Thursday, July 05, 2007

God reaching out through space and time

by Stephen Korsman

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. [6] Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? [7] Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. [8] 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.

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.

Of further interest may be the post over at Progressive Adventism, entitled "Catholic Adventism: Cause for Concern of Celebration?"


  1. Thanks, Bill - a good review. The reason I said "We cannot make ourselves humble" is because it's not our work, but God's work. God makes us humble.

    Sacraments, to use the Catholic word, are real in that they are God's act, not ours. We decorate them in thanks, and we can choose to respond or not respond.

    "it can also be a ritual act that moves the heart, and brings about within us the very thing that it symbolizes

    My reasoning is that it is not a subjective act we perform alone, and bring God into the equation only if we do it in the right spirit ... but rather an objective act of God, which makes it real. God is real, and present all around us, not only when we call on him. We can respond or not respond to that presence, but it's there either way. The same is true of specific acts of God - sacraments, ordinances, or whatever they get called.

  2. I think the main difference lies in the fact that Catholicism views sacraments as an end in themselves, e.g., as the Eucharist, where the bread and wine actually become Christ's body.

    The line between a mere symbol as remembrance of God's accomplished act for us and that very act being reenacted by the symbol itself is very tenuous. It's easy to put more value in it than God intended. The sacraments are mere symbols of greater realities, to keep faith alive, to remind us of God's saving acts and man's utter dependence on him. The Sanctuary on earth was a mere symbol of the heavenly and the blood of bulls could never cleanse from sin (Apostle Paul.)

    One of the most, if not the most important sacrament in the Scriptures is the seventh-day Sabbath: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." It parallels the Eucharist, "In Remembrance of Me." Because it is a 'remembrance' placed in TIME, when an actual day was created to remind mankind of God's act of creation and ultimately of redemption at the cross, his rest is given to us once and for all. Changing that sacrament placed in a specific time boundary to another day completely erases its intention.

    Is it possible for Catholics to share that view?

  3. I think the main difference lies in the fact that Catholicism views sacraments as an end in themselves

    I don't believe we view sacraments as an end in themselves. As you state, the sacraments are symbols of greater realities, but that doesn't mean the symbol itself is limited to being a symbol and nothing more. The sacraments don't end with the sacrament, but take us closer to God, as any gift from God does.

    The line between a mere symbol as remembrance of God's accomplished act for us and that very act being reenacted by the symbol itself is very tenuous. It's easy to put more value in it than God intended.

    That is the main difference - whether it is a mere symbol, or a real gift God is offering. If they are real gifts offered by God, then they should be highly valued. The difference lies with whether we see God's acts as being merely past events we can commemorate, or as gifts God shares with us personally.

    Is it possible for Catholics to share that view?

    I think we'd all agree that when a specific time is linked to something, doing it at another time takes away that meaning.