The Power of Touch

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It has been quite the week for us here at Grace. Instead of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” we’ve had one wedding, two funerals, the midweek Eucharist in addition to the Eucharist at Lanier Village, along with meetings, crises—including the copier breaking several times. As a staff along with parishioners, we moved from one important thing to another with little time for transition.

I hadn’t realized how biblical this pace was until I looked again at the Gospel for today and was reminded of Mark’s favorite linguistic conjunction of some form of the word “Immediately”, whether it’s “suddenly” or “at once.”

So, from healing the man possessed by the unclean spirit, Jesus immediately entered Simon’s house where Simon’s mother in law lay sick. Jesus took her hand and lifted her up and “immediately” she was healed.

Within the same week that he called the disciples to follow him, announcing that “the kingdom of God is at hand”

Jesus established the pattern of his public ministry: he preached and he healed. He went wherever there were crowds, and he didn’t pull any punches.

Nothing was off limits. The same held true for his healing ministry – nothing was too much, even bringing Lazarus back to life. There was no discrepancy between what he preached and what he practiced. There is a close linguistic parallel between “healing” and “salvation.” And this close connection is evident in the final verse:

“and he went throughout the Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons, for that is what he came out to do.”

The way Jesus healed was to restore wholeness in a person.

Whether giving sight or casting out a demon, Jesus’ understanding of illness seems to be compatible with our contemporary understanding of illness as un-wholeness. When Jesus said to the woman who pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the hem of his garment “Woman your faith has made you whole” he acknowledged that what had been broken or taken from her was now restored.

There is no getting around the frequency of “touch” when it comes to healing in biblical texts. Not only with Simon Peter’s mother in law who Jesus touched and she was healed. One incident after another points to the power of touch. Touch seems to imply intimacy, relationship. It is fair to say that being created in the image of God includes being created for intimate, personal relationships.

Scientific study and non-scientific observation tells us that primates deprived at an early age of touch show devastating effects on developmental skills and sociability. A recent experiment around relationship and prayer used two groups. The individuals in both groups were ill. One group was given the names of the other group and asked to pray for them by name. The other group was just asked to pray for all the people in the group, but had no names.

The results suggest that even just praying for someone by name is more effective than praying without names. Relationships, intimacy, community—our individual wholeness is inextricably linked to our place as part of the whole community.

Gerald May, a psychotherapist in DC writes about the importance of community in the healing process: “God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love  that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.” That idea of immediacy and community absolutely characterizes the past few days in the life of this parish.

“Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are too often too slow to comprehend. Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust.

Theologically speaking, that is the reason for the incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding for us as disciples to realize that for some people, meeting Jesus through us is the only Jesus they will ever meet.

Clearly, we experienced many of these Jesus encounters this week: touching all those hands in five different communion services; shouting across the hall to someone to come solve a computer crisis; sharing a quick lunch and then finding someone had left you a treat on your desk when you had to rush out for an emergency.

We all adjusted over and over again to the immediacy of the needs all around us. There was indeed a vibrancy in the atmosphere. Like May said, “To be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.”

As I reflected on all these rich moments in the light of the Gospel text of healing, I was drawn to an excerpt from Richard Selzer’s “Moral Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery”:

“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted – palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, as been severed.

I had to do it to remove the tumor in her cheek. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. “Will my mouth always be like this” she asks.

“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.” Then, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works. I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”

John 14:12: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.”

“Immediately he entered the house of Simon Peter whose mother in law lay sick with a fever and he touched her.” Here’s a radical idea. Maybe in this case, it wasn’t even a miracle. What if the “miracle” is just that this is what happens when someone who loves us touches us?

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Year B
Sunday, February 8, 2015

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