We are continuing to develop our understanding of God through our physical senses. In the past few weeks, we have spoken about the sense of sight, taste, and hearing. Today, we will develop our understanding of God through our sense of touch.
We are always touching things. We see an article of clothing in a store. In seeing it, we have some interest in it because of its shape, color, or that it is on the clearance rack. Our next step of discover is always to touch the garment. In touching, we want to gauge the thickness and texture of the material. We touch it to imagine if we would want to try it on. If the garment fails the touch tests, we will not consider it further even though the garment might have a nice the shape or color.
Our need for touch extends well beyond garments. Our sense of touch has been important for our wellbeing since infancy. Our understand of the world and our place in it has been shaped by our sense of touch. We want to immediately begin knowing the world will be kind to us through our sense of touch. When a baby is first born, one of the things that now happens right away is for the baby to bond to mom and dad by being held bare chested to both. Touch then is seen as highly desirable for rapid development.
When a child has been separated from their parents, whether it has been for a few hours with a babysitter or months because the parent was deployed overseas, the response is the same. The child gets excited at the sight of their parent but is not satisfied until they have physically touched that parent, usually with a hug.
Medical study after medical study has shown that we need physical touch from others to feel secure and safe. Christian counselor, Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the book, The Five Love Languages, identified physical touch as one of the primary ways humans send and receive love.
We need and use physical touch to bring comfort to ourselves in this sometimes hard and demanding world. In the last two years, government policies developed in response to the COVID virus have deprived us of physical touch. Those policies and practices have been detrimental to human development. Social distancing requirements may have been necessary at first to minimize the spread of the virus, remember we were going to flatten the curve in two weeks, but social distancing for more than two years has been by all other metrics an inhumane policy. One study put it this way, “To society, social distancing presents the dangers of increasing social rejection, growing impersonality and individualism, and the loss of a sense of community. It negatively affects learning and growth, and it prevents people from effectively socializing, which is a fundamental human need.”
A couple of weeks ago, we dropped off a meal to feed the homeless and poor of the community in South Troy. Before COVID, that meal was a vibrant interactive community of people drawn together to eat together and get to know one another. After COVID, people attending the meal were prohibited from dining together. Instead, they were given takeout containers with the food. A few weeks ago, the facility was unsuccessful in reestablishing a dining together format. Why were they unsuccessful? After two years of being kept apart, the people are now afraid to be together. The community has been lost.
Touch is essential to our well-being and our ability to understand this physical world. Touch is also an essential way for us to develop our understanding of God.
We see the sense of touch playout in several ways in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. We would see in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus touched all people, including those considered untouchable. Matthew wrote, “1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ 3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he [the leper] was cleansed of his leprosy” (Matthew 8:1-3). People with leprosy were untouchable. Lepers were socially distanced from the remainder of the human community. As of 2015, there remained a group of people who had been exiled due to leprosy. They live on a tiny Hawaiian island. They are the last of the people banished from society for leprosy in 1960’s.
Jesus first recorded miracle in the Gospel of Matthew, the healing of the man with leprosy, comes immediately after Jesus concluded his sermon on the mount. Matthew wrote at the end of the sermon, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus then immediately touched the untouchable leper and healed the unhealable. In touching and healing the leper, Jesus showed his authority over illness giving then authority of the words of his sermon. Think about how it would be if at the end of this sermon, I was able to cure someone of an incurable disease. Do you think the impact of my sermon would be substantial? I think so.
People who heard Jesus’ sermon now not only saw the transformation of this leper but they could also touch the man’s clean and restored skin. In touching, the people would understand that Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount were not just well taught, but they would understand Jesus’ words themselves held the power of God.
Jesus’ power to heal captivated people’s attention and occurred as a means of authenticating his words. The Gospel of Mark shares with us that after word spread that Jesus could heal with a touch, “8b Many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. 9 Because of the crowd he [Jesus] told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. 10 For he [Jesus] had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him [Jesus]” (Mark 3:8b-10). People wanted to touch Jesus. The people wanted the power of God to be given to them and free them from their illness or disability. So great were the crowds seeking to touch Jesus, that Jesus had to get into a boat and teach from the waters of the Sea of Galilee to the people seated and standing along its shores. Touching Jesus mattered greatly to the people.
As the momentum of Jesus’ ministry accelerated, we read in Mark that, “A large crowd followed and pressed around him [Jesus].” Jesus and the crowd were on their way to the home of a wealthy leader of the synagogue named Jairus. Jairus had begged Jesus to come at once to heal Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter who was on the verge of death.
Mark recorded that as Jesus and the crowd quickly made their way to Jairus’ home, “25 A woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She [The woman] had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she [the woman] grew worse” (Mark 5:26-27). Mark gave us a contrasting character to the wealthy man named Jairus. Mark introduced a woman. We are not given her name, like we had with Jairus. We know that she has been made poor by her illness, a bleeding disorder. A woman with a bleeding disorder was a social outcast. She could not participate in the synagogue, as Jairus could, and she could not socialize with others in the community because she was not permitted to touch other people. This woman suffered in this way for as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive giving Jairus joy. Whatever the woman’s illness, it was essentially uncurable.
“27 When she [the woman] heard about Jesus, she came up behind him [Jesus] in the crowd” (Mark 5:27a). The woman was probably known in the community as the woman who has been bleeding forever. She approached Jesus from behind, perhaps coming from the rear of the group in hope that she would go unnoticed and not be shooed away. She saw no chance the group would allow her to get close to Jesus to make her appeal directly to him.
Mark wrote, “27 The woman came up behind him [Jesus] in the crowd and touched his [Jesus’] cloak, 28 because she [the woman] thought [to herself], ‘If I just touch his [Jesus’] clothes, I will be healed.’ 29 Immediately her [the woman’s] bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (Mark 5:24b-29). This woman had amazing faith believing all she needed to be healed was to touch Jesus outer garment!
Jesus had attracted a large crowd of people who walked close to him, moving as a unit, jostling one another, noisily making their way to Jairus’ house. Unseen by anyone in the group was a woman who for twelve years was afflicted with a bleeding condition. The woman touched some part of Jesus’ outermost garment and immediately she felt changed within. By faith, the woman’s suffering was over, the bleeding stopped. With her mission of faith accomplished, the woman began a slow retreat from the crowd hoping again she would go unnoticed.
But the story had a twist. Mark wrote that as soon as the woman had touched Jesus’ garment, “30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He [Jesus] turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31 ‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’” Jesus disciples are almost mocking Jesus. Everyone had been pushing and brushing up against one another including against Jesus and now Jesus wanted to know who touched his garment? The disciples must have thought that so many people touched Jesus’ garment, what could Jesus possible mean by that question? They offered Jesus no answer to his question.
Mark wrote, “32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it” (Mark 5:32). Valuable time needed to reach Jairus’ dying daughter was ticking by as Jesus kept insisting on looking for the person who touched his garment. The tension and urgency were rising. Finally, “33 The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his [Jesus’] feet and, trembling with fear, told him [Jesus] the whole truth. 34 He [Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering’” (Mark 5:33-34).
It is important to note here that Jesus wanted a conversation with the person who touched his garment. Jesus and the woman each knew a healing had occurred but no one else heard the woman’s story or the healing. No one other than the woman and Jesus knew of the woman’s faith. When Jesus heard the woman’s story, he called her “Daughter,” just as Jairus had spoken of his own children. Though the woman is likely older than Jesus, Jesus was making the point to her and everyone else that to be touched by God is to become his child. Secondly, Jesus said to the woman she was healed. This is not news to the woman. She knew she was healed. But the Greek word Jesus used here, sōzō, sode'-zo, means both a physical healing and the spiritual healing of salvation. Jesus was making the point to the woman and to those present that in touching God, her body was healed but more important, her faith in God healed her spiritually as well.
What do we conclude about this scene and about touch for our lives? As always, when dealing with our senses, there are two things to consider. There is the physical and the spiritual.
First, as we deal with the physical sense of touch we realize that the story of Jesus Christ being sent by God from heaven is the story of God revealing himself to humanity in a way that we humans could most readily and easily receive him. God’s revelation was not through glimpses of heaven or some mystical experience. God’s revelation came in human form, flesh and blood, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was called Immanuel, God with Us, the incarnation of God, God in the flesh. Jesus was someone people could hear as he spoke in their native language. Jesus was someone people could see as they walked, talked, ate, and worshipped together. And most importantly, Jesus was someone people could touch and know that Jesus was real. Jesus was not a ghost as some would later claim. Jesus was real because people touched him, and he touched them.
Secondly, as we deal with the spiritual sense of touch we realize that the power of touch made God real amid suffering and it made God’s promises easier to accept. The spiritual power of God became real when people would later touch Jesus not to be healed by him but to inflict wounds to Jesus’ hands, feet, and side that brought about the death of Jesus in flesh and blood. And while this people intended deadly harm to Jesus and an end to the Jesus’ story, their wounding of Jesus only served to make real the extent of God’s love. Peter would later write, “24 ‘He [Jesus] himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24).
What then are we to do in response? Let’s think of it this way. As Jesus laid down his life for us, we are called to lay down our lives for each other by becoming the living body of Christ. Christians are called to by Christ to the world by making his love incarnate, visibly, tangible, and touchable. When we love and care for others and touch them, it is God’s character that becomes known to them through us. If people can feel God’s love and experience God’s love though us, someone they can touch as well as see and hear, then people are assured that God is real. In you, they are touched by God.
We have been blessed with the sense of touch so that we can inform our minds with the vastness of God’s creation. And we have been blessed with God’s personal and remarkable touch through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus used the power of touch to reach out not just to those closest to him but also to those socially distanced from him. Jesus touched others so that barriers could be broken down. Jesus touched because God knows we need to feel the realness of God. In accepting Jesus, we are touched spiritually and given the mission to make God real to other through the touch of love. Let us be courageous and touch those close and those distanced from us that they too can know the realness of God and see God’s character through us. Amen and Amen.