I started my ministry 43 years ago in two small congregations in two adjacent tiny towns in Maine about 9 miles apart. When I lived in Maine just about the nicest compliment you could give someone was to say they were “down to earth.” It meant that they weren’t puffed up about their own importance. They were reliable, sensible, responsible, unpretentious and humble.
During Lent we often focus on the humble “down to earth” elements in the Gospel stories. Lent begins with the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday and, in the First Sunday in Lent, with the story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. There are stories such as Jesus healing the blind man (remember what he used?) dirt and spit, demonstrating that God makes beautiful things out of the dust and God makes beautiful things out of us, as well. These stories and others like them are about the messiness of life (and yet sacred and beautiful), and how discipleship, faith, healing, all of it, is not some pristine perfect thing to be put up on a clean shelf, it is getting down in the dirt and finding God’s blessing even there, and then living that blessing, and sharing it.
These earthy stories remind us that faith takes place in the everyday weal and woe of life, in sorrow and sadness, as well as in joy and gladness. There’s something not only earthy, but mundane about so many of these stories. They take place in real life. My Uncle Dick used to say, “The problem with life is that it is so daily!”
So these stories of Jesus meeting people where they live in their daily life reminds us that the Gospel really is “down to earth,” and the reason for that is that we have a “down to earth” God, and a “down to earth” Savior.
The Christian story tells of a God who did not remain apart from us, lofty and untouchable, but chose to come among us in many ways, but especially in Jesus. We call this “the incarnation,” God embodied in the man Jesus. The word comes from Late Latin and means literally “to take on flesh.”
But who is this God who comes down to earth to meet us? I want to take you on a little theological thought experiment by first looking through the other end of the telescope, not at the daily little stuff of life, but at the eternal big stuff of God.
I want you to imagine with me God in all God’s loftiness, before he came down to earth. Imagine with me what God was like before creation. Before there was anything there was only God, who has no beginning and no end. There was no sun, no moon or stars, no planets or galaxies.
I sing with Berkshire Lyric Chorus and right now we are rehearsing Haydn’s Creation to sing at Ozawa Hall on Memorial Day weekend. You should all come. Haydn’s Creation is a beautiful piece of music, but the orchestral opening is very unconventional. Haydn tried to convey the formless void before the creation with random, disordered sounds, the sounds of chaos, and the early audiences were shocked by it.
Recall how the Bible begins: Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” What was there before this? Before this act of creation there was only God and nothing that was not God. And here’s where I have been going with all this. For God to make something God had to create a space that was not God.
So the very act of creation tells us something about God’s nature. We say God is omnipotent. That is one of the divine attributes that Thomas Aquinas puts forth in his Summa Theologica, an idea he received from reading the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. God as God must be omnipotent, all-powerful. We just sang the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” And both ecumenical creeds begin with the belief in God as “the Father Almighty.”
But what if the omnipotent God, who is all-powerful, chooses to limit or relinquish some of his power so that he can make a space that is not God? Then the very fact of creation, tells us something about the nature and character of God. It tells us that God’s essential loving humility is “baked in,” as the engineers like to say.
So the creation itself is an act of love by the Creator. It is relational. All love is relational. And there is always a certain humility in real love because there is a relinquishing of one’s focus on oneself to focus on the object of love.
God is love, so a feature of God’s omnipotence is this self-limiting humility. If I’ve not lost you, we can see then that the incarnation makes perfect sense in light of God’s intrinsic humility, and God’s coming among us in the man Jesus is consistent with who God is as the Creator.
To put it another way: Once there was nothing, and then God willed there to be something. I’ll leave it to the physicists and cosmologists to figure out the how, whether by a Big Bang or some other mechanism, but theology speaks to the why. One of the classic questions in philosophy is “Why is there something and not nothing?” And the Christian answer is “Because God is love, and God wanted there to be something, and so created the world. And the Greek word we translate as “world” is cosmos.” I’m going to go full-on Carl Sagan on you now. So God created not just the earth, but the cosmos, which includes everything there is, “seen and unseen” as the Creeds says.
So this “down to earth” God is embodied in Jesus, and seen this way it makes sense of a lot of the things Jesus said and did. John’s Gospel says Jesus is “the Word of God.” “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). But the Word of God is a much bigger concept than just the words of Jesus, it includes all that Jesus said and did, and often what he did was as important as what he said.
Our Gospel lesson today is a good example of Jesus showing the disciples who he is by his actions: he washes their feet. Now that’s earthy! That’s “down to earth.” It is a gesture of humility, for only slaves did this action. Jesus knows that he is going to his death, but the disciples do not yet know. The foot washing is a sign that they will only fully understand later, after the cross, which was the death reserved for slaves.
This Gospel reading from John 13 is the appointed reading for Maundy Thursday. Did you know that since 1955 every pope has washed peoples feet as part of the mass on that day? Typically the people who got their feet washed by the pope were lucky Roman Catholic seminarians, but in 2016 Pope Francis washed the feet of newly arrived migrant refugees. And they weren’t all Catholic, many were Muslims, including some women, which shocked many people. And last year he washed the feet of prisoners, some of whom were Mafia and murderers. What a powerful symbolic gesture telling so much about the way of Jesus. I was very moved by it.
Let’s look at the text. It says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” That is what a slave would have worn to wash feet.
So Jesus washes their feet, and then he tells them that from now on they should wash each others’ feet. This all takes place right before his death, and he knows that after his death they will realize what he has been trying to teach them all along.
Because after Jesus’s death they will be the leaders of his church, and they must carry on as a community of love and humility. All the earthy things Jesus has done and said will finally make sense. Yes, before his death they had followed him and accepted him as Lord and teacher, but they had misunderstood him. They expected him to use his power to overthrow their Roman oppressors.
What the disciples never understood was that Jesus’s power was a different kind of power than the world knows. It was not power for oneself, but humble power for others. It was the power to love as Jesus loved, to serve as Jesus served.
The Apostle Paul shares the same idea when he tells the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
And then Paul shares with them what was most likely a familiar hymn they knew. It is from our first reading from Philippians and it is one of my very favorite pieces of Scripture. I preached from it at my daughter Rebecca’s ordination. To me it is the best expression of our “down to earth” God, and our “down to earth Savior.” I’d like to end with it.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
(I preached this sermon at The Church on the Hill in Lenox, Massachusetts, on March 11, 2018. Picture: “Creation” by William Blake.)