By Kenneth Tanner
Our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. She dwarfs our galaxy and contains a trillion stars.
The energy that fuels all those stars and has kept them in a spiral for 13 billion years is measurable, but who has the instruments or the time? The best we can do is make estimates.
Our witness and wisdom say that a first-century baby born to a peasant Jewish teenager, a baby whose stepfather was a carpenter, is the One who spoke this galaxy into fiery substance and perpetual motion from nothing way back when.
And our tradition claims that this human is the One who spoke another hundred billion galaxies into existence from no substance that existed before – ex nihilo in the ancient tongue.
One of the scriptural stories about this human tells us that on the night before he suffered for the cosmos he created – that he loves from eternity before his own life – he took a towel and a basin of water and washed the feet of his friends.
You cannot wash someone’s feet without getting low to the ground, on your knees.
In the world of his time, the host of a meal would not be the one to wash the feet of his guests. This was the task of a servant.
When Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples he gives us a portrait of the unseen Father, who holds all things together – visible and invisible – as an unassuming, humble servant.
When we dare to mess around with the invisible structures by which God holds the visible universe together – splitting atoms, for instance – we witness the awesome energy generated by the smallest (unwise) manipulation of his handiwork. Yet this incalculable energy – even the smallest fraction of it leaves us in awe – is harnessed to an extreme humility.
This divine humility, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is the source of all the energy in the cosmos.
What this moment at the last supper reveals, what this washing of feet shows us, is that the power of God has its origin not in what fallen human imagination supposes – not in great demonstrations of might, of subatomic or interstellar power – but in innumerable divine acts of indiscriminate, behind-the-scenes, and costly stewardship.
He literally cares for all things, great and small, from what may even seem useless to us – the things we would throw away – to things of such exquisite beauty we are left without words.
As revealed in the human Jesus, God is the one among us who serves, kneeling on the floor of the universe, towel in hand, ready to do the menial work that holds all things together, the work of a love that does not seek attention, does not boast, is not rude or jealous, that keeps no record of wrongs, that does not fail.
What does it mean that the One who creates all stars and fuels their fires is on his knees serving humans as their human brother?
Let me suggest that it means that most human projection of what it means to be a god or the God in the history of humans – and most human imagination of what it means to be powerful – is deeply mistaken.
One makes oneself vulnerable to wash feet in a world without proper sanitation and sewers but this sacred gospel detail about humbly kneeling and scrubbing his friend’s feet is not nearly the lowest place this human (who is somehow also God) goes or will go to love the cosmos.
This human who is God descends further still, down into death, entering by his own terrible death into the death of every human, for every time the one human nature we all share dies in one of our fellow humans we all of us die again, and he dies again with us, and further still: Jesus descends into all our hells.
One of the pastors of the first Christians, Athanasius, says that Jesus keeps falling further than our hells and his descent is not slowed until he is beneath the deepest falling human, down to the edges of non-existence, to rescue us, and to give the one human nature we all share permanence.
He is not stingy with his kind of existence. He wants his fellow humans to participate in his never-ending divine life.
He gives humans not the permanence of Andromeda but his own permanence, and with all humans somehow gives the cosmos the gift of his eternity.
As a fellow human, Jesus is our mediator and advocate, made like his brothers and sisters in every way so that he might be One who rules and judges those whose existence he understands from the inside, because he lived our human story with us in the most vulnerable, authentic, and beautiful way.
In Jesus, God has a mother and a betrayer. In Jesus, God has scars and God has memories: of meals and laughter with his friends and cold nights huddled together against the desert air in cloaks, he recalls storms at sea and a grinding emptiness at the tomb of his friend.
In Jesus, God knows hunger and thirst and loneliness and pain. In Jesus, God knows the human devastation of divorce and disease and death.
In Jesus, the One like a son of man who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth is also one of us. And Jesus discloses a God who rules all things by a humility we cannot even begin to grasp. His power is disclosed in weakness and poverty, by surrender and trust.
The One who is to be our judge renders his judgment on his human brothers and sisters from the brutal cross to which we nailed him: “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
And he is now and forever there with the Father in the flesh, for us, and we are there close to the heart of the Father in Jesus, as his body. We are mystically one with God in the humanity of Jesus and God is one with us humans in the Son and loves us.
Jesus remains always the servant of his beloved cosmos and of everything and everyone in it and that’s what makes him truly Lord of all.
Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and author of Vulnerable God (forthcoming from Baker Books, Fall 2023). Image: “Christ Ruler of All,” by Lyuba Yaskiv, Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.