Touchy, Feely

Psalm 16; John 20:19–31, preached by Rev. Clyde Steckel on April 16, 2023

Many years ago I shared a taxicab ride with a tall angular Black woman from Jamaica. We had attended an ecumenical meeting at the church center in New York City, and were on our way to the Newark airport to catch our flights home. As I arranged items in my briefcase, she spotted my thin, worn New Testament and Psalms. “May I see that?” she asked. I handed it to her. She rubbed her large, bony hands over the cover. “Oh!” she shrieked, giving a little jump in her seat. “There is so much power in this book. I can feel it. You must feel it too!”

Like my mother I am always on the verge of panic when I am in an unfamiliar place where something unexpected happens. I thought of many escape options that could not work. I replied, eventually, “That New Testament is precious for me because it was a gift from my father, a sign of his recognition of my desire to become a minister, rather than the career path he hoped I would follow in the US Navy.”

“Yes,” she replied, “your father’s power is in this book, and the power of your Heavenly Father.”

“Yes, of course,” I answered, hoping to terminate the conversation and dispel the spiritual cloud filling the cab.

I remembered this conversation as I read John 29, 19–31, todays’ lectionary gospel passage, the story of doubting Thomas, who would not believe in the resurrection unless he could touch and feel the wounds in Jesus’s body. What could I say about that story?

Another memory intervened. Some of you are old enough to remember the human potential movement of the seventies and eighties. We were advised to shed our repressions, reach out and hug everyone spreading a gospel of love. Whole congregations embraced this gospel, hugging instead of passing the peace, and being hugged indiscriminately by mostly male pastors at the close of the service. Here at First Church, being a highly educated and somewhat emotionally restrained community, we did not fall prey to hugging. But a remnant remains, the rule that we must check in at the beginning of every meeting. 

At the seminary, skeptical professors derided the human potential movement by calling it that touchy feely thing.

But there is a profound truth tucked away in the human potential movement, and in the story of doubting Thomas in John’s gospel, namely, that we humans are embodied beings. We are not, as the ancient Greek philosophers imagined, divine souls or minds trapped in decaying bodies. No, our essence, our being, is embodied. Souls or minds experience the same destiny as bodies—creation, growth, decay, and death.  

That is why the Easter part of the Christian narrative, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, coupled with the ancient creedal affirmations of the resurrection of the body, are so profoundly puzzling and, at the same time reassuring. Here is where John’s story of doubting Thomas can reveal fresh insights. For Thomas, touching the wounds of the resurrected Christ became his own Easter resurrection. He did not just believe. He was transformed, born again. Easter can come alive for each of us if we allow our wounds to be touched.

Everyone here is wounded, in one way or another. Many of us have made an uneasy peace with our wounds, a peace comprised of forgetting, denying, and compensating, but still wounded. We long to be healed, but the cost feels unbearable.

The Easter message shakes up this settled arrangement. The resurrection promises healed bodies and souls if we can risk our wounds to the healing touch of the risen but wounded savior. 

This healing touch is invitational, not invasive, as it often seemed in the human potential movement. Each of us can be both healed and a healer in a community of Christ’s followers. But the healing love we share is offered, never demanded. Which is God’s way with us, wounded as we all are, but offering a resurrected, healing life just the same.  

It’s an offer not to be taken lightly. The suppressed pain may hurt more than we imagined. The healing touch may feel more like a crucifixion than a resurrection. But that is the pathway to resurrection.

My cruciform path reached a climax in 2020. After three surgeries and persisting physical handicaps, I felt torn from my vocation to teach and preach. But a friend touched my wound, saying, simply, “Write.” 

“Write what?” I asked.

“Anything,” was the answer. “Just write.”

So the stone of entombment was rolled away. I began to write. Now I write every day.

Perhaps you’ve embarked on some such path. I urge you to stay the course, to hang in there. While it is tempting to imagine resurrection in the after-life, walking those streets of gold in our new white robes, that exercise of the imagination gets us off the hook, missing the pain and the joy of resurrection here and now. 

I am trying to stay on that path, though faltering often. I hope for a good walk on the pilgrim path of resurrection for each of you. Amen.