There’s an odd little detail in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the story we’ve just heard. It’s only Matthew’s Gospel which includes it. Mark and Luke don’t mention it. When the Gospel writers do something different with the same stories, it’s always worth asking why, because what they put in or leave out is usually significant, something they particularly want us to notice.
What is it? It is what Jesus does when his disciples cower on the ground, bewildered by the sight of him shining in glory, terrified by the voice of God which has acclaimed him as his beloved Son. Jesus comes to them and, we are told, he touches them. He touches them. Why? Matthew wants to tell us something, to put his own slant on this story, and the key, I think, is in Jesus’ touch.
Touch matters to us. We all know that. There is a lot of scientific evidence that children deprived of touch can often fail to thrive physically as well as emotionally (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/), and that need continues throughout our lives. I am sure there are times in all of our lives when a hug, or a hand holding ours, has meant far more than words could, soothing, comforting, reassuring us that we are touchable.
Touch can be problematic too, though. We can feel awkward touching and being touched by others. Some people need more personal space than others; even shaking hands can feel difficult, never mind the bear hug that others might give without a second thought. Giving or receiving personal care in times of illness or long- term disability can be a particular problem, sometimes so excruciatingly embarrassing that it prevents people getting the help they need.
Touch can be abusive and hurtful too. When a friend or lover puts an arm around our shoulders it feels good, but when it’s someone who is trying to manipulate or patronise us we shrink from it. For some, their response to touch will have been coloured by bad experiences in the past that they can’t forget.
It is the intimacy of touch that makes it potentially both joyful and difficult. Flesh and blood contact makes us real to each other in ways that words never entirely can, but it also makes us vulnerable to each other too. When someone is close enough to touch us, they’re also close enough to hurt us.
Touch was very important in Jesus’ ministry and life, and it’s often mentioned. On many occasions he healed people with a touch. He took a little girl who everyone thought was dead by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 5.41). He touched Peter’s mother in law, and the fever she was suffering from left her (Matthew 8.15). He touched the eyes of the blind, and they saw. (Matthew 9.29). He touched those who others wouldn’t touch – the lepers whose diseases rendered them ritually unclean.(Mark 1.41).
Touch could be a sign of Jesus’ blessing too. When children were brought to him, much to the dismay of his disciples who had tried to send them packing, Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (Mark 10.16) It is a very physical description.
Jesus didn’t just touch others though. He also let them touch him. He got himself into a lot of trouble when he let a woman with a reputation as a sinner touch him while he was at dinner with some prominent local men. (Mark 7.38) She didn’t just touch him, in fact. She bathed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She kissed them and anointed them with ointment. I think that would cause quite a stir now, never mind then. On another occasion, a woman touched him – or at least his cloak – surreptitiously in the midst of a crowd, hoping he wouldn’t notice. (Mark 5.30) She suffered from constant bleeding and that made her, and anyone she touched, unclean. She didn’t want to put Jesus in a difficult position, but she was desperate. But as soon as she touched him, he knew it. “Who touched me?” he asked. The disciples were confused. He was in the midst of a crowd, pressing in on him – loads of people were touching him. But he knew that for one person in the crowd that touch hadn’t just been accidental; it had meant something, something really important. “Power has gone out of me”, he said. The woman came forward, and far from the rebuke or shaming she might have expected, he affirmed her and declared to all those around her that she was accepted, loved and healed.
Jesus could have healed and blessed all these people perfectly well without physical contact, and he sometimes did in other cases, but for these people, touch was part of their healing. They didn’t just need their physical ailments cured, they needed to come into contact – literally – with the power and the presence of God, skin to skin, flesh to flesh, reality to reality. They needed to know that God was with them and for them, to literally be “in touch” with him.
That brings us back to the touch in today’s Gospel story. Why does this touch matter? Let’s put ourselves into the minds of Peter, James and John if we can. They’d just had a stupendous and bewildering experience. Jesus, their Jesus, their mate, had stood on a mountainside glowing with the glory of God, with Moses on one side of him and Elijah on the other. They’d seen some extraordinary things in their time with him – healings and other miracles – but they had never seen this. And when they did, as good Jewish men, they would have been instantly reminded of what their scriptures told them about looking on the glory of God, namely that it was horribly dangerous. No wonder they fell to the ground in terror. They were probably specifically remembering the story we heard in our first reading today, of Moses going up the mountain to meet with God. Before that happened God had told Moses to warn the Israelites not even to touch the mountain while he was gone, let alone try to go up it and look at God themselves.
That attitude was enshrined in the bricks and mortar of the Temple by the time of Jesus. It was made up of concentric courtyards, and only certain people were allowed entry to them. The outer one was for Gentiles, then there was one for Jewish women, then one for Jewish men, then a courtyard for the priests, but at the heart of that was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest went there, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only after very careful preparation. Getting close to God was a risky business.
But here on this mountain, Peter, James and John had been ambushed by God’s glory, shining in their friend, transfiguring him. No wonder they were confused and terrified. What were they going to do now? Were they ever going to be able to go down the pub with him again?
Jesus’ touch says “yes” to them. It says, “I’m here. This transfigured person, the beloved Son of God is me, your familiar friend. The person you’ve fished with, eaten with, walked with, laughed with, cried with. This is my hand touching you, the hand that’s hauled in the nets with you, broken bread with you, maybe even made the boats you sailed in, the hand that’s calloused from hard work in the carpenter’s shop, the hand you know as well your own. I am the same person you have always known.”
That’s the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation, of course, his coming as the Word made flesh, God with us. The God of majesty, the God of shining glory is present in this carpenter from Galilee, and if he can be there, he can be anywhere.
In the sweep of the story of the Gospel this revelation comes at a crucial moment. After this, Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. Then, once again, his disciples found themselves confused and bewildered. But it wasn’t the dazzling light of the transfiguration that was the problem; it was the awful darkness of the crucifixion. Could this man dying in agony really be the Messiah? Wasn’t this a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of Jesus’ failure? That’s what the popular theology of the time said. If they struggled to get their heads around the idea that their carpenter friend could be God’s anointed one during his ministry, they’d struggle even more to accept it when he was being crucified like a criminal.
Only after the resurrection would it start to make sense. Only then would they realise that through Jesus, every part of human experience had been touched by God; life and death, work and play, joy and suffering. The hands that held the hammer and the plane in the carpenter’s workshop were God’s. The hands that healed lepers were God’s. The hands that embraced grubby, noisy children were God’s. And the hands that were nailed to the cross were God’s too.
We’re about to enter the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday. People mark Lent in many ways, by giving things up, or taking things up, in prayer, in service, in learning about their faith. But central to everything we do in Lent should be the desire to let God touch us, to be aware of his presence in our world, to hear him saying, “Here I am. This is me, with you – in the midst of your anxieties about your job, or your children or your health, in the darkness of loneliness with you when you feel that no one else really sees you or knows you, in the stranger that comes to you for help, and the stranger who comes to help you. This is me, with you.”
We live in a world which is deeply confused about touch. People are often hungry for human contact – loneliness is modern epidemic – and yet we’re also afraid of it, wary of others. We may have good reason to be afraid if we have been touched in a hurtful way. But we never need to be afraid of the touch of God, because his touch can only bring healing, hope and life. So, this Lent, let’s ask God to help us feel his touch, his hand on our shoulder to comfort us, his hand on our heads to bless and heal us, his hand taking ours to lift us up and lead us out into the world in his service.