Physical Touch and a Hopeful Future – Jubilate!

Written by Dr. Peter Spychalla, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Spiritual Formation

Jubilate! Shout for joy! I pen these words early Lord’s Day morning — windows fully open, morning air cool and fresh, sun rising, sky azure, trees pushing out their leaves in hope, and birds chittering busily. It is Eastertide, that festal season in the Christian liturgical year celebrating the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today, on Jubilate Sunday (May 3), the opening of eucharistic celebration in Lutheran and Catholic liturgy charges the people from Psalm 66: Jubilate! “Shout for joy to God, all the earth” (Psalm 66:1 ESV). A similar invitation, from Psalm 100: Jubilate! “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1 ESV), is incorporated into the rite of morning prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Yet, because of coronavirus, many of us are struggling to rejoice due to impacts, restrictions, and uncertainties.

“I wish I could touch you,” she said to me, steadying herself with her walker on the lawn of her senior living facility. My mother and I, in masks, maintaining social distance guidelines, walked slowly in the warm sunshine. Last Sunday, our rural church of 40 families had a video-chat sharing time. Many expressed how they looked forward to in-person, physical togetherness, so they could hug and touch others. Our deep human need for physical proximity and touch reminds of the centrality of physical bodies in God’s work of redemption and our eternal future as presented by Apostles John and Paul.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us incarnate, enfleshed. John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV). Proximate, near, among us, embodied, in-the-flesh. Jesus was seen, heard, touched: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1 ESV).

God comes to humanity, not by video chat, with bits, bytes, and pixels. But Jesus Christ comes with heartbeat, tears, and scars – he touches, and is touched by, people. He healed blindness with his spittle and touch (John 9). He washed feet in love (John 14). The unnamed disciple leaned on the breast of Jesus (John 13). Jesus sacrificed his flesh that all who rely upon his death for atonement would have eternal life (John 6). More than merely touching Jesus’ body, savingly by faith, they eat his flesh and drink His blood (John 6). Jesus Christ was raised bodily. In His resurrected body, he showed the disciples His hands and side, that all, even the hesitant, might believe (John 20).

This we celebrate at Eastertide: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! This has implications for our physical, embodied future. The Apostle Paul writes that when Jesus returns, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21 ESV). Our bodies, frail and groaning now – perhaps impacted by coronavirus — will be redeemed and glorified (Romans 8). Our physical bodies will be made fully well and transformed by the Holy Spirit. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, describes our current physical bodies with these words: perishable, humiliation, weakness, naturally-animated, and mortal. However, in the resurrection, our transformed physical bodies are characterized in this way: imperishable, splendor, power, Holy-Spirit-animated, and immortal.

Our eternal hope is this: we will dwell physically with Jesus Christ our Lord on the renewed earth. Once again, we will be able to see, hear, and touch Jesus Christ our Lord, who physically, bodily, will be proximate, near, and among us. John writes: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4 ESV). He will touch us – wiping away tears. We will see Him face to face – no masks, no social distancing. Perhaps, like the unnamed disciple, we too will lean back on his breast.

Yesterday, I rode my dirt bike deep in the woods near my Northern Wisconsin hermitage. The sandy, rocky glacial till – a tumble of undifferentiated material – is punctuated by massive, 20 and 40-ton erratics. I cannot move or explain the boulders. I respect them and I adjust my journey. Our faith is glacial till – a tumble of experiences with God and others. Here and there are massive boulders – coronavirus – that shape the landscape of our faith in ways we cannot anticipate, change, or explain. We adjust our journey. I saw a snowdrift – in a shadowy, a north-side crevasse. In whimsical flurry, I made a snowball from the gritty crystal. Hand cold to the bone, I squarely pelted a tree at 30 feet, proud of my aim. I journeyed on, winding through the landscape of trillium, a lily, a reminder of Easter and our resurrection hope.

Yes, we struggle with coronavirus limitations. We lament. We long. All is not as it should be. All is not yet what it will be. We rightly express our deep human need for physical proximity and touch – “I wish I could touch you” — a pointer to God’s great program of redemption and our eternal, bodily future. This morning, I now go to join my small congregation to jubilate, fulfilling the call of the psalmists: “Shout for joy to God, all the earth” (Psalm 66:1 ESV), “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1 ESV). For it is Eastertide. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!