Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Kingdom of Jesus - Reach Out and Touch

Preached on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2016

Scripture reading: Matthew 8:1-13

When I was a little kid, in the nineteen fifties, there was a thing that would happen in school, especially in the first or second grade. It was a kind of game. If a boy accidentally touched a girl, or a girl accidentally touched a boy, someone might shout “Ugh, cooties!”
Crab Creek, North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA: August 2016
Cooties were an invisible bug or a germ. Nobody knew exactly what they were, but if someone touched you, and if the other kids said you had caught the cooties, then you had to tag someone else really fast in order to get rid of them. Everybody ran around tagging each other, and getting tagged for a few minutes.
I can’t remember exactly how it would all end. I think it went on until the school bell rang for the end of recess.
It was very funny. It could also be very mean, because some kids seemed to carry cooties on them more than other kids. For some reason, I was one of the luckier kids, because I almost never gave anyone the cooties.
In the eighth chapter of his gospel, Matthew puts two stories side by side in which Jesus is willing to touch (or try to touch) someone who has cooties. Well, it wasn’t cooties really. One of the people had leprosy, which is an infection that can be seen on the skin and, at its extreme, can cause tissue loss and some deformity of hands, and feet, and limbs.
I read a bit about it in order to remember it better. It’s fairly complicated in its symptoms. It’s not as infectious as its reputation tells. But it’s scary.
The laws of God, in the Old Testament, seized upon leprosy as a symbol of the uncleanness of sin. The Old Testament laws required people with leprosy to live alone outside the community. They couldn’t come to worship in the places where the Lord made his presence known. A leper couldn’t touch other people or allow themselves to be touched. They had to cover their lips and shout the word “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others off. (Leviticus 13:1-46) For the rest of your life, no one would ever touch you again.
In ancient times, more than one disease was classified as leprosy and some of these could run their course and be gone. And there were cases where real leprosy was healed miraculously. (2 Kings 5)
When a person was healed, the law said that they should present themselves for examination by a priest and be certified as healed. (Leviticus 5:1-13; 14:1-32) Then they could make an offering to the Lord and come back to their community and their family, and into the place of worship. They were clean again. They were whole. The symbol of sin and separation was gone and they were free to return to human life again. Other human being would touch them again, at last.
Jesus broke the law (or at least the taboo) by simply touching the unclean person, but Jesus made his touch from being taboo into a miracle. He not only healed an unclean disease, but also brought that healed person back to family, and friends, and community, and worship: back to human life and back to their acceptance by others. They were free from the stigma of a kind of cooties that was both physical and spiritual.
The other form of cooties was to be a foreigner. The centurion was a commander of roughly one hundred soldiers. He may have been Roman, but he could also have come from one of the nearby provinces, so maybe he was Syrian or something else. He may have come from any one of the many nationalities that lived within the Roman Empire.
But he was an outsider. He was the same as a foreigner.
It wasn’t against the Old Testament law for Jews to touch foreigners, or non-Jews. But it was still taboo anyway. A foreigner might have eaten pork, or shrimp, or neglected to wash the way the rabbis taught when they interpreted the law.
If you were Jewish, you shouldn’t touch a non-Jew, or let yourself be touched, or enter their house, or let them enter yours. You simply didn’t know where they might have been, or what form of uncleanness they might have touched. You didn’t take a chance with them.
They didn’t necessarily have a disease. What they did have was a kind of spiritual cooties that you might catch from them, and you couldn’t play tag to get rid of it.
Jesus was playing a dangerous game because it looked like he was on his way to enter a non-Jewish home and he was going touch a non-Jewish slave who was sick and dying. He was ready to walk into a buzzing hive of cooties.
The centurion was afraid this might happen, and he did prove to be exactly what the synagogue elders said he was. He was kind. He was a friend. He spared Jesus from the stigma that Jesus was more than willing to carry for the sake of love.
He had delegated some elders from the Jewish synagogue to bring his plea for help in the first place and he sent a delegation of friends to keep Jesus from degrading himself by coming to his house.
The story of the leper and the story of the centurion share something in common. Both involve healing, and the authority and power of Jesus to heal the sick. But we can see that same authority and power working on a much higher level than physical healing, because Jesus does something (or is ready, willing, and able to do something) that wasn’t asked for.
The leper didn’t ask for Jesus to touch him. The centurion didn’t ask Jesus to come to his house. Jesus showed that he could heal from a distance, and so he also could have healed the leper without touching him. But the simple action of touching meant something. That’s the real point about Jesus and about those who would follow him.
The walk to the centurion’s house would have meant something. In the centurion’s case, Jesus said what he meant to show by his willingness to go to the house of cooties. Jesus said that all people, and all kinds of people, and every nation of people are welcome in the kingdom of God. Everyone is invited to the feast of God, if they will come in faith and trust.
