Guest post at the blog Reinventing the Adventist Wheel.
It has been a bit too long since my first post on sacramentals. It’s quite some time after Easter, but I want to continue with how Easter affects us.
John 13:5-8 KJV After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.  Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?  Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.  Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
One term I’ve heard in Adventist circles for the ritual of foot washing is the ordinance of humility. In the Adventist tradition, it plays an important role – many Protestant churches don’t have this practice at all, and Catholics have it only at Easter, specifically at the Holy Thursday service.
The Adventist Review has a good article online about foot washing here (dead link).
It ends with the following words:
“Once you’ve experienced it in this way, once you’ve beheld the Lamb of God, you will never again fear it. Instead, it will seem like a foretaste of heaven.”
I beg to differ with the author, or at least with his words’ apparent meaning. It shouldn’t seem like a foretaste of heaven. It IS a foretaste of heaven.
For some, this act is purely symbolic. It symbolises the act of Christ washing his disciples’ feet. It symbolises humility. It seems like heaven.
For others, it is real. We partake of the act of Christ washing his disciples’ feet. It involves humility, and nourishes it. It IS a foretaste of heaven.
If we look at it as symbolism, then there is the danger that it could be seen as an empty act, an act that may become less meaningful the more we begin to dislike ritual. Why gather and wash feet? Why not just be humble? If the act is empty, it may appear as if it’s something we do to make ourselves grow spiritually, or something we do for God.
But the moment we internalise it, it stops being a symbolic act – even if we don’t realise it yet. We cannot make ourselves humble. We cannot grow spiritually of our own doing. We cannot do something for God. Therefore the act, by the very fact that it is internalised, changing us, must involve something real coming from God. If it’s real, it’s not symbolic, or at least not completely symbolic.
Can we make God bless us? Can we, by engaging in a symbolic act, cause him to smile and reward us? Or is this a case of God offering something through the act itself, making that act real, more than symbolic, something God offers, and we accept?
Is the ordinance of foot washing something God offers us, or is it something we do to please him?
My take on this is that the sacrament of foot washing is a gift from God, his work, not ours. We can accept, or walk away.
What, then, of those who take part in such events without sincerity? If God offers us grace, a blessing, and we try to take it without a sincere heart, does it have any effect? Unlikely. So was that grace really given? It was offered, but not accepted. But the offer was real.
To Catholics, and others, that is a sacrament. An offer of grace, a work done by God, that we can accept and participate in and as a result grow in grace, or that we can appear to participate in but gain nothing from, or that we can walk away from at the start.
Intrinsically, it is a real offer. The offer is real, the grace is real. The work is real, but it’s God’s work. A physical work, yes, but God did say that his creation was good, and Christians have historically rejected the notion that matter is evil. After all, God became physical man.
People often think of Catholic sacraments as thing we must do to please God. But in reality, they’re God doing things for us, and we can only accept or reject that gift. Any sacrament can become a burden if we don’t understand that. If we do, it can only be a blessing.
Western Catholics count seven sacraments, limiting them to acts initiated, demonstrated, or endorsed by Jesus. Seven, because of the significance of the number seven. Foot washing is not amongst them; I don’t know how the Orthodox would view foot washing, but Eastern Christians (Catholic and Orthodox) are not limited to that number, and have other sacraments. Most Protestants recognise at least two – baptism and communion. Adventists have foot washing. The word “sacrament” is derived from Latin, and not used to describe most Protestant ordinances, but linguistics aside, we all share physical acts as events through which God offers himself to us.
Is it possible for Adventists to share that view? If something like foot washing can be seen as a gift from God, something he offers, not something we do for him, I don’t see why not.