Sensing the Gospel: Touch, Luke 7: 11-15 and Revelation 21: 1-4

Touch is a powerful thing. In our ability to touch and to feel is the power to unlock memories and emotions, to form powerful bonds and establish relationships. It is actually the first sense that a baby possesses. Now some of you are thinking, “can’t babies hear in the womb?” That’s true, and its why nothing but Taylor Swift played in our house for nine months. But directly after birth the baby is still getting everything else figured out, their eyes aren’t adjusted yet, their ears are getting used to a new level of sound, taste and smell will develop over weeks and months, but they can feel. That’s why now they say one of the most important things they can do immediately after birth is get skin to skin contact between mother and child because even minutes impact the bonding. That was actually one of Meghan’s biggest fears, that she wouldn’t get that time. For the weeks leading up to Davis’ birth she kept having this dream where something would happen and they would forget to give her that skin on skin time. Then she would wake up and yell at me for letting it happen. And I would grunt. And then she’d start to realize it was a dream and want to explain it and I would roll over and go back to sleep. Because I was a very good “lets eat this pizza at 3 in the afternoon and then have tacos for dinner” pregnancy partner but I was not a good “let me tell you about the subtle difference in the same dream I’ve had eight times already” pregnancy partner. I’ll admit to being skeptical about the whole skin to skin thing, you know, back in my day they took us off to the nursery and we didn’t see our parents for two days and no millennials have any issues with their parents…. But when nothing else works, when nothing else calms him down, I can hold that baby right here (on my chest), and I can feel him breath deeper and calmer, and I can feel that he knows he’s safe.

Touch is a powerful thing. We don’t see our friends from college a lot, the closest ones are in Atlanta, we’re spread out all over, but when we see them we walk up, and we hug, and in that moment its like we never graduated and moved on to real life. The last time I saw my Grandfather he could barely see, he could hardly hear, he didn’t really talk, he had stopped eating because his taste and smell were gone, but he grabbed my hand, and everything that needed to be said was right there. We know the power of touch. We know the power of a handshake and a pat on the back, of a hug at just the right moment, of a friend grasping our hand or a parent wrapping their arm around us at just the right moment.

We know the power of the other kind of touch as well. Touch that does harm. Touch that hurts and abuses, touch that causes trauma. There’s the power again, because alone of the senses we can use our ability to touch to do good or evil. We can use touches that help or touches that hurt.

Galilean funerals would have been a festival for the senses. We know its true in Greek culture and there’s evidence this trickled in to Jewish custom as well, a funeral was the last chance to make your mark. It was the last chance to gain honor and prestige, to thank those who had stood by you and shame those who opposed you, it was your opportunity to tie up all your loose ends. Just an aside, your funeral is a terrible time to try to tie up loose ends. Don’t wait, fix it now. Whatever it is, fix it now.

This funeral would have been a little more of a low-key affair in some ways and even more dramatic in others, this was not the celebration of a long life and a well-deserved rest, this was a time of mourning a life cut short, a woman who had already lost her husband and now lost her only child and had no one left to support her. The cries of the mourners would have been extra loud. The size of the crowd would have been touching to see. There would be a meal afterward, the scent of the oils used to preserve the body would have made their way through the air, all the sense would have been there. All but one. All but touch.

You see you can’t touch a dead body. Its unclean. You can’t even touch the board that the body is carried on because it has touched the linens that touched the body and is therefore unclean. The boards were carried on polls put through hoops on the board so that enough degrees of separation were present between the carriers and the deceased.

Jesus seemingly stumbles onto this scene. He and the disciples and a crowd that has gathered are moving towards this town at the same time the funeral procession is coming out. Jesus assesses the situation, perhaps someone tells what happened, perhaps he just knows in that way that we see Jesus able to just know, but he decides in this moment to intervene. He speaks to the woman, offering what in the moment might seem like an uncaring statement, “don’t cry.” I can imagine her being taken aback, she has every right to cry. Another aside, be thoughtful in how you speak during times of grief. Everyone isn’t ready in the moment to hear that everything happens for a reason and that it’ll get better. Sometimes the best words we offer are the ones we keep to ourselves, instead letting our presence speak for us.

Jesus does more than just speak though, he moves forward and he touches the bier! This is not done! This is not right! Isn’t he worried about being unclean, isn’t he concerned about what comes next? What comes next is a miracle. After the touch Jesus tells the boy or young man, however old he is to get up, and he does. He removes the linen wrappings and all of a sudden, the glare of sunlight comes into his eyes. He can hear the crowd gasp in amazement, the smell and taste of the fresh air overtake him and then, I think the most powerful thing of all. He feels the touch of stranger, just for moment, and then that touch is replaced by one he knows. One as familiar to him as his skin. And that mother holds her baby boy again, the one thing she thought she’d never be able to do. She knew she’d remember his face, she knew she’d hear his voice, smell the scents of his clothes, taste his favorite meals, but she was never going to feel that touch again. And in this act of mercy, through barely any words, but the power of touch, a whole town is awed. Word spreads throughout the countryside. Most importantly love is given another chance.

In Revelation 21, John tells us of the new heaven and the new earth, of the New Jerusalem, where God and God’s people will live together. And what does he tell us that sets it part? Not the sights, it’s a spectacular city I’m sure, but if we’re honest most of what we think we’ll see we’ve come up with on our own. Its not the food and drink, the tastes and smells, we’re not told anything about that and I doubt the draw of heaven is the buffet. The sounds, although again I’m sure they’re wonderful don’t get a lot of ink here, so what is, what makes this place worth wanting. “They will be his people. And God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.” He will wipe every tear. Its in God’s touch that John sees the majesty of heaven. That requires a delicate touch, a loving touch, the touch of one who wants nothing more than to bring an end to our sorrow and stands with us, offering a loving embrace, when that is all that will make the pain go away.

This week we’ve begun or journey, towards Palm Sunday’s high and Good Friday’s low, towards Calvary’s hill and a nameless empty tomb. The journey that reminds that death does not have the last word. The hands of our God are hands of creation not destruction. That the touch we expect when we encounter our maker need not be one of discipline, but the loving, life giving embrace of love.

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