Sermon preached by the Rev’d Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Maundy Thursday – April 5, 2012
People are quirky, and the Church, being filled with people, is occasionally absurd. The Church, over the course of the last two millennia, identified as many as seven sacraments—as many as seven surefire ways to encounter God’s grace. If you grew up in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches, then you are familiar with the seven sacraments. During the Protestant Reformation, however, the reformers threw out five of the seven sacraments on the grounds that they had no scriptural basis for being considered a sacrament.
The Protestant churches identified only two sacraments as being scripturally sound and as being instituted by Jesus himself: baptism, because Jesus himself was baptized and because of the Great Commission in which Jesus instructs his disciples to go and spread the good news and baptize others, and the Eucharist, which was instituted at the Last Supper, which we remember tonight. As Episcopalians, being the good Anglicans that we are, we recognize both the two and the full seven sacraments at any given moment, allowing us to maximize the irritation we can cause Protestants or Catholics.
What is quirky, no, what is absurd is that in neither of those lists, the list of two sacraments or the list of seven sacraments, neither the list endorsed by Protestants nor the list endorsed by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, will you find foot washing. In the interest of being truly transparent, I should note that the Anabaptists, a sect within the Protestant Reformation, did make regular use of foot washing. However, they were widely regarded as heretics and many were killed during the sometimes-bloody period of the reformation. It is odd that foot washing did not become a sacrament because Jesus gives as clear a commendation to the disciples for this practice as Jesus does for baptism and the Eucharist:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
So why would two of these acts become symbols of great power and be called Sacraments while this one act is relegated to usage only once a year, if even that, during a weeknight service? Perhaps foot washing is simply too radical—we know from the Disciple’s responses that even they had a hard time accepting that Jesus would wash their feet. I imagine that the church leaders, especially as the church become powerful within society, were simply not interested in getting on their knees to clean the feet of the masses. Perhaps foot washing is simply too intimate, even for us today. Both the person doing the washing and the person being washed surrender the protective barriers we build around ourselves when we wash each other’s feet; we expose ourselves—warts and all—to one another. I suspect, for reasons that I won’t go into tonight for time’s sake, that the Disciples would have experienced such an act as even more intimate than we do today.
Yet Jesus commands us to do this act, to wash each other’s feet as he washed the Disciples’ feet, most likely because it was radical, it did upset the structures of power, it was intimate, it did demonstrate our vulnerability and reliance on one another. The Church does not recognize foot washing as a Sacrament, but it is nonetheless sacramental because it reveals to us an aspect of God’s nature. In the washing of feet, we encounter a God who so loved the world that God would become human, not to be glorified and honored, but to kneel on the ground and clean our feet. In the washing of feet, we do not find a God who wants perfection, but instead a God who knows our imperfection and wants a deep intimacy. Foot washing is not a Sacrament, but it is sacramental because by it we experience and share in God’s grace. We experience grace both because of the knowledge of God we find in this act and because of our own participation in the act as we share that same grace with others.
So with the authority by which Jesus commended this act to his disciples, so to are you invited this evening to have your feet washed and in turn to wash another’s feet, and in so doing, experience Christ in a new way. Amen.