Sensing the Gospel 1: Touch


Revelation 21:1-4

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”


Psalm 118:15-17


There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:

“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

    the right hand of the Lord is exalted;

    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

I shall not die, but I shall live,

    and recount the deeds of the Lord.


Luke 7:11-15

Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain

11 Soon afterwards[a] he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus[b] gave him to his mother.


When I was a girl, my cousin M. was my hero. She was nine years older than me, but treated me as if I were almost an equal. She listened to me, she liked me, and as a result, she had an enormous influence on me. The first album I ever purchased was “Bookends” by Simon and Garfunkel, because M. played it for me. (The second was “In a Gadda Da Vida,” because M. taught me to play air guitar by it).


One day, M. asked me a question: “If you had to lose all your senses except one, which one would you want to keep?”


I didn’t think too long about my answer. I loved music. I played piano and guitar and I liked to sing, and I loved to listen to Simon and Garfunkel (and also Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, also thanks to my cousin’s teenaged tastes). So I answered, “Hearing.” I thought, how awful it would be to live in a world without music. “What about you?” I asked. I thought I knew the answer to this question, by the way. M. was an artist. By the time we had this conversation, she was a college student, learning the techniques of oil painting and chiaroscuro, the study of light and shadow. I thought, of course, M. loves seeing art the way I love hearing music, so I assumed, naturally, she would say, “Sight.”


But she didn’t. “Touch,” she said. “If I could only have one sense, I would want to be able to touch and be touched. I would want to be able to hold someone, and be held.”


I felt kind of stupid, hearing that. It seemed so obvious. Of course. Touch.


Touch is maybe the first sense we experience. In the darkness of the womb we are held in a perfect environment of protection and warmth, with all our needs being met by our mother. As we grow that environment becomes more restrictive—our first home eventually becomes hopelessly crowded, and we are evicted into a world where we continue to long for the sense of being held so closely, so tightly, secure.


If we are lucky, touch continues to be something we experience as good. We have parents who hold us, maybe a huggy extended family, and we don’t have to learn that touch can hurt and harm, at least not for a while, not firsthand. We continue to associate touch with love, with protection, and with comfort… we are touched with gentleness when we are sad or hurt, our mother holds us when we fall down and skin a knee, our father hugs us when we miss the free throw and the game is lost.


And then, adolescence hits, and touch takes on a whole new meaning. The thrill of the touch of a hand, the dizzy desire that accompanies a first kiss, the experience of holding someone and never wanting to let go.


It is through touch that we are connected to one another. It is through touch that we experience our common humanity. And it is through touch that we learn what it is to be connected to God.


In Protestant worship we parcel out our opportunities to touch pretty sparingly, but they are still there.


Touch is integral to the sacraments. When an infant or child or adult joins the Christian faith community, words are spoken and prayers are said, but it is the touch of water that communicates that we are washed, we are refreshed, and our thirst is quenched with God’s living water.


When we gather around the communion table, we tell again the story of the night before Jesus died, and like him, we take bread in our hands and bless it and break it; we take the cup and pour it, and both taste and touch these things that remind us of our unity.


And before we do these thing we exchange a sign of God’s peace, and when it isn’t the height of cold and flu season, we dare to touch one another as we do so.


And these actions are done in the service of a God who, scripture tells us, not only formed the first humans out of the clay of the earth with the divine hands, but who determined that the best way to show divine love was to let it be seen in the flesh and blood man, Jesus, who laid hands on people to heal them and to cast out the demons that haunted them, who made a paste of his spit and some dirt and rubbed it on a man’s eyes with his fingers, who drew in the sand with a stick when he was pondering how to respond to an angry mob, and who (in our last reading) interrupted the very processes (processions) of death by laying his hand on the stretcher carrying a man to the tomb. The touch of Jesus intervened, just as the psalmist claimed:


the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.


The last time I saw M. it was in a courtroom, from a distance, because our families were embroiled in a terrible legal battle. How strange it was not to be close enough to touch, to have no desire to hug one another. A terrible sundering of what had been one of the most important relationships of my life.


She was right. If I could have only one sense, I would want it to be touch. I would want to be able to hold someone’s hand, and ask her forgiveness. I would want to be able to feel the pressure of her hand on mine as we tried to find our way back from being lost to each other.