The BP Portrait Award 2017 is currently on tour at the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens (24/03/18-10/06/18). As you would expect from a major competition showcasing ‘outstanding and innovative new portraits from around the world’ some of the work is breath-taking. I could stand in front of them for hours, leaning in close to examine some detail or other, and stepping back to take in the whole. Over again I found that one detail lifted the whole: a woman’s steely-blue eyes; a man’s tousled white hair; the bare knees of an older man and a younger woman.
Though there were a few commissions, many of the portraits were of neighbours, housemates, lovers, or family-members: labours of love. One artist had painted his eighty-year-old father, attempting to capture all that lived experience in oil on board. The deep crease between slightly-watering owlish eyes, framed by wiry brows above and puffy bags below; the liver-spotted dome of skull exposed to the elements by a receding hairline; the pendulous nose: broken veins, and open pores, and nasal hair; the pursed lips, and jowly cheeks; the little flecks of dried blood where he had scraped the skin while shaving; dark hairs the razor had missed. A kindly face, well-worn, and dearly-loved. I want to meet this man.
Our readings today are of bodily events. God tells the elderly man, Moses, ‘stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it’. A hand that, a lifetime ago, had been raised in anger to kill a man. A hand that had become rough, and later worn-smooth, and quite possibly gnarled, through herding sheep.
Jesus—the nail-marked, spear-marked man—tells the young man, Thomas, ‘reach out your hand and put it in my side’. On the one hand, Thomas is curious; on the other hand, cautious. He is hardly alone.
And in the description of the acts of the early church, we see people laying money at the apostles’ feet—feet that had been washed by Jesus—to be distributed—hands and feet working together—to each person as was their need.
Our bodies matter to God. We’re told that the creative Word of God became flesh, and, though that is a way of describing something utterly unique, there is a sense in which for each of us, made in God’s likeness, our stories are written in our flesh.
Some of us have stretch-marks and sagging bosoms, because we have given birth and breast-fed children. Some of us have missing fingers, hands, legs, lost in accidents. Some of us have operation scars, or medical inserts or attachments. Some of us have an extra chromosome. Some of us have tattoos, that speak of love or folly or significant moments. Some of us have feet twisted out of shape by having to walk across a continent to be here, with no facilities for pedicure. Some of us have fingers twisted by arthritis; or brains that are slowly unravelling. Some of us put our backs out getting out of bed in the morning, and some of us run several miles each week. Some of us wear nappies, because we are very young, or not as young as we were. Some of us are so new that our skin is a journal mostly waiting to be written; while some of us are so old that our skin speaks volumes. All of us are exquisite.
Some of us had our feet washed on the Thursday of Holy Week, and many of us stretch out our hands week-by-week to take hold of bread and wine, to receive Jesus, with reverence, yes, but as an embodied experience. And before we do that, we will share a sign of peace: hands reaching out to take hold of hands; perhaps a hug, or a kiss on the cheek. Bodies, dignified. Though, for some, an undignified interruption.
We live in a society that is both obsessed with and repelled by flesh. We cannot bear that this is the medium in which flesh-and-blood stories are carved, and so we erase those stories, as if our skin was a blackboard and our stories were written in chalk. We cut and tuck and tighten taught, until our skin looks like plastic. We moisturise those crow’s feet away. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should not take care of our bodies; rather, that as a society, we idolise youth and demonise aging. I am convinced that inappropriate touch, especially sexual abuse, is often a response—a wholly inappropriate and unacceptable response—to our inability to embrace our own bodies and the way they are transformed over time, from the glory of youth to the glory of maturity. And despite the ways in which we have twisted the flesh, tragically within the Church as well as beyond the Church, despite and indeed all the more-so because of this, I am convinced of the healing power of non-sexual touch between us who are the body of Christ.
We are in the Season of Easter. Easter lasts not one but fifty days and offers us the opportunity to begin to get our minds—and our bodies—around the implications of the resurrection. Raised from the dead, imperishable, Jesus’ body bears witness to both continuity and change: this is clearly the same Jesus, yet he is not always immediately recognisable. Oh, and locked doors and stone walls don’t keep him out. We still await our resurrection-bodies, wait to discover the ways in which they will be both continuous and discontinuous with our present bodies (and I think the most honest answer to those questions is, we do not know). But while we wait, we are invited to see our bodies in a new light. Stretch out your hand: our bodies are our response to God, our participation in the story of God and God’s people.
The BP Portrait Award is not a testament to a dim and dusty past, but a testament to life in all its fullness. The purpose of the exhibition is to move us, by the skill of the artist to reveal the incredible beauty love confers on human beings. I strongly recommend that you pay the gallery a visit at least once before the 10th of June. And you are God’s portraits. This is God’s gallery—and after the service, the works will go on tour, all over Sunderland. To God be the glory. Amen.