15th April 2024

Can’t touch this?

Can’t touch this? An Easter sermon by Kenneth Padley

Readings: Acts 3.12-19; Luke 24.36b-48

Sunday 14 April 2024


Among the many depredations of the coronavirus restrictions was the suspension of the euphemistic-sounding ‘close-contact services’. Whether you missed getting your hair cut, treating yourself to a manicure, or adding to your collection of tattoos, the return of touch to our nation in 2021 was a reminder of how much the pandemic had starved us of normal human contact.


Touch is such a natural thing that we mourn its absence, and we grate when we’re told not to do it. Think of all those teasels lined up on heritage chairs in National Trust properties which prevent us from sitting down. We have faced an equivalent issue in the Cathedral recently in relation to the new altars in the spire crossing and Trinity chapel. We want weekday visitors to engage with these beautiful pieces of furniture, including walking on the platforms. But we also need to conserve the altars, including their delicate reflective surfaces. At present we have opted for minimal signage. But if we need to add an audio warning as well, we might commission the Lay Vicars to record a version of the American rapper MC Hammer’s smash hit, ‘You can’t touch this’.


Touch is such a vital human comfort, an intimate reminder that we are made for community. It accompanies us from birth to death, in sadness and in joy. For us, as for Jesus, touch is both the reward and the cost of enfleshment.


It is unsurprising therefore that touch has a role to play in the Easter story. Quite naturally, when Jesus appeared on the first Easter Day, the immediate reaction of his disciples was fear and surprise. As we heard, they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24.37).


Would we have reacted any differently? Those disciples weren’t stupid. People in the ancient world were no more credulous than we are. They rightly demanded evidence that Jesus had been resurrected. Jesus knew, verse 38, that they were ‘dialoguing’ in their hearts, using their faculties to process the sight before them. And so, verse 39, he sought to reassure them, ‘Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I have.’


Saint Luke as a medic also a thing or two about flesh and bones. And this aligned with his burning passion for social justice because he knew that material stuff matters to God.

  • Luke knew that God touches the world metaphorically in the act of Creation. (I have in mind the famous Michelangelo painting with the hand of God poking at the finger of Adam.)
  • And Luke knew that God touches the world literally as saviour, through the hands and feet of the incarnate Jesus. Remember that it is Luke who gives us the quintessential Christmas story of the baby in the grim earthly reality of the manger.

Matter matters. This was what God in Jesus chooses to redeem. And he does this by that most intimate of senses, touch. The ability to touch God in Jesus is thus both the truth of Christmas and the proof of Easter.


The outcome of such tangible confidence is the emphasis in both today’s readings on the Christian task of evangelism. The disciples believed in the resurrection because they saw the empty tomb and encountered the risen Jesus. They were so convinced that they did not return to their safe former professions. Instead, they heeded Jesus’ instruction in Luke 24.48 to become ‘witnesses of these things’. Indeed, St Peter illustrates this in our text from the Acts of the Apostles, preaching that ‘God raised [Jesus] from the dead. To this we are witnesses.’ (Acts 3.15).


You and I are enlisted in this task of witnessing. Given this, we need to be able to trip off our tongue the tangible evidence for Easter. In Scripture we read that the tomb was empty, that the risen Jesus was seen, heard and touched by his followers, and that those followers were so convinced that they risked life and limb to take the message around the known world. The tomb was empty, Jesus was seen again, and fearful fishermen became global evangelists.


However, there is an elephant in the room. Careful listeners may by now have identified a hole in my argument about the significance of touch in the Easter narrative. In Luke chapter 24 the risen Jesus offers reassurance to his followers through an invitation to touch. But in the famous encounter in the Easter Garden in John chapter 20, Jesus instructs Mary Magdalene not to touch. This, he explains, is because he has not yet ascended to the Father (John 20.17). Artists have so popularized this ambiguous incident that the scene is known as the ‘noli me tangere’, the Do-Not-Touch-Me.


Lying behind this tension are two New Testament words which are both translated from Greek to English as ‘touch’ but which have subtly different meanings.

  • The more common verb is : this word is about grabbing, clasping, clinging. In the gospels, sick people long to hang on to Jesus, to clutch at his cloak – . This is what Mary Magdalene is told not to do. The risen Jesus cannot be restricted or fully grasped.
  • By contrast, the word used permissively in Luke 24 is . This verb is much less common in the New Testament and carries connotations of reaching out, as if blind – feeling, tentatively searching. St Paul preached in Athens that people of all nations search for God and grope for him – (Acts 17.27). That is what the disciples are asked to do in today’s gospel. They are to stretch out for Jesus as if blind – .


Friends, the life of faith is rather like that, isn’t it? The touch with which we reach for God is tentative but trusting. However, we can never so grasp God as to pin her down. The one who makes and redeems the world is too great for that. Our ability to touch God in Jesus is wonderfully open-ended and creative. Such touch is the truth of Christmas, the cost of Good Friday, the proof of Easter, the form of everyday society, and the hope of eternity.