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The Practice of Sabbath Time: The Hope of Feasting

August 3, 2011

Inagrace Dietterich

In 2011, I am blogging on the theme “The Simple Life: God’s Quiet Revolution of Love, Forgiveness, and Unity”

The primary way in which the church engages its culture with the gospel is through worship. All other efforts—outreach, social activism, or even evangelism—are secondary. The image of “gathering within the church” and “scattering within the world” tends to imply that church and world are two separate and distinct spheres. Worship is an experience of “the most-real world, the world revealed as God’s, a world believed to be invaded by God’s grace and turning on the pivot of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.”


Too often we think of worship as an escape from the harsh realities of the world, as a respite from our labors, as a sacred time and space separated from the real world. This is a complete misunderstanding….The liturgy of the gathered community is the epitome, the model, of our life-style, or our way of being in the world….Far from being a separate ‘religious activity,’ our worship is the paradigm for a way of being in the world of politics and economics, the world of responsibility and of labor, the world of relationships.1

The primary way in which the church engages its culture with the gospel is through worship. All other efforts—outreach, social activism, or even evangelism—are secondary. The image of “gathering within the church” and “scattering within the world” tends to imply that church and world are two separate and distinct spheres. In reality, the church is inescapably within the world and the world is always shaping the church. In fact, the world may be more a part of the church that is usually recognized. Not only the habits and attitudes of members of the community of faith, but also the patterns, structures, and services of the church may be more shaped by the surrounding culture than by theological commitments.

What is desperately needed in the missional church is not new worship that attempts to be more relevant to the modern person, but a rediscovery of the rich meaning and power of worship. Authentic worship, rather than a retreat from reality is an exercise in vision, a practice in seeing. While God is at work in all of life, humanity is a blinded race. God has granted the Christian community a special sight, a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you” (Eph. 1:18). Thus worship offers a vantage point from which the church can see more deeply into the reality of the world. Through acts of gratitude and adoration, by blessing and thanking God, the community of worship begins to see the world as God sees it. Worship is thus an experience of “the most-real world, the world revealed as God’s, a world believed to be invaded by God’s grace and turning on the pivot of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.”2

THE HOPE OF FEASTING.  The practice of sabbath time is a practice of worship. Celebrating God’s creating, liberating, and transforming activity, the repentance, faith, joy, and hope of sabbath time expresses the desire for and the experience of communion with God. The whole of life is viewed not as an end within itself, but as God’s gracious gift. All rejoicing and suffering, all beauty and frustration, all hunger and satisfaction are referred to God and thus become meaningful and life-giving. Based in and shaped by the public worship of the gathered community, the sabbath time practice of worship extends into and involves the whole of life as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).

Alexander Schmemann observes that the “image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: ‘that you eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.’”

A PEOPLE OF HOPE.  Believing in a “God of hope” (Rom. 15:13), Christians are empowered to be a people of hope. And that for which they hope is the eschaton, the “end times” when God’s redemption of creation will be complete. Hope implies the trust in and expectation of something that is not yet fully present. And as expressed in the classic definition, hope is intimately bound up with faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). It is in worship, as it offers up its illusions of self-sufficiency and recognizes its total dependence upon God, that the community receives the courage to face the brokenness of the world with eyes and hearts filled with hope.

While not yet fully realized, Christians declare that the substance of Christian hope has been made known through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The eschaton—the destiny and end of history—has been accomplished and revealed in Jesus Christ. In his ministry, death, and resurrection, God’s ultimate hope for the world has already been inaugurated. In this person God’s redemptive love and mercy for a rebellious world took flesh and was incarnated within human history. But as evidenced by the pain, alienation, and violence of the present world, the fullness of God’s hope is not yet present. The daily newscasts testify all too clearly that God’s will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven.

It is the recognition of the incompleteness and future-oriented nature of the Christian life (and indeed all of creation) which indicates the relevance of hope. It is hope that recognizes the difference between what is and what could (or should) be. It is hope that creates the space for freedom and creativity. It is hope that gives the missional church the courage to confront the uncertainty and to embrace the possibilities of the future: “For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:24).

