Working on Sunday

Daniel A. Siedell relates the Sabbath, the Gospel, and Vocation:

Amazon has just announced that the United States Postal Service will now be making deliveries for the retail giant on Sundays. This has spawned much hand-wringing in the media about the “excesses of consumer demand” and our “desire for instant gratification.”

And so it seems that Sunday is, if not sacred, at least a society-wide symbol of the so-called “work-life” balance that needs to be protected. Sunday is a day to cultivate “me time”—time with family, friends, and hobbies. Because we play just as hard as we work, we go after Sundays like we attack the other six days. The result: this “day of rest” can easily become just as hectic for us as a workday! We scramble to get in our relaxation and hobbies, and now, wait by the door to receive that book, those lawn darts, or that board game from Amazon; all of this in an effort to help us relax.

Our attempts to relax are stressing us out.

We feel this pressure in the church as well (focusing primarily on the issue of Sabbath observance): to attend church and fast from our busyness, consumerism; to rest, enjoy long leisurely afternoons reading, or spend time in family conversation over long meals and coffee.  Our Sunday obligation is to the third commandment: observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Both you and I know that this never happens. Or never happens without the stress, pressure, and guilt that accompanies it. Many a family, mine included, which determines to “observe the Sabbath,” only find in such a declaration a head-on collision with life: a spouse and children, errands and a to-do list that couldn’t get completed the day before because of the three soccer games, two different trips to Home Depot, and a partridge in a pear tree. And all that’s not to mention our own angry and resentful hearts in the process.

But this ought not to be. Sabbath, as Jesus said, was made for man—it is for you and for me (Mark 2: 27).

What does this really mean in our day-to-day lives, when we fight with our children to get to church, and then leave church and are faced with only a few short hours before the work and school week begins again? I’d like to approach the issue of Sabbath observance, which, in different ways, plagues all of us, by asking a simple question: Who works on Sunday?

Jesus always seemed to be violating the Sabbath. He healed the sick and lame on the Sabbath (Mark 3: 1-6; Luke 13: 10-17; John 5: 1-18); he foraged in the fields for food with his disciples on the Sabbath (Mark 2: 23; Matt. 12: 1; Luke 6: 1). He even reminded the religious leaders that David violated the Sabbath. In fact, he declared to them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Even on the day that Jesus rested in the grave—that wonderfully mysterious Holy Saturday that links the grief of Good Friday with the joy of Easter Sunday—Jesus was busy freeing the captives (1 Peter 3: 19-20).  

It seems that Christ and his Father are always at work: It is God who provides a double portion of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1); it is God who grows the crops when we sleep (1 Cor 3: 6). It is God who works out salvation, who kills and makes alive (1 Sam 2:6). Jesus says that the Father is busy at work even now.

Sunday is a demonstration that our labors are in vain without God—our salvation is God’s work. And our response is just that—a response of faith. It seems simple, too simple, but Luther reminds us that faith is the most difficult of things, and so we must be reminded again and again that it is God who works and it is God who has declared, “It is finished.”

This response of and in faith defines who we are as human beings. Sunday is not just a day to recharge our batteries so we can work with more productivity and efficiency during the week, or to take a break from the office to work on our family relationships by “spending quality time.” Sunday is a day that reminds us that we are merely creatures, creatures defined by being the recipients of God’s gift of life. As Paul reminds us, “What do we have that we have not first received?” (1 Cor. 4: 7)

But what does all this mean practically? I think we’ll find that it means precisely the opposite of what we usually think it means.

We hear these things about Sunday and the Sabbath and we want then to go out and to do something—change our Sunday habits and practices, vow to our spouse to leave the office paperwork until Monday morning (or Sunday night when everyone goes to bed—dusk means a new day, right?) “What must we be doing to be doing the will of God?” the disciples ask Jesus. “What should we do?” His response? “Believe in the one he has sent.”

But that reaction — to go out and change our ways — is only to make Sunday a day of actions and obligations, a day of work. The practical implication of Sunday is that we are free. Yes, we are free to rest, to do nothing: to enjoy those long hours of conversation, take a nap, or read that novel over several cups of coffee. But we are also free to work: to get to the store, to buy those clothes, to get that homework done or finish writing that report.

No work pleases God that is not done out of faith (Rom. 14: 23). But in faith, we can work and rest, since family time as well as office work are both responses to God’s gift of salvation, which he alone works out.

So, who works on Sunday? God does.

This good news frees us to work (or not work) on Sunday, to love our neighbor by doing additional work at the office, love our families through the shopping we do, or love our spouse through a quiet afternoon over coffee; by faith, these are all appropriate responses to the one who works.

The Sabbath was indeed made for you and for me. It is a source of freedom, not obligation. The tension and strife that often accompanies Sabbath observance both inside and outside the church are the vestiges of old Adam. “It is a bitter day,” Luther declares, “for the old Adam to cease from work.” And this is because, as Luther points out, the old Adam wants to be God. But in Christ, resting is good news because it says that God is active and creative. In Christ, then, to rest is a word of freedom.

And so it is God’s work that allows you and me to rest, not only on Sunday but also throughout the week, even as we work.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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