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s118g12  Sunday 6   12/2/2012

Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.   Mark 1.41

Recently I attended a service in an 'evangelical' church – the sort where everyone reads the bible as the lessons are being read, where ministers are male and where people are welcomed enthusiastically; though the reception would be different if you weren't straight.   I was treated to a sermon about how others water down the bible. unlike the ministers and people in that congregation.   I listened with some interest, guessing that the preacher would consider me a prime offender.   His text was 2 Corinthians 4:1-5   Much was made of St Paul's words 'we do not proclaim ourselves' - which was somewhat bemusing since, as I said, he spent much of his time criticising other preachers - a cunning way of proclaiming himself.   But it made me think that I myself have to be careful of the same sin, because I know how critical I am of the church.   Am I proclaiming myself?

I guess my answer is to consider the outcome of their faith in contrast to mine.   Their vision of the kingdom of God is where everyone reads their bible and agrees with them on matters of faith.   For those who disagree, the gospel is veiled and they are perishing - with the definite implication that they can't do anything about this, so ‘christians’ shouldn't worry about it.   It's enough that God loves the ‘christians’; if God hates others, that is their problem.   As long as they have done their bit proclaiming the gospel without losing heart, they can't be blamed.   As I type this I realise how they are often ‘protecting their backsides’!

My vision of the kingdom is where everyone is included, and my task is to work towards this now.   No one is condemned, like this leper was considered to be.   Jesus didn't leave this person in his (or her) pitiful state.   Jesus reached across the boundary between holiness and the ultimate profanity, the person who was as good as dead.

Now I don't pretend that I have any special gift which means I can heal someone else simply by touching them; it this were true so many doctors would be out of a job, and it seems that God surely doesn't want a lot of unemployed doctors.   There are certainly enough sick for everyone’s ministry to be fulfilled and I can't heal everyone!   But I can reach across the boundaries of what perhaps some people regard as the 'holy' to the secular and so make something or someone else clean.   It seems to me that this is what the ‘evangelical’ will not do: reach across and touch the other – to be human amongst other humans.

But as I think about their vision and mine, I wonder which is more possible – that everyone comes to believe, worship and live identically, or that people come to accept difference in others?   I hardly think the first is ever possible and I wouldn’t worship a 'god' who gave me the job of making everyone like me.   It seems to me that if everyone came to believe, worship and live identically, then ‘love’ would be a trifling matter.   No one would do anything that would need forgiveness, understanding and love.   Jesus command to love would become essentially superfluous!   It may of course not be more possible that people come to accept difference in others – especially and sadly since some ‘christians’ seem to exempt themselves from the necessity for this – but it seems to lend credibility to the necessity for Jesus’ command.

‘Jesus stretched out his hand’ – it was Jesus who moved, it was Jesus who took the initiative to bridge the gap between the holy and the profane.   For the 'evangelical', it is the profane who have to repent and become holy.   For me it is the holy who have to repent and include the profane.   The ‘evangelical’ leaves the other for whom the gospel is veiled to perish, whereas Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the person perishing.

And to return to the words of scripture that the preacher suggested others 'watered down'.   I realise that the same charge could be made of him, for he would agree with the injunction: 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' except if the others were gay or not 'christian'   In those cases 'the gloves come off'!   Who is watering down the scriptures?  

But also 'we do not proclaim ourselves' isn't just double-speak for: I do not proclaim myself - but we, as a church, do not proclaim ourselves.   I am not here thinking of the particular 'evangelical' congregation, but of most congregations I have known, and the church in general.   Most congregations I have known want the priest / minister to get others to come to 'their' church'.   And this extends all the way up to the doctrine of 'outside the Church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) - with the assumption that the 'Church' is that visible Church which agrees with me.    Again, what does it matter if I proclaim myself when the 'Church' continually proclaims herself?   Who does more harm by watering down the scriptures?   

‘Jesus stretched out his hand’ – it was Jesus who moved, it was Jesus who took the initiative to bridge the gap between the holy and the profane.   Indeed if we take seriously the doctrine of the incarnation, the healing came not when the divine touched the human, but when the human touched the other human.   And we are healed not when we are touched by the divine, but when we are touched by the human, and that can be both by anyone and everyone.   And we heal, not when we 'the holy' touch the human, but when we as humans touch other humans.

And again, to put this into the corporate context, healing of the society will come when we as the church become human and touch the secular.   And for me this means putting aside a lot of things, especially any sense of superiority.

At the beginning of the AIDS crisis one of my colleagues wryly commented that life itself was a sexually transmitted terminal illness.   Jesus takes the initiative and becomes human to touch and bless our very humanity, in the midst of its decay and death. 

And there are many ‘little deaths’ in life including ‘la petite mort’ of coitus.   Jesus reaches out and touches these and this and declares them and it clean.

The ‘evangelical’ described above is characterised by what they avoid doing, avoiding touching anything unclean.   On the other hand those who follow Jesus do as he did and reach out, touch and so transubstantiate that which was thought to be secular.

And for all the emphasis on loving Jesus in the service in that ‘evangelical’ church, I wonder if they are really loving the Jesus that took this initiative, and calls them and us to do likewise?   ‘To do unto others’, even when they may be gay or not ‘christian’ in our terms.

The touch of Jesus was not to make the leper into someone special, he was not to tell anyone other than the priest, he was enabled to return to normal society.   So often the Church turns this touch of Jesus into an excuse to separate herself from the ordinary run of the mill humanity, which is death indeed.

On the other hand, the healing of society as a whole, which (as I think about it) is a fairly good description of eternal life, comes into being when the corporate people of God transfigure their own and others' humanity through touch.

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