The Sacrament of Servanthood

The Sacrament of Servanthood

by The Rev. Susan Russell

March 28, 2002 ~ St. Peter's, San Pedro

Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

It's Maundy Thursday again ... "MONDAY" Thursday ... as my kids used to call it: not at all sure what it was about or why we went to church at night, ate lamb and then washed feet ... a little out of the ordinary in terms of Episcopal church-going, we have to admit! But then this is a week for "out of the ordinary" -- and this is a night to remember that.

It's not "Monday" Thursday, of course ... it's "maundy" for maundatum the Latin for commandment. For on this Thursday in Holy Week we remember the commandment our Lord gave us in one of his final acts before his arrest, trial and crucifixion: "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The very familiarity of these words can take away their power as we listen to them tonight -- centuries after our Lord spoke them in that upper room to those "still didn't quite get it" disciples. They celebrated the Passover meal symbolizing God's deliverance of Israel from death in Egypt – even while the impending tragedy of the death of God's Son loomed on the horizon. "A new commandment I give you" he said to these faithful Jews who already had ten perfectly good commandments, thank you very much. Not a recommendation. Not a suggestion. Not a "resolution" ... but a COMMANDMENT -- elevating it to the status of the ten that came down the mountain with Moses ... elevating it to "the Word of God."

This, my friends, was precisely the kind of talk that had gotten him into this no-going-back place to begin with. This insistence that God's revelation didn't quit on Mt. Sinai didn't sit well with those who considered themselves the champions of orthodoxy … the leaders of the religious institutions of his day. Invested in the status quo, there was no room for new commandments ... for "continuing revelation" ... for Jesus -- this rabble rouser from Nazareth. "A New Commandment?" Blasphemy! Apostasy! Heresy! And so the gloom darkened, the troops gathered -- and the cross loomed.

And yet, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Loved them enough to tell them the truth -- no matter what the cost. Loved them enough to share all of who he was with them – and command them to do the same to each other.

"As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Not "if you follow all the purity codes." Not "if you get 100% on the theology quiz." Not "if you agree about everything." But "if you love one another."

The New Commandment we gather to celebrate tonight may just be the hardest one of all ... thank God we also celebrate tonight the Grace of God that enables us to accomplish what we have been called to do. Grace. It's another one of those words so familiar it sometimes defies explanation ... definition ... understanding. I remember well the moment when grace was explained to me in a way I could finally understand it. A priest told me, "Think of all the times you've said, thought or heard the phrase, 'There but for the grace of God go I' and try it this way instead, 'There but for the enablement of God go I.' Remember -- there is nothing God will ask you to do God will not enable you to accomplish -- THAT'S "grace."

St. Augustine -- one of the great Fathers of the Church -- is reputed to have used these words when distributing communion: "Receive what you are." You ARE the Body of Christ -- the grace is already there. The sacrament is just a reminder.

Harken back to catechism days: a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." There are two primary sacraments in the Episcopal Church ... the Anglican tradition: Baptism and Eucharist. They are considered "primary" because Jesus told us to do them. Other sacraments, ordination, confirmation, marriage, etc. are good ideas and sacramental occasions, but don't have the primacy of the other two: WE -- the Church -- "thought them up" -- inspired by the Holy Spirit, we hope -- but with Baptism and Eucharist Jesus specifically said: DO THIS. So we do.

But where does the footwashing part fit in to all this? William Barclay, in his commentary on this text from John gives some great historical context, and arrives at this conclusion: "Jesus was showing them that they are all equal when they gather around the table of the Lord. If the Creator could wash the feet of the created, should not the creatures wash the feet of one another in equality? And if Jesus saw himself in his creatures, shouldn't we see him in each other?"

Does that mean we're supposed to REALLY wash each other's feet? Well, let's look again at our criteria for primary sacraments in the church: We do it because Jesus told us to. ("given by Christ to His Church" in the loftier words of the catechism)

Baptism in Matthew 28: GO THEREFORE and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Eucharist in Luke 22: And he took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, "This is my body which is given for you. DO THIS in remembrance of me.

And in today's gospel: John 13: So, then, if I -- your Lord and teacher -- have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

I imagine our Lord shaking his head and saying in gentle despair, "What part of go and do likewise didn't you understand?" Peter, our patron saint, certainly didn't understand ... at least at first. "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand," said Jesus -- in words of profound reassurance. That's the beauty of sacraments: you don't have to understand them to do them -- to accept them.

Could it be that part of the reason the "kingdom" hasn't come yet is that the church missed the boat on what Jesus intended to be another primary sacrament "given by Christ to his Church": the sacrament of servanthood?

Edward Beck, a New York City Roman Catholic priest suggests so in his commentary in this morning’s Los Angeles Times: Where is the church of justice to which I have given my life, the church whose initiation by Jesus we commemorate during these high holy days? The church is where it has always been: in the people of God, not in the trappings of hierarchical excess. The priests and bishops and hierarchy exist only for the purpose of serving the faithful and helping to facilitate their way to God. When they fail to do that, the people of God have the imperative to rise up and demand accountability and reform. That is exactly what they have begun to do. It is about time. And it is about grace. Ah … grace again! Father Beck goes on to pray: As churches gather today to commemorate Christ's Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, may they be encouraged by the recent debacle to celebrate another kind of priesthood, the priesthood of all the faithful, with the hope that its long overdue institution might lead the way out of scandal to Easter resurrection and new life.

  The priesthood of all the faithful: that’s our calling … as the baptized. Can we -- in this "out-of-the-ordinary" week – dare to claim that extraordinary calling and in so doing follow the one who calls us to love one another -- follow Him and trust that God will give us the grace to obey this New Commandment?

As in that upper room you left your seat
and took a towel and chose a servant's part
so far today, Lord, wash again my feet
who in your mercy died to cleanse my heart.

So in remembrance of your life laid down
I come to praise you for your grace divine;
Saved by your cross, and subject to your crown,
strengthened for service by this bread and wine.

May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things, give us also the grace and power to accomplish them. Amen.


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