The Gentle Touch

Sunday, 3 July 2016

See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves (Luke 10:3)

Sometimes, as a chemistry teacher, I’m asked what the most powerful substance in the school is. More often they ask me if they’re ever going to get to blow things up and what they could use to do it. They’re often surprised when I tell them that the most powerful substance in the school is water. Water shapes the landscape more effectively than all the high explosives ever made have done. The gentle caress of the river on its banks wears them away here while building with the silt it carries there. The regular freezing and melting of water in the rocks beaks off little fragments and shrinks the highest of mountains. The gentle touch of water everywhere shapes the world.

I have a good friend who has always said that he would like the word that people chose to describe him to be “gentle”. I think that’s not a bad ambition. When Jesus was sending his apostles out to do his work in the world he sent them out like lambs in the midst of wolves - as gentle creatures in the midst of killers; as symbols of gentleness in a world of anger and violence. We, the Church, are the inheritors of