Conversations with several folks over the past few days have centered on the issue of Christian worship on Sundays. Does it matter what day of the week we hold our services? Why do so many Christians insist on Sunday morning worship? Is there anything wrong with a Christian having as their primary weekly service a Friday or Saturday night service? While I would be the first to admit that there is, to my understanding, no clear Scriptural commandment to worship on Sunday mornings and that “because we always have” is a woefully inadequate reason for choosing Sunday morning for worship, I want to lay out briefly the logic by which Christians have indeed always agreed that the time of worship does matter and that Sunday morning is the appropriate time for primary public worship for Christians.
Before I give any positive reasons for Sunday worship I want to clear a common misconception from our consideration. Christians (historically and traditionally speaking) do not worship on Sunday because it is the Sabbath. Sabbath is an Old Testament Jewish concept that has nothing whatsoever to do with Sunday. Sabbath is a day of rest, a day on which no work is to be done. The reason for this is that the Creation story has God working in creation for six days and resting on the seventh, Saturday. God’s people were commanded to follow the example of God and work six days and rest on the Sabbath. In this way the Sabbath was kept holy unto the Lord.
Christians, from the first council in Jerusalem, were not obligated to keep Jewish law, including its holy days and Sabbaths. According to the fourth chapter of Hebrews there does indeed remain for us the promise of a Sabbath rest, but this is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus and our entering into him. Nowhere in Scripture is the day of the Sabbath moved to Sunday, the first day of the week. Nowhere in Scripture is Sunday commanded to be a day of rest. If Christians have maintained over the centuries Sunday as a day of worship and rest, it must be on a different basis from the Old Testament Sabbath commandment.
The Day of Resurrection
The reason Sunday has always stood out as the day of primary importance for Christians is that it is the day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead. The Gospel accounts show the women, laden with the materials required for Jewish burial, in haste to the tomb that Sunday at sunrise in order to prepare and wrap the body of their crucified rabbi before three full days were over. They find the tomb and Jesus’ hasty graveclothes vacant. Disciples follow and find the same. Angels announce the rising of Jesus from the grave and Jesus himself appears to Mary, giving her the charge to proclaim the miracle to his disciples.
When we celebrate July Fourth or Christmas or our birthdays we find ourselves celebrating on a different day of the week each year. When we celebrate Easter, the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord, we always do so on Sunday. We gather at sunrise to behold together the empty tomb and the revelation of Christ risen, victorious over sin and death and hell. I would remind the reader that Easter is the pattern for Sundays. Just as the ancient Jews patterned their weeks after the actions of God in order to follow him, so have we Christians from the beginning. The new day, the Eighth Day, the Day of Resurrection is the day of the new creation. We rise to follow Christ in witness of the Resurrection.
Christianity is a religion where the symbols really matter because symbols are physical signs which participate in the spiritual reality which they signify. We eat bread and drink wine knowing that in that we are eating spiritual food and drinking spiritual drink, the Body and Blood of Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 10). Gathering together on Sunday mornings is more than a historical reenactment or a memorialization of that first Sunday. It is our real participation – physically and spiritually (we would say sacramentally) in that first Sunday. We are the women at the tomb. We are in the presence of the angels. We come to the tomb in fear and wonder. We encounter the risen Lord. We are given the commission to go and tell others. Our attachment to Sunday is not a preference of “one day above another” per se and is not for us a matter of law. It is a real participation in the Day of Christ. Keeping Sunday morning worship keeps continuity with the witness and experience of the saints in all ages of the resurrection of the Lord.
The Lord’s Day
When we hear old Saint John tell of his encounter with the risen Lord on Patmos, we find that it occurred on the Lord’s Day, the Church’s term for Sunday. The fact that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and the usage in his vision of elements like the lampstand (seven-branched menorah) make it clear that a service of worship is assumed. As I said above, early Christians did not consider Sunday a Sabbath – that would have been a denial of Scripture rather than a keeping of it because the Law is clear about Sabbath being the end of the week. Early Christians considered Sunday, the beginning of the week to be the Lord’s Day. The day on which our Lord rose from the grave is the day we rise to bear witness.
So what about the issue of work? If Sunday is not a Sabbath, why have so many Christians insisted that no work be done on Sunday? Christians honor the Lord by giving the entire day to him, beginning with the gathering of worship. The rest of the day ought to be spent doing things that are God-honoring, pleasurable, that build the life of the family. If we do not work on Sunday it is not because of the command of Law but the gift of Grace. We set a day aside to worship and to rest out of celebration rather than obligation. It is the Lord’s Day, after all, a day in which we share by grace through faith…and with joyful thanksgiving.
The Communion of Saints
The Church has always seen value in common practices, practices which have always been observed by all and in all places, in part because they underscore what the Church believes about itself. We are one. We are joined together in heaven and on earth by the one Holy Spirit in common witness of Jesus to the glory of God the Father. When we gather on Sunday mornings it is not personal, but corporate. We gather, though, not only with our local congregations but with all of the saints around the world. We all get up and out on Sunday mornings because we all bear witness together and all receive the wonderful news – the Gospel – together.
We are separated throughout the week into our secular lives and personal identities. We pattern our days by the business at hand. Our schedules are run by the concerns of business and education and child rearing and vocation. We belong to the world and its pressing concerns. Not so on Sundays. We all get out of bed and come together to witness that we are not of this world after all. We are of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are a Resurrection people. We leave secular concerns and merely terrestrial identities behind and show ourselves the people of God in Christ. Sundays are our great revolt against the kingdoms and spirit of this age. We are all of one procession, a royal one, ushering in the true King whose Kingdom, unsubject to the concerns so dominant in our secular lives, animates us and makes us a royal priesthood of the everlasting life. Sundays are our most powerful public protest of antichrist.
Now, I know not everyone can come to Sunday worship. It is necessary that the Church in every community have options for those whose work and other concerns make Sunday morning worship an impossibility. But most of the reasons I hear for Christians making Fridays or Saturdays their primary worship events have to do with ease, convenience, the fun of having “Sundays off”. They are not theological considerations, but wholly secular. They are often individualist. They are often selfish. The reason we call our gatherings “services”, though, is because they are a means of serving God in worship. Worship does not exist as a commodity to be repackaged according to our consumer interests! I am all for Saturday night services and hope to attend from time to time at new one at a charismatic church in our town. I look forward to the occasional supplement to what is offered at my own church. But for Christians who have Sundays off of work, Saturdays are no substitute for the Lord’s Day.
Here’s what I think we should do. Spend less money on Sundays. Eat less at restaurants on Sundays (go on Saturday nights so folks don’t lose business). Make it unfeasible for folks to stay open and keep their employees bound on Sunday mornings. Make our weekly revolt against the kingdoms of this world an economic sanction against Sunday morning business. Say to the commercial world, “let God’s people go”. Make Sunday morning worship convenient for others even as we re-appreciate it ourselves.
Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together as is the habit of some, but keep Sunday mornings at the empty tomb the public hallmark of life as servants of God and fellow servants in communion with the Body of Christ in all places throughout all ages.