A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Don’t Touch Me!
April 9, 2020
As Jesus proceeds from disciple to disciple with basin and towel, he gets stopped by Peter. “Don’t touch me!” Peter in effect protests. (John 13:8) Those words hit home to us in a new way today, as we practice social isolation to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19.
Jesus’ ministry had been famously marked by a regular practice of touching people society had kept in physical isolation – sinners, people with communicable diseases, women, foreigners. Jesus had a spiritual mission, but carried it out through physical action. Breaking bread. Frying fish. Holding children. Healing the sick – sometimes with just a word, but more often by touch.
Social distancing in the Bible goes back to the purity laws of ancient Israel (see especially Leviticus 11 – 20), where banishment from social interaction was prescribed for many reasons. Anyone who casually touched a dead body had to be quarantined. As did anyone with symptoms of illness. As did menstruating women, and those who touched them. Jesus’ touch-heavy ministry stood in sharp contrast to the purity laws of separation by which his community had lived for centuries.
So in recoiling from Jesus, Peter was doing something that was socially common. His reason for doing so was not to protect himself from being contaminated by Jesus, but vice versa. It would humiliate Jesus, Peter thought, for him to touch Peter with water and towel.
When Jesus explains that his washing is required for any who want to be part of Jesus’ ministry team, Peter blurts back, “Then wash my whole body!” Peter never intended to opt out on Jesus. Jesus’ response carries a bit of a chuckle, I think. “No, no, Peter, it’s enough just to wash your feet. I’m just cleaning you where you need it.”
Jesus follows by telling his disciples to do to each other as he had done to them. Being connected to each other is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing practice. Touching each other in order to meet each other’s ongoing needs is foundational to being part of Jesus’ community. Only as Jesus’ followers are rightly connected to each other in mutual service do they become ready to participate in his mission of healing the world.
Trying to follow Jesus while being forcibly separated from each other is no small challenge. Several times in the New Testament the apostles admonish the saints to greet each other with a holy kiss. We instinctively shake hands or embrace or kiss our fellow-saints to this day. The last Sunday I preached at a church gathering was March 5, just as we were becoming aware of the spread of the coronavirus, well before social distancing mandates were issued. As the congregants left, I stood at the door to greet them, and already felt some real ambivalence about touching each other. Some wanted a kiss on the cheek, some to shake hands, some to embrace, some to bump elbows or fists, and some to keep their distance. I suspect that once we gather again, we will find ourselves in a dilemma – wanting very much to hold each other tightly, yet nervous about whether or how to do so.
Meanwhile, healthcare givers have no choice but to touch those who are sickened by COVID-19, at the risk of their own lives. Protective gear is in perilously short supply, yet they continue to care for the infected, no matter the risk. We need to pray for them fervently!
How is it for us? How do we care for one another when we are forbidden to touch each other? One way to show our care for others is to wear masks in public to protect others in case we are unknowingly carrying the virus. Most transmissions of the virus have come from people who did not yet know they were carrying it. We can show our love for others by assuming that we are virus carriers, protecting them from anything we could give them.
The text makes special note that Judas was included in Jesus’ foot-washing, even though Jesus knew his heart had turned against Jesus. The example of love Jesus asks us to imitate involves reaching out to meet the needs even of those who turn against us. Nothing that someone says or believes justifies our excluding them from our embrace. Nowhere does Jesus demonstrate that more poignantly than on the cross as he prays for mercy for his crucifiers. (Luke 23:34)
Reaching out to each other unconditionally to meet each other’s needs is the essence of doing to each other as Jesus has done for us. And, Jesus promises, when outsiders see us connecting to each other in genuine love, they will know for certain that we belong to Jesus. (John 13:34-35) And they will want in on it too!
May this be especially so in this difficult season of isolation. Absent in body, but present in spirit (as Paul puts it in Colossians 2:5), we can still be the body of Christ together, fully connected to each other with bonds that time and distance cannot destroy.
Bound to you in love,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister