Seeking your ideas: How do you think theologically about Sabbath?

Posted May 07, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Robert C. Saler


Robert C. SalerEaster blessings to you all!

In the coming months, this blog space for the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary will move in a slightly different direction.

For the last year or so, we have focused on the benefits of sabbaticals for both pastors and congregations, as well as best practices for thinking about what makes for a high-quality renewal application process.

While we will still feature posts of that sort, for the next few months I would like to focus in on the theological resources available in the Christian tradition for thinking about Sabbath as a rich theme in the Christian faith. One of the deep joys of the fact that the Endowment’s Clergy Renewal programs are now administered by a seminary is that, in this scholarly atmosphere of theological reflection for the sake of the church and the world, we are in a good position to theologize well about the purpose of these renewal grants. Meanwhile, as a pastor and systematic theologian by training, I have found directing these programs to be a source of ongoing fascination for my own thinking about how God is at work in the church, healing the world by God’s Holy Spirit. So much good ministry is happening! How do we talk well and deeply about it?

There is much to say about the role played by Sabbath in Christian theology. The first priority, though, is to acknowledge that our Jewish sisters and brothers have long understood the central role of the Sabbath in the human vocation before the divine. Christians, in acknowledging that the God of Israel is the same Father of Jesus Christ, are in a position to continually learn from Jews about how to theologize about Sabbath.

That being said, there are deep themes within the Christian tradition that, while perhaps not mentioning Sabbath explicitly, do in fact impact how we think about cycles of production and renewal. Christians across the centuries have produced profound meditations on the human vocations of work, ministry, fidelity to God’s creative and saving action in the world, and so on. Likewise, Christians have produced theologically rich critiques of those forces within our world that would form us to ignore the Sabbath in favor of endless cycles of production (to the great diminishment of our human experience). Good theology is always critical and political in its implications for ethics, and the same is true with theology about Sabbath.

Thus, in this blog space over the coming months I will seek to elaborate some of these various moments and themes within the Christian tradition. I will look at such historical figures as Gregory of Nyssa, St. Francis, and Martin Luther in order to examine epochs in the history of theology when themes related to Sabbath took on vital and compelling force within the Christian imagination. And we will think together about our own cultural settings and how the theological resources provoked by thinking about rest and renewal might address the challenges and potential of ministry in our hurting world.

Having given this preview, let me now offer an invitation in the form of a question: how do YOU think theologically about Sabbath? Moreover, what cultural currents within your own ministry setting/cultural context do you see as productive for thinking about human vocation, and what do you see as harmful? I would welcome your thoughts as we carry on this blog series. You are welcome to comment below, or email me at rsaler@cts.edu. I look forward to dialoguing with you all!

Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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