Jesus was willing to reach out and touch the untouchable. Jesus was willing to go the distance to where the untouchable live. That is what the love of God does in the thing that we call salvation.
The cross is the heart of this. On the cross the arms and the hands of Jesus reached out to hold the nails, but that was his way of reaching out to hold onto (and go all the way with) the distance that sin creates in us: our distance from the reality of God; our distance from harmony and peace with others – from family, neighbors, enemies, and the whole world.
Sin (in the New Testament Greek) is an archery word that means missing the mark. Close only counts in the game of horse shoes. Sin is a word about distance. The cross is God going the distance to touch the untouchable, and to knock on the door and come into anyone’s life, wherever they have made their home.
The centurion understood faith because of his experience with authority. He was under authority, and he had soldiers and slaves under his authority. He understood that Jesus had authority over illness, but it should also be clear that he also placed himself under Jesus’ authority. He trusted Jesus’ command. And Jesus related to the centurion’s understanding of his authority as real faith. Jesus praised that kind of faith which trusted his authority and acted accordingly.
Think about what it means for you and me to be under the authority of a commander who is ready, willing, and able to go beyond the call to duty: to do more than anyone expects, or asks, or even hints. Jesus was ready, willing, and able to do more than anyone even knew how to ask. He touched the untouchable, he went the distance to the untouchable.
The truth is that Jesus never thought of anyone as untouchable, and neither should we. The thought should never come into our mind.
I think that this world around us is very ready to think about untouchability, and apply it to others, and we should never be a part of that. The world may be very ready to apply untouchability to us or to think that we apply it to them.
The world outside tries to make the first move: the pre-emptive move. They are more than ready to leave us alone, as a precaution.
I think that this world around us would never think of asking us to touch them, or to go the distance for them. We aren’t asked to, and so we don’t have to, but we are under the authority of a commander who set us an example and shows us his way.
The first generation of disciples seem to have gone as much of the distance as they could. Ancient stories tell us of the first generation reaching Britain, and Spain, and Ethiopia, and India.
Over the past two hundred years, missionaries from Europe and North America have gone all over the world. We are still doing that. We have Wycliffe Bible translators who serve in the South Pacific and have a home here in Desert Aire.
When I was a teenager I heard stories, in my home town in the Sacramento Valley, of a Korean Presbyterian who had come to our area because the Lord had called him. In seminary I had a friend, named Abraham Lim, who was attending seminary for more advanced studies. Abe was from Taiwan and, for years, he had been a missionary from his church in Taiwan to primitive tribes in the jungles of the Philippines. I had a classmate from Pakistan, named Iqbal Nisar who, after his studies, went back as a professor at a seminary in Islamabad, Pakistan, and eventually he became president of that seminary. When I served a church near Fresno, there were missionaries in the area from the Presbyterian Church of Mexico, and our church nested a Latino church with a pastor from El Salvador.
The point is that, following under the authority of Jesus, the people of Jesus are called to go the distance: to go anywhere and everywhere. Learning from the point of our two stories, we know that the healing which comes from going the distance means also going a great distance spiritually. Those distances exist all around us. Those distances may exist between us and those who are closest to us. This doesn’t faze us, because we follow a commander Jesus who will go that distance with us, even when he is not asked.
Recently, I read that Christians are unique among the faith groups in this world because we are almost equally everywhere. We are as much in Asia as we are in Europe. We are as much in Africa as we are in North America, or Latin America. And we might go from anywhere to anywhere in order to live for Jesus and serve him wherever. And we do. And maybe we should. At the very least, we are called to go the distance here.
Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that they would know everything and be smart enough to be in charge of their own lives. They wanted to be in charge of how close they needed or wanted God to be. The result was the creation of a great distance between them and God, and between them and each other, and between them and the world. God came to us (and to the whole world) in Jesus, to bridge the distance through the cross.
God’s own people couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to. Although they had special inside knowledge of what God was up to, they didn’t understand the importance of God becoming a servant and a sacrifice. They didn’t ask for God to do such a thing, but the true God does that very thing unasked.
We belong to him. In Jesus, God has bridged the distance and brought us home. The Lord came to do this for everyone, unasked. We have the same mission because we have been brought home.
The project of the kingdom of God is to bring the world home, and that project is happening now. It might seem to be happening more in China and in India than it seems to be happening in Desert Aire and Mattawa, but our mission is the very same mission that is being carried out by our brothers and sisters around the world with their own neighbors.
There is only one Jesus, and only one great fellowship of love called the church. We need to pray for the wisdom and power of God that our brothers and sisters have around the world to share their work here. We are, after all, under the same authority, and Jesus has the power, and he always will.

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