Now hope is not just a nice addition, something to call upon when things get tough. Hope is the very foundation of the way in which the church understands and experiences reality.  “The hope of Jesus Christ is never a dash of pepper or a spoonful of mustard. It is bread and wine, the essential and basic food itself, without which there is only the delirium of knowledge and the illusion of action. It is essential that hope be the all.”3   Living as a people of hope is crucial for those who in the in between of the already and not yet “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

SABBATH FESTIVITY.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). As a people of hope, the practice of sabbath time involves fun and laughter, singing and dancing.  In other words, contrary to the dreary regulations of the “blue laws,” part of what it means to observe the sabbath is to have a good time. According to some Jewish rabbis, sabbath is a good time for married couples to affirm their love by engaging in sexual intercourse. Appreciating God’s goodness and delighting in the wonders of God’s creation, sabbath is a time of celebration. Focusing upon the abundance of God’s gifts, sabbath festivity is a foretaste of the wholeness—the peace and joy—of God’s redemption of creation.

Celebrating the sabbath involves the heightened awareness and enjoyment of all of the human senses. “As part of our Sabbath keeping we open our eyes in new ways to gaze in wonder at the beauty of God’s creation—in nature, in words of art, in people. We open our ears afresh to hear the thrilling news of God’s love and grace as it comes to us in Word and worship, in concerts and the songs of birds, in rollicking laughter and chuckles of delight, in the breathing of those we love as we sit close beside them. We taste God’s goodness in the bread and wine of communion, in the unusual flavors of special Sabbath foods, in the crisp air on our walk. We smell the sweet perfume of Sabbath peace in the fragrances of worship incense, of flowers, of burning logs or glowing candles, of meals baking in the oven. We touch the tenderness of God in the hugs and kisses of our loved ones, in the familiar binding of the Bible that we read, in the physical sensation of well-being as we walk and talk with friends or plunge into the stimulating waters of a lake, in the sweet breeze as we picnic on the shores, in the intimacy of such shared special moments and activities.”4

SABBATH FEASTING.  Human beings do not simply eat to live. In a world of McDonalds, Pizza Huts, and Dunkin Donuts, the consumption of food can easily become compulsive. The growing number of overweight adults and children reflect the popular belief that it is a positive virtue to fulfill every human appetite. So-called “comfort foods” are offered to satisfy a wide variety of hungers that have little to do with nutrition.

The common understanding of feasting may have more to do with gluttony than with celebrating the wonder of God’s gracious gifts. Sabbath feasting—celebration and festivity—is meaningful because of its contrast to the simplicity of daily life. For a people who have special foods to eat every day, the only way to make special days special is by eating more. It may be that contemporary people do not know how to feast because they do not know how to fast. In his account of spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster observes: “More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”5   The preoccupation with eating, with satisfying our appetites, often covers over many important issues. The discipline of fasting can bring clarity and freedom as it strips away the distractions: “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). What is at issue is not an excessive ascetic practice but the realization that human cravings and desires are not always of God.

THE LORD’S FEAST.  Within the Gospels, Jesus’ meal patterns receive special attention. A frequent charge against him was not that his theology was bad, but that “this man receives sinners and eats with them” (Mk. 2:15-17; Matt. 11:19; Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus welcomed everyone to his table and to his contemporaries this was shocking and objectionable. His behavior indicated acceptance and friendship with those who had been judged to be unfit for table-fellowship: the tax collector, the Gentile, the prostitute. Jesus’ table manners were not accidental, but reflected the very purpose of his life and ministry. His open invitation “manifested the radically inclusive nature of his kingdom, a kingdom that cuts across the barriers we erect between insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned, the elect and the outcast—barriers often more rigidly enforced at the table.”6

The heart of sabbath feasting, that which provides its motivation and shape, is participation in “the Lord’s feast.” And this feast is not just any meal. As offensive as it may sound, this meal involves eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a man put to death by the “good” religious people of his day. It is the stark reality of the lengths to which God will go to redeem God’s people that provides the base for the celebration and festivity of sabbath time. The scandal and foolishness of the cross is a judgment upon and liberation from all of the ways in which human persons seek to secure and justify their own lives—to satisfy their appetites. The hope of sabbath feasting is found not in the elevation of saints in the resurrection but in the justification of the ungodly in the cross of Jesus Christ. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world….so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What does it mean to say that worship is an exercise in vision?
  2. How can authentic worship engage the culture with the gospel?
  3. Why is hope so important?
  4. How can sabbath festivity be a foretaste of redemption?
  5. In what ways is feasting dependent upon fasting?
  6. How does the cross shape the experience of sabbath feasting?

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

1 Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Liturgy of Liberation: The Confession and Forgiveness of Sins (Abingdon, 1988), p. 17.

2 Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Eerdmans, 1993).

3 Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment  (Seabury, 1977), p. 201.

4 Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Eerdmans, 1989), p. 199.

5 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 48.

6 William H. Willimon, The Service of God: How Worship and Ethics are Related (Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 133.

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