Touch is a part of intimacy, a concrete and often tender reminder that both of you are real and really present for the other. Whether this touch is a tender glance, a hand on the shoulder, or something more involved, touch matters. In fact, one of the best indicators for a child’s wellbeing is how often and how tenderly they were handled as an infant. Energetic, warm and consistent touch is the groundwork for a healthy and sane individual. Harsh touch or even worse, neglect is the source of what are politely called “attachment disorders.”
Our fundamental need for touch is in fact the reason abuse is so horrific. We come to one from whom we have the right to expect tender touch and receive harshness and violence instead. We come in trust and our trust is broken. Over time, regularly broken trust leads to broken beings, seemingly normal and functional people who are fundamentally unable or unwilling to trust another enough to even bother with touch. Or else they have learned that only some kinds of touch are good and possibly even prefer violent touch because it’s familiar.
These disorders of touch block us from the profound reality of the goodness of creation. Add to this our cultural bias against the material world in favor of an etherial “spiritual” world and the fact that we are even vaguely spiritually sane is truly miraculous. But none of this actually sets up the discussion of “doubting” Thomas, except that it does.
Thomas is a concrete kind of person. The root of this is not explained in the text. Perhaps he has had too many trusts betrayed, too many pranks played, to ever “just believe” what people say. Maybe he was just one of those people who is naturally skeptical of the world around them, we do not know. What we know is that he took what the other disciples said with a great big pound of salt. In this he’s not alone, you know, the disciples didn’t believe what the women told them about having seen Jesus either.
So in John 20 Mary sees Jesus but doesn’t believe it’s him until he speaks to her. Then she sees and knows and goes and… is doubted. Then the disciples (still locked behind the doors because of fear) see Jesus. They see and know and go and… Thomas doubts them. So far, everyone in the story starts out not believing and then becomes believing and then is doubted by the next one in line.
So Jesus shows up a week later and Thomas is there. Jesus walks up to Thomas and says “Peace be with you.” And then he says something a lover might say, something a dear friend would invite, something sung in that most famous song in Andy Webber’s famous musical about kitties. Jesus says “touch me.” Don’t hold back Thomas, no longer be untrusting (apistos) but trusting (pistos).
Before you wonder at my use of the terms, those are the accurate translations of the Greek behind our cruel message to the fearful that they need to “stop doubting and believe” or that their life stinks because they need to “believe harder.” Doubt is not the opposite of faith, because faith is trust without reservation. Doubt is what leads to questioning. Questioning leads to testing. And testing can lead to deepening of our relationship. These questions are part of what energizes those famous DTR discussions which can lead to deeper trust. So again, it comes back to trust.
And how do we build trust? By touch. We touch the other person, sometimes physically, sometimes with words, sometimes emotionally, but in all these moments, we touch the other. We make a relationship bid and they respond. We then see if their response means we can trust them or not. If they throw off our hand or recoil from us in fear, we lose trust. If they grab us harshly, we lose trust. If they touch us well and we respond well, trust grows. And all of this happens through touch.
So Jesus invites Thomas to touch and Thomas responds “my Lord and my God.” Jesus invites us to touch and we respond… how? Do we touch Jesus with hope, longing and love? Do we hold back in fear? Do we recognize that communion is a concrete way in which he touches our lives? And then, shaped by the touch of Jesus, how do we touch others? Are we warm and welcoming? Do we touch with grace and kindness? Do we say yes to each other or do we hide from each other? And what about “those people” the dangerous/dirty/different ones. How do we touch them? Do we touch them at all? If someone moves to touch us, how do we respond? Do we flinch, panic, run away?
None of this is easy, none of this is something we could do on our own. The process of trusting someone else enough to touch them or to let them touch us is… agonizing and long. It’s actually astonishing that we do it at all. But the real power of touching freely and being touched belovedly is so profoundly real and affirming of the goodness in us and all creation, that we can begin to understand that God loves us with a hug and invites us to touch and trust.
So as Jesus invited Thomas, he invites us: “touch me.”