Sermon - 26th June 2011
Seeing Salvation 3: Washing of the Feet - by Sieger Köder
Scripture - John 13:1-17
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Art is subjective, we each have our own opinions of what is good and what fails to impress us.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, he’s not an artist that I particularly admire, but I was surprised to find images and work there that I did feel a connection with. Often this comes down to our perceptions of what something should look like.
Depictions of Jesus often show him as immaculate, even in the most humble of settings he is shown as if transfigured, glowing white and haloed. The artist Sieger Köder does not paint Jesus like this, instead, his work often depicts Jesus on the edge of the picture, and we are encouraged to see the world as he sees it.
So in our reading today, and the painting which reflects it, the haloed Messiah is not the Jesus we see. This is earthy, this is grubby, this is an image that shows us a world inhabited by real people.
Our reading today was from the gospel of John, on the night of his betrayal, in the Eucharist we remember his sharing of bread and wine, but this was not all that took place.
During the meal, he got up and proceeded to humble himself and began to wash his disciple’s feet.
Even when Peter protested, he still went ahead, even though he knew he was sat with the one who would betray him, he still washed his feet.
The painting shows us this scene in a heightened way. The feet are large and calloused, they are feet that have really walked, they would ache, and they would be tired. They would be in need of refreshing, and Jesus is there ready to be the one to relieve the pain of their physical burdens.
In doing this, Jesus performs a symbolic act, humbling himself and emphasising that he, though exalted, was ready to serve.
We are told in the reading that Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and removed his outer clothing, in Köder’s picture he is shown with a tasselled and blue striped item over him, this is reminiscent of a Jewish prayer shawl. Choosing to include this item emphasises the holiness of his actions, the fact that the one his disciples called “Rabbi” and “Master” was performing a sacred act.
As he is bending away from us, bowed low, we only see a glimpse of Jesus’ face in reflection. Peter protested at the thought of the man he respected and knew to be divine lowering himself to such an act of servitude. The placing of the prayer shawl reminds us that the promised Messiah was expected to be many things, all conquering and majestic – the idea that the messiah would be a suffering saviour in service to humanity and God was the idea that Jesus challenged them to understand.
For the second time that night Jesus encouraged them to follow his example, saying that they too were to wash the feet of others, that service to others was the path they should tread.
In seeing Jesus’ face in the reflection in the water, the artist mirrors this theme. Only in service do we truly see the face of God. Only by being prepared to work for others and change and enrich their lives will we glimpse his glory.
This is the challenge that Jesus still leaves us with, to find those people in the world who need his intervention and to become the serving hands and feet of the lord in his name
Amongst Köder’s body of work are other pieces that emphasise the universal nature of God’s love, a depiction in All Are Welcome shows a diverse table, different colours and backgrounds are shown.
This is not an idea that we always associate with churches, those of us who have felt exclusion know this only too well.
As a result it’s not surprising, but still sad that some folk have chosen to associate this image with something rather more sordid as a way of dismissing his work.
But Jesus’ challenge to us remains.
In his protestations about the washing of the feet, Peter identified himself as one who knew the divine nature of the Lord, and yet, very few hours would pass before he would publicly deny him. We have to be of service to the world, whether that is a world that accepts him or not.
We have to try and put ourselves on the edge of the picture, to try our best to see situations as Jesus would and to then be prepared to humble ourselves in the service of others.
As we find new and practical ways to serve him we too will glimpse his face in the water, however dark the situation may be; and we realise that as we serve him, as we become his hands and his feet in the world, that he is there for us, washing our feet, easing our burdens, and in the midst of our lives.
Link to image of painting here.