One of the things I love about Scripture is how it can take you by surprise and reveal something new, even in the passages we’ve read and stories we’ve heard over and over again. That happened to me this week. There’s a word in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration that I had never noticed before. It’s in verses 6 and 7: “[The disciples] fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them.”
Jesus came and touched them. How could I have missed that word “touched” before?
Each week I spend quite a lot of time studying the passage I’ll be preaching on. I read commentaries and articles by scholars and theologians, partly to learn as much as I can and partly to make sure that my thinking isn’t way off base or that I haven’t missed something important. Usually the things that are on my mind are the issues and questions that people have been thinking about and studying for a long time. I was anxious this week to find out what the experts had to say about Jesus touching the disciples.
But you know what? Apparently, they haven’t noticed it either, or they don’t think it’s important enough to mention. But I have to tell you: if they don’t think it’s important, I think they’re dead wrong. I think Jesus’ act of touching his disciples is very important. I think it would have been important to the disciples then, and it’s important to us now. Because touch itself is important. It’s the emotional center of all our senses. If someone touches us, they are communicating something to us. When Jesus touches us, it’s a sure bet that he has something to communicate to us as well.
Lots has happened since we left Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He had been traveling from place to place, healing many—a leper, a man possessed by demons; the paralyzed, the blind, the mute; a hemorrhaging woman and a man with a withered hand; a Roman soldier’s servant, a Jewish leader’s daughter, and the daughter of a Canaanite woman. He had taught in parables, been confronted by opponents, and learned that his cousin John the Baptizer had been executed. He had fed five thousand, then four thousand more; he’d walked on water and calmed a storm. Most troubling perhaps, from the disciples’ perspective, was that he had begun to speak of his own approaching suffering, death, and resurrection.
Jesus had taken his inner circle—Peter, James, and John—up a mountain. It was just the four of them; the other disciples had been left behind on this occasion. I wonder if the three disciples talked with Jesus as they walked, or if they talked among themselves about the worrying things Jesus had been saying about suffering and taking up a cross. I wonder if they speculated about why they were making this trip. Did Jesus have more to say to them? Or did he just need some quiet time away from the crowds and his challengers?
Whatever they speculated about couldn’t have prepared them for what happened there on that mountain. They watched as Jesus’ appearance changed—as he was transfigured, Matthew says. His face shone like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white—a sure sign that this was a divine occurrence. And then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus!
At the sight of Jesus’ shining face, maybe they remembered that Moses had also taken a trip up a mountain and ended up with a shining face after his encounter with God. At the sight of Moses and Elijah, maybe they began to see other similarities with Jesus—either things that had already happened or things Jesus said were going to happen. Both Moses and Elijah were concerned with upholding the covenant and the laws embodied in the Torah, as Jesus was. Both had worked miracles, as Jesus had. Both were prophets whose people initially rejected them and whom God had vindicated, as Jesus said he would be.
Bless Peter’s heart. He was never one to let a good crisis go to waste. He’s always ready to take some kind of action—not always well-thought-out, not always appropriate, but he’s ready to do something. So, in the midst of this incredible scene before him, he offers to build three structures—one for each of the men before him. Our translation calls them dwelling places; others call them shelters or booths or tents or shrines or memorials. But another way to translate the Greek and Hebrew words for dwelling places is “tabernacle.” For Matthew’s readers, the word would have conjured up an image of the tabernacle that sheltered the ark of the covenant and God’s presence symbolized by a fiery cloud. It’s almost a bit of foreshadowing on the author’s part because, sure enough, before Peter could even finish his offer, a bright cloud overshadowed them.
If that wasn’t enough, a voice from the cloud interrupted Peter, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased”—the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, although the disciples wouldn’t have known that. And then God adds a postscript just for them: “Listen to him,” which they would have understood to mean “obey him.”
Well, this is just too much for the disciples. They collapse on the ground, overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them.
Can you picture this scene: the terrified disciples, their faces pressed into the dirt, afraid to look up? Jesus, walking toward them, squatting down, and touching each one in turn? I imagine his touch to be gentle, maybe carefully lifting a chin here, placing his hand on a shoulder there, or even resting his hand on the back of a head. But his touch would have been firm, too. Because Matthew’s Greek word also means to take hold of something, to fasten on to it.
Matthew’s gospel is the only one that includes this detail about Jesus touching the disciples. And it’s a rare event. Jesus touched other people all the time, as he went about curing their diseases and healing their infirmities. But Matthew mentions Jesus touching a disciple only one other time—when he stretched out his hand to Peter when Peter tried walking on water. In this story of God fully revealing Jesus’ identity, surely Jesus’ touch also reveals something about who he is.
Touch is so important to human beings. It’s the first sense to develop during pregnancy, and it’s one of the last senses remaining at the end of life. When my mother was dying, a hospice nurse suggested that, when Mom became agitated, I stroke her hand in time with my own slow, regular breathing. I didn’t have to say a word to Mom. As I gently stroked her hand—breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out—her own breaths would become more regular and she would become calmer.
The right kind of touch can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and the levels of harmful chemicals in our bodies. It can stimulate the part of the brain that is crucial to memory. It can prompt the release of chemicals that produce positive feelings.
