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If you go to Terminal E in the Atlanta, Georgia, airport, you can see a display of pictures and items from the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. There’s the original permit for the March on Washington and the suit Dr. King wore to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson. When I first saw the exhibit as a college student flying home from Atlanta, the thing that struck me most was a photograph of Dr. King playing baseball in the yard with his children, displayed alongside the actual little toy bat and ball themselves. I remember the odd but compelling feeling of seeing these homely artifacts that had been touched by this great person, just one degree of separation away from me through these physical relics of his life.
We human beings have a fascination with touch. A couple of years ago someone paid $394,000 for the chair that J.K. Rowling sat in while she was writing the first two Harry Potter books. Touch can be a positive or a negative association. There’s a children’s book called Diary of a Wimpy Kid that was later made into a movie. In it, a kid touches a piece of moldy cheese lying on the ground and instantly becomes a social pariah. People shun him—until he touches someone else and passes the so-called Cheese Touch along to the new victim. The problem is only solved when an exchange student gets the Cheese Touch and takes it back to Germany with him.
Anthropologists call this preoccupation with touch the principle of contagion. It’s common across human cultures, and it’s easy to see why. After all, even in a world before germ theory, people were well aware that many diseases really are spread by touch. But the principle easily gets extended beyond sickness, into more metaphorical ideas of contamination. Think of the people known as Dalits in India, who were considered untouchable, literally, by the caste system, and still face serious discrimination today. We have social contamination here in our society too. Often people who are homeless talk about how others don’t want to touch them or look them in the eye. The same thing even happens sometimes with people who suffer tragedies like cancer, or divorce, or the death of a child. Without meaning to, friends and family sometimes pull away from a person who is suffering, partly out of not knowing what to say, but partly out of an almost primeval unspoken need to stay far away from the suffering for fear that somehow it might happen to us too. And of course that worsens the suffering because it leaves the person isolated when they most need the ones they love.
Sometimes the idea of contagion gets deployed politically too. Scholars of language have pointed out that a characteristic part of our president’s rhetoric is to use imagery of “contamination” or “dirtiness” when talking about immigrants, women, and people of color. Last week he described illegal immigration as an “infestation,” encouraging his audience to think of human beings as a kind of disease-carrying pestilence.
Just like us, Jesus lived in a world with ideas of contagion. A number of the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures are connected with the idea of transmitting ritual impurity by touch. Touching certain objects could render a priest unfit to serve in the temple for a period of time. In Jesus’ time some observant groups felt that not only priests but also ordinary pious people should strive to maintain ritual purity as much as possible, and so they would carefully observe regulations about washing vessels and not touching things that would make them unclean. Some similar practices have come down to us in the rabbinic Judaism of today—and I want to be very clear that those are beautiful and holy expressions of devotion. Some of my dear friends keep kosher, carefully separating milk from meat dishes and observing other principles that help them dedicate the details of their daily lives to God. We Episcopalians do very similar things in the ways we treat the sacred vessels we use for the eucharist, consuming all the consecrated bread and wine that have become the Body and Blood of Christ, rinsing the chalice in careful ways, and not using those vessels for ordinary purposes. Practices of ritual purity can be very good things. But where Jesus seems to have been willing to bend purity codes, and where he did sometimes clash with other religious people of his place and time, is when those codes came into conflict with the well-being of people.
Today we hear two related stories of Jesus healing people—and the stories are clearly meant to be read together. One story is sandwiched into the middle of the other. Both people are female. The number twelve features in both of them: the little girl is twelve years old and the woman has had a hemorrhage for twelve years. And, in both, the person healed has a condition that makes them ritually impure—and they are healed by touching, or being touched by, Jesus.
The woman with a hemorrhage has been in a state of ritual impurity, and has been suffering the social consequences of that, for a dozen years. Yet she boldly touches Jesus—and instead of becoming angry, he praises her for that boldness and sends her away healed. The little girl is dead, and Jesus knows well that touching a dead body also makes a person impure. Yet he walks straight in and takes her by the hand and raises her up to life again.
The point isn’t just that Jesus is willing to break a purity code in the face of human need. There’s something more going on here. Jesus isn’t just accepting impurity: he’s reversing it. It’s as if instead of being contaminated by impurity, Jesus takes it into himself and transforms it into not only purity but healing and new life. Jesus’s touch spreads a kind of holy contagion that is stronger than impurity, stronger than disease, and stronger even than death itself.
This past Thursday, in between the two major feasts we celebrated this week, we commemorated a lesser feast of the theologian Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived only about a century after Jesus, in the 100s, and was one of the first great theological writers about the incarnation. Irenaeus was preoccupied by the idea that, in becoming human flesh and blood, Jesus actually brought the divine life of God into human nature for us to share. In one place he writes, “Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are so that he might bring us to be what he himself is.” It’s similar to what Paul writes today to the Corinthians: Jesus became poor on our behalf so that he might make us rich. Jesus Christ, as God’s Word made flesh, came into the world to introduce a holy contagion, to heal a world infected by sin, evil, and death and in its place to spread the new, abundant, infectious life of God. And we who are here to follow Jesus have been touched by that life.
It’s no accident that the laying on of hands is a central Christian gesture. We lay on hands at baptism; when we reaffirm our baptismal covenants in the rite sometimes called confirmation; when people are ordained; when we pray for healing; and many other times. You and I are linked to Jesus by a direct chain of human physical touch that extends from him, through the disciples he knew and touched, down through a hundred generations of his followers to you and me.
And we’re also linked to him even more directly than that. Through all those generations the church has practiced two particular ways of connecting directly to Jesus: the two great sacraments of baptism and eucharist. When we are baptized, the church teaches, we actually “put on Christ” like a baptismal garment, so that his body becomes ours. And when we share communion, we take the life of Jesus Christ into our bodies again and again, deepening our unity with him and each other.
Who will you touch this week? How will you spread that holy infection of the life of God to a world that so desperately needs it? In our work, at school, in our life with family and friends and our life as citizens, each of us can be the presence of Jesus, and we can transmit that risen life to those around us.
 “10 Touched-By-A-Celeb Items That Went For Big Bucks at Auction,” People (April 7, 2016), https://people.com/celebrity/expensive-celebrity-items-at-auction/#j-k-rowlings-chair-39400.
 Michael Richardson, “The Disgust of Donald Trump,” Journal of Cultural and Media Studies 31:6 (2017), 747-756; https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10304312.2017.1370077.
 Abigail Simon, “People Are Angry President Trump Used This Word to Describe Undocumented Immigrants,” Time (April 19, 2018); http://time.com/5316087/donald-trump-immigration-infest/.