Touching can be as routine as a handshake, or for the younger generations as simple as a high five or a fist bump, or it might be threatening and abusive. Touch is important to us, it nurtures us. Before we were born we were enfolded in our mother’s womb, then consoled by a parent’s shoulder, then congratulated with a hug or pat on the back, so all of life’s milestones are marked by touch. When we are hurt we are comforted by touch, it alleviates peoples fear, and it’s healing and reassuring.
And in this story of the risen Jesus in the days after Easter, Luke proclaims that it’s touch whereby Jesus chooses to make himself known, by touch doubt is confronted. Jesus had appeared on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem, they had locked themselves in a room afraid of the authorities. Then Jesus suddenly appears to them and they’re petrified! Wouldn’t we all be! They must have been concerned for Jesus’ reaction to their actions over the last few days, and with a range of beliefs in the resurrection they must have been confused. Jesus understood them and says ‘peace be with you’, then he shows them his hands and his feet and says, “Touch me and see that it is I myself; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
So often our faith or doubt is conditional. In the story of Thomas, Thomas asked to see with his own eyes and to touch Jesus’ wounds, “Unless I see it with my own eyes, and touch it with my own hands, I will not believe.”
So often we want to look for proof, we want explanations, and unless they are forthcoming we have a reluctance to believe. Our doubts are often a personal thing, and we find ourselves wrapped up in the middle of the struggle. We wrestle with our objections, our doubts, and our questions. We want to touch and see.
But given the opportunity, none of the disciples did touch Jesus, and while the writer of Luke’s gospel is keen for our faith not to be conditional on touch, touch is central to God’s relationship with us. In the beginning, as you can see in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel masterpiece portrays it, God touched humanity into being.
In Jesus, God became human, able to touch humanity. In Jesus’ ministry the little ones climbed up into his lap. The lepers, made outcasts by their disease, were restored by his healing touch. The woman outcast because of her blood disorder was made whole by touch.
Touch also gets through when nothing else does. Touch reconciles. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the waiting father doesn’t hold back, but rather gives an overwhelming hug of reconciling love. Touch that surmounts every barrier. There’s a magic moment near the end of the film Driving Miss Daisy when the black chauffeur and the white patrician lady wordlessly clasp their hands in a simple yet profoundly moving gesture. Such moments point to the wonder of reconciliation, and the touch of Jesus is about reconciliation for all.
Touch speaks of a love strong enough to bear a cross and to say with authority to frightened disciples, “Touch me and see.” Through the open arms of forgiven and forgiving people, the deepest wounds are set upon a path of healing. Touch also points us to the future. The risen Lord’s invitation to touch and see, points to what is yet to come for our bodies. We long for that fulfilment, to embrace the Christ and those long gone from us. And now the work of God in raising Jesus is about touch, it enables the disciples to declare later “that which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands”.
We’re also called to bring the nurturing touch into our present, to reach out and touch, to reach out to the hungry, imprisoned, naked, sick, and all those whom Jesus longs to touch through us. And maybe it’s here that we have to move from the event of the resurrection, wanting a rational explanation to explain it, to experiencing the resurrection, becoming witnesses to these things.
To be witnesses to Christ is a challenge; we live in times when people either know nothing about the risen Jesus or who do not know the need for him in their lives. In these post-Christian days, we’re as much in a mission context as were the first disciples.
The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie once said that the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. It can seem to others that we are indeed worshipping merely a ghost. How we deal with this is how Jesus dealt with the doubt of the disciples: he shows them that he was real, through practical examples, by touching. We’re called to experience the resurrection and live active lives as disciples, touching others and allowing them to touch Christ in our actions. Touching lives, concerns, hopes, fears and joys. This is why the church needs to be involved in society, involved in the political life, involved in real issues like injustice and inequality, involved in the lives of people who need God’s love.
We already do this, of course. Christians contribute disproportionally to charitable and voluntary activities in both the poorest parts of Britain and the world. We should not under-estimate the impact of the church’s practical actions in the world. Touching the world is attractive and infectious. If people see us living lives like this they become interested, and they begin to discover that the Christian life is indeed a life worth living and not the ghostly life of power, or the acquisition of wealth, or simply the next big thing.
So never take touch for granted. Acceptance, encouragement, trust, and hope come through in the touch of hand upon hands, as the risen Lord touches us through others. From every side and in the most unexpected ways, Christ meets us in the call to touch lives, and we should remember that such a small act can mean so much. God reached out and touched humanity through Jesus, and we are invited to touch and see that the Lord is good; we are invited to reach out as Christ’s hands and touch others.
“You are witnesses of these things,” he says to us. Tell it. Live it. Become it. The resurrected life is ours, let us be witnesses.