But more than that, touch can communicate love and caring. Frequent friendly or loving touches indicate that someone has a strong social network, which is one of the best predictors of happiness, health, and long life. Our bodies have specific touch receptors whose only job is to send emotion to the brain. One study showed that we can identify other people’s emotions based on how they touch us, even when a curtain keeps us from seeing them.
The lack of touch can have equally far-reaching effects. You may remember the horrifying reports in 1989 about the thousands of Romanian children who had ended up in institutional orphanages with one adult in charge of twenty infants and toddlers. These children were rarely touched, and certainly not with love. Televised reports showed the world the impact of not being touched: children who were mute and withdrawn, whose faces lacked all expression, and whose bodies moved in bizarre ways typical of sensory-deprived infants.
Studies show that senior citizens in our country receive fewer touches than other age group. Because many live alone, they may go months or even years without being touched by anyone except for in a doctor’s office. Being touched is so important for physical and emotional health, many experts recommend that seniors get regular massages. Massages don’t completely replace the touch of a loved one, but they still offer many of the benefits of touching.
Who among us hasn’t enjoyed cuddling a newborn, or nestling close to a partner, or stroking a beloved pet? How many hands have you shaken in trust or welcome, how many pats on the back have you given or received that said “well done,” or hugs that said “I’m here for you”? Do you remember the first time you held hands with your first crush, or the last time a loved one squeezed your hand before they passed away? Do you sometimes long for the touch of someone who is unreachable, for whatever reason? We crave the kind of touch that tells us that we’re loved, that we’re important, that we’re not alone.
Of course, we’ve become very aware of how damaging the wrong kind of touch can be. Physical violence is obviously damaging, but touch that is manipulative or coercive is also hurtful and wrong. It can have a long-lasting negative impact on someone’s emotional and physical health, not to mention their employment and financial prospects. Unfortunately, improper touching has as much negative power as loving, respectful touch has positive power.
So, considering how powerful touch is, I can’t imagine that Jesus’ touching the disciples wasn’t meaningful, to them or him. This is a story of revelation, and I think that Jesus’ touch reveals as much about who he is as the voice from within the cloud. Yes, the vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah revealed that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s work as described in the Old Testament. Yes, the voice from the cloud revealed to the disciples that Jesus was the Son of God. But Jesus comes and touches the disciples, and his touch reveals so much. His touch affirms that he is with them. God was present with the Hebrew people in the fiery cloud that hovered over the ark of the covenant. But in Jesus, God is present in the flesh. It is a human hand that reaches out to them. It is the hand of Emmanuel, “God with Us.”
His touch called them back from the paralysis of fear. They had witnessed the unexplainable. He had already told them what obedience to him would entail—denying themselves and taking up a cross, losing their lives in order to save their lives. His touch conveyed his strength and courage—strength that would help them do what the voice from the cloud had commanded them to do: to listen to and obey Jesus.
Jesus’ touch revealed his love for them. I imagine Jesus’ heart going out to his terrified and oh-so-human disciples. I imagine how he might have approached them, quietly and calmly, as you’d approach an injured and fearful animal. Through his hands, they could feel his love and compassion—the same compassion he had shown to so many others and that he was now showing to them.
Jesus touches us, too. He touches us when we are sad and lonely. He touches us when we are afraid of what is happening in the present or what might happen in the future. He touches us when we’re confused and when we’re not sure of what steps we should take next. He touches us when all we want to do is drop to the floor and cover our faces.
Often, his touch comes to us through the hands of others. It may come through the arms of a friend or the skilled hands of a doctor or nurse. It may come when our brothers and sisters in Christ lay hands on us as they pray for us. Or, we may feel his hand resting gently on our hearts, as the Holy Spirit assures us that we are not alone. However we feel Jesus’ touch, we experience the healing strength that his hands poured into so many others.
As Jesus touched the disciples, he also spoke to them. “Get up and do not be afraid,” he said. Touch has the power to get us moving again, and that is what the disciples had to do. In fact, the Greek word for touch also can mean to ignite a fire. Jesus’ touch has the power to kindle a passion for carrying on his ministry. His touch can ignite a flame that will be the light of the world—a lamp that will shine before others.
Disciples always have to leave the mountaintops of glory-filled visions and go back down the mountain—back to ordinary life, back to the crowds who press in with all their needs, back to opponents who challenge and criticize, back to the journey that, according to Jesus, will bring suffering and pain.
How we live in the valley is the test of whether we truly understand what happened on the mountaintop. It’s a test of whether we truly understand what is revealed to us by Jesus’ touch on our lives. We can get through the challenges in our lives, because we have been touched by Jesus’ strength. We can face the present and the future unafraid, because we have been touched by Jesus’ constant presence. We can extend compassion and mercy to others, because we have been touched by Jesus’ love for us. We can go and not be afraid, because he speaks these words to us, not from afar, but as Emmanuel, God with Us.
“Jesus came and touched them.” Jesus comes and touches us. Jesus’ touch is a revelation of his humanity joined with his divinity. It’s also a revelation of what his disciples are to do in light of what they know about who he is. We don’t need a vision on a mountaintop to know that. We don’t need to see a shining face, dazzling white clothes, or Elijah and Moses deep in conversation. All we need is what Jesus tells us, when he comes to us and touches us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young