Here’s the last of my sermons on the senses from this Holy Week (tomorrow – on Good Friday – the sense is SOUND but I am not preaching).
Maundy Thursday: John 13.1-17,31b-35 – TOUCH
This is an extract from a novel about a character that lives on her own called Eleanor Oliphant.
“I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. I don’t mean a lover … but simply as a human being. The scalp massage at the hairdresser, the flu jab I had last winter – the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost always wearing disposable gloves at the time. I’m merely stating the facts.”
My heart broke when I read that – you’ll be glad to know that the novel actually does have a happy ending. But the character’s description of the lack of touch being at the heart of her loneliness rang true for me. Touch is our most primal sense. It is the first sense that we experience – an embryo the size of 1.5cm can experience touch, can feel the inside of their mother’s womb. As a society, we instinctively understand the power of touch. That is why, after the tragic shooting at his school, the head of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Florida promised “to hug each and every one” of his 3,300 students. A single, small touch can change countless lives. Princess Diana knew this when she held the hand of an Aids patient in 1987. So did Barack Obama when he stooped to let a young black boy pat his hair, so that he could feel his own potential in the palm of his hand.
And Jesus. Jesus, perhaps more than anyone, understood the power of touch. He sensed the power leave him when the woman who suffered from heavy bleeding touched the fringe of his cloak. He took clay and spat on it and rubbed it into the eyes of a man born blind. He touched unclean lepers. He let Mary of Bethany touch his feet with her hair.
Touch is never neutral. It holds power and that power can be for good or ill. We all know what it feels like to receive a hug that is well meant and one that is unwelcomed.
This comes to a head at the last meal Jesus has with his disciples. Culturally we struggle perhaps to understand the scene when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Feet are not something we see often, let alone touch, in our Northern European culture. But what we do understand is the power of touch to transform people’s lives. To make them feel valued, clean, worthy of attention. Touch is political – remember Princess Diana choosing to touch those AIDS victims – and what Jesus does at the last supper is a profoundly challenging act. He takes on the role of a slave, literally putting himself under the feet of his friends, his followers. And like every single one of us, Peter does not know how to receive this touch from Jesus. He’s uncomfortable with it.
Many of us never really appreciate the amazing grace offered to us in Jesus Christ because it is overpowering and makes us embarrassed and uncomfortable. Many never find it possible to accept that Jesus loves them with a fierce and passionate love. Many say ‘you will never wash my feet!’ We think ‘I’m not worthy’ or ‘I’m embarrassed, my feet smell, what will other people think of me if I say yes, if I take my shoes and socks off?’ No, I’ll keep my shoes and socks on thank you. It’s alright for all of you but it’s not for me, I can’t accept it.
Perhaps that’s you tonight. Perhaps you’ve never really let yourself become vulnerable enough to receive God’s love. Yes, it is dangerous to hang out with Jesus, but once we open ourselves to him, make ourselves vulnerable, recognise that we can’t go it alone and that only He can make us whole, only He can make us truly clean, our lives can be transformed. And then we pass that touch on to others. Jesus said ‘I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ That jolt of electricity from the touch of Jesus is transmitted from us to the next person. The power of touch. The power to transform. I want to finish tonight with a poem by George Herbert, it describes a guest being invited to a meal, perhaps this is you, perhaps this is me. Are we daring enough to let ourselves receive the touch of Christ?
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat:’
So I did sit and eat.