In Lutheran understanding, a sacrament is 1) an event associated with the life of Christ that we are commanded/commended to repeat, 2) an event that has an earthly element or elements (tangible parts or acts), and 3) has a promise of God attached to it.
What makes foot washing not a sacrament?
When Jesus tells his disciples to serve one another in this humble way, what’s happening?
- He’s wearing nothing, but a towel (exposure).
- He’s physically close to them (proximity).
- They have to respond by receiving (communion).
It’s a terribly, terribly intimate scene. Intimacy is a word we don’t use a lot in church. We talk about sex occasionally. (Okay, I do and you listen horrified.) We talk about service. But we rarely discuss intimacy.
Here we have a semi-naked Jesus, clothed like a slave, performing the task of a slave, for other free men. He is on his knees. His hands are on their feet. He is cleaning them, drying them, touching them. Peter can literally feel the breath of God on his shins, shifting the dark hairs numbered by the same Lord.
And, God love him, Peter gets it. He’s as uncomfortable because he can grasp the edges of what Jesus is doing, is saying, is revealing. Does he want to accept it? Will he lean into this intimacy? Is this discomfort worth it to dwell in the light?
This is precisely the question the Johannine community would have been asking themselves. Is the persecution, the rejection, the frustration worth it to dwell in the light they have perceived, received, believed? The gospel writer organizes this scene for that early church community, urging them to care for one another because they are all they have.
For most of us, church is but one community in our lives. It is important to us, but intimacy is not a word we associate with this experience. It might not be a word we want to associate with church. However, intimacy, closeness, deep vulnerability is supposed to be the hallmark of who we are and what we’re about.
Every week, we have six or so 12-step groups that meet in this building. When people go to those meetings, they introduce themselves- I’m so-and-so and this is my struggle. They are greeted by name, Hi, So-and-so, and brought into the intimacy of that community. Of knowing that other people have the same struggle, of hearing the stories of people who would be strangers except for the common bond. A stranger going into a 12-step knows he or she can find people to hold him or herself accountable, to intercede, to advise. They have a closeness, a bond, that is enviable.
Except that we shouldn’t envy it, we should be re-creating it. Right here, right now. Hi, I’m Julia and I’m a doubter, a Lutheran, a follower of Christ, a believer with questions. Everyone who comes in those doors should know that they’ll be welcomed by name and that they have entered into a community of people who are like them, who have the same struggles, and who are prepared to walk with them through darkness and light.
Kneeling at the feet of the disciples, in this intimate moment, Jesus is creating a holy conspiracy. Not a plot, but a community rooted in the true meaning of conspire- in Latin= con- with, spirare- to breathe. Literarly, to breathe with, to breathe together… Spirare is also the root of Spirit, respiration, inspiration, aspiration. Jesus is close enough as he washes their feet to breathe with them and this is what he urges them to do for one another. It’s not just about feet, it’s about being will to serve and be served with a closeness that allows breathing together.
It’s about being willing to see others for who they truly are and allowing them to see you. It’s about sharing, not gossiping, lifting up, honesty and compassion together. When we breathe together, our stewardship takes on a different look. We know that we are giving our money, our time, our talents to something that affects us deeply, affects us at the core even to the way we do something as necessary as breathing.
We have sanitized the sacraments in the church over the years. They are small, quick, and clean. We don’t fling water everywhere. We don’t set up tables for a love feast. We’ve made as much space between ourselves as possible. When we do that, we cannot con-spire. And then, most assuredly, we are not creating the beloved community that Jesus is commanding here.
It’s a terrible, frightening intimacy to which we are called. If we avoid it, we are truly failing to heed Jesus’ most basic instructions. There is grace in this closeness, in this together breathing, in this intimacy, that we are depriving ourselves and others of because of what… fear?
This is the life to which we have been called. This is the work for which we have been strengthened. This is the truth that has been poured into our hearts. Do we dare to embrace it and all that comes with it? Do we dare to breathe together, to risk intimacy, to realize that beloved community is only a hand or a foot away?