writes: "Some Christians believe little has changed relative to the fourth commandment, and Sunday is now a Christian Sabbath. Others argue that the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ and now there is almost complete freedom in our weekly routines. A small minority of Christians believe Saturday is still the proper day for Sabbath rest and worship."

Certainly the Apostle Paul is quite clear that we shouldn't be legalistic about it. In the light of the cross, he says, we are not to let others judge us "with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day," (Colossians 2v16-17).

Jesus described himself as "Lord of the Sabbath" and had no hesitation in crashing through many of the petty restrictions that had turned it, in his day, into a burden rather than a joy. Yet whatever else might be said, his statement in Mark 2 that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," doesn't sound to me like he was doing away with the idea altogether.

Kevin DeYoung says that "whatever your take on the specific dos and don'ts of Sunday," we should all agree on the basic principle – that "God gives us Sabbath as a gift". It's a gift we squander at our peril. In our frantic, driven, consumerist culture, let's remember our God-given right to rest. Let's applaud Celestina Mba for the courage of her public stand. And let's enjoy – with delight – Sabbath peace and worship regularly ourselves.