Touch and See

Luke 24:36b–48, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on April 14, 2024

I am going to wade into a dicey subject this morning—touch. As we teach our kids, not all touch is good. From violent physical attacks and sexual assault to more subtle abuses of power like hugging someone without permission, the power of touch can so easily be misused. Our ways of touching the more-than-human world are often profoundly disrespectful and destructive. We generally assume we have the right to bulldoze, dig and cut, to destroy habitat, to emit pollutants, to pick flowers or mine for minerals.

The pandemic has also taught us that sometimes we must care for each other by refraining from contact.And at the same time, the difficult experience of loving others from a distance has made us even more aware that healthy touch, respectful touch, touch that is mutually beneficial, is, in fact, essential to life. In the introduction to a set of scientific studies, published in a journal called Infant Behavior and Development the authors write:

Touch is a primary sense, and in early infancy, it may be the most important sense. The skin is our largest sense organ and young babies use it to their advantage. Typically, infants seek as much physical contact with another person as possible. When held, infants tend to snuggle into your neck and mold themselves to you. This position is calming for the infant, and it also allows infants to get to know their caregivers—to associate the various perceptions of touch, voice, sight, and smell with the person who is holding them.[1]

And of course scientific studies also demonstrate that the withholding of touch by caregivers can be devastating to a child’s process of developing healthy and trusting attachments.

In Luke’s account, Easter was an incredibly full day for Jesus and his disciples. First, the women went to the tomb and found it empty. Then the risen Christ appeared to two of his followers as a stranger on the road. At the supper table, they finally recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Sometime during this very long, intense day, Jesus also appeared to Simon, but we don’t hear any details of that encounter. And now, in the late evening hours, all of Jesus’ disciples were gathered together to confer about these strange happenings. And once again, Jesus appeared. His greeting, “Peace be with you” is not a casual “Hi, how are you?” “Peace” in our biblical tradition is much more than a slogan, much more than simply the absence of overt violence. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for peace is shalom, wholeness. And I think it’s fair to argue that shalom is the essential quality of vibrant, life-giving harmony that permeates Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. Shalom, peace, wholeness, is at the heart of the beloved community Jesus came to create.   

“Peace” however is not what the disciples initially experienced when Jesus suddenly appeared. They were “startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Certainly Luke goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the risen Christ was not a ghost, that he was a real person, a person of flesh, blood and bone, a person with healed wounds on his hands and feet. And yet what I hear in Jesus’ response to his disciples’ fears is not so much a need to prove something, but a loving invitation to continue to be in relationship. “Look at my hands and feet”; “Touch me and see”; “Have you anything here to eat?” 

We may or may not believe that the risen Jesus was present in the body among his followers on that first Easter day. Still, in this invitation to “touch and see” I hear a call for Jesus’ community of disciples to continue to embody his way of shalom despite violent resistance. In the midst of their encounter with Jesus the disciples experienced profoundly mixed feelings: “In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” I think the root of that turmoil may have been the question: how can this man—ejected, shamed, and crucified—be the Messiah? How can he be the one sent by God to bring shalom, to restore creation to wholeness? Isn’t his torment and execution a sign that he has failed? And the answer they received, when Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures, was a new way of hearing their own ancestral story. Jesus showed them how God has always been at work in creation not through brute force but through suffering love and faithful accompaniment. God’s very nature is to share our pain; to bear, with us, the consequences of our unjust and violent systems, and in this way to be our partner in bringing about transformation.  

I want to return to the words of John Dominic Crossan, which I shared on Easter Sunday. “To believe in resurrection is to participate in it.” In other words, resurrection is something we can touch. And we participate in resurrection when we touch each other and the world with love and justice, with consent and mutuality. We must honor each other’s boundaries around touch. And yet our very lives can depend on giving and receiving supportive, nurturing touch. Sometimes we don’t touch each other with hands. We can participate in resurrection simply by inhabiting the same space. We can touch each other through eye contact or a listening posture, by the sharing of energy from one body to another. In the embodied anti-racism practice circle I took part in recently, we learned to pay more attention to the way our own bodies feel, and to offer them support through touch, simply by placing a hand wherever we felt discomfort, pain or anxiety. This practice helps us to stay present in challenging situations. Rather than shutting down or dissociating ourselves from our bodies, we can weather difficult sensations, allowing for new patterns and possibilities to emerge. We participate in resurrection when we stand, with our bodies, against the exploitative policies of extractive capitalism, otherwise known as “grind culture” and when we embody instead the values of beloved community.

We participate in resurrection when we touch our natural world with care and justice. Ever since viewing the film Fantastic Fungi, I’ve wondered: do trees in the city have access to mycelium, the underground network that nurtures the forest as a community? Are urban trees cut off from this lifeline of communication and collaboration? Are their bodies (just like ours, often) isolated and lonely and longing for wholeness? What is it that we have really done through our ways of touching this earth and in what ways might we act to restore shalom? Indigenous wisdom prompts us to ask permission before using plants. That seems like a sensibility that could guide us as we seek to touch our world differently. I’ll be the first to confess I don’t know how to ask a plant’s permission. And, I would really like to learn.

What I hear in today’s scripture is that when we touch the world with love and justice, mutuality, and consent, we are Christ’s risen body. We participate in resurrection each time we bear witness, in tangible ways, to Jesus’ vision of shalom. Amen.