The Sacrament of Servanthood

And it is Maundy Thursday again … “maundy” for maundatum which is Latin for commandment. 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 when we hear them these centuries after Jesus spoke them that night in the upper room. “A new commandment I give you.” 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.”

So what’s up with the footwashing? One commentary I read reaches this conclusion: “Jesus was showing us that we are all equal when we 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?”

But does that mean we’re supposed to actually wash each other’s feet?

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.

Footwashing in 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 Jesus shaking his head and saying in gentle despair, “What part of go and do likewise didn’t you understand?” Peter 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?

And can we – in this “out-of-the-ordinary” week – dare to claim that extraordinary calling to servant ministry following the One who calls us to walk in love as he loved us … loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love – and serve – one another.

Today’s reflection is an excerpt from a Maundy Thursday sermon by the Reverend Canon Susan Russell, Canon for Engagement Across Difference in the Diocese of Los Angeles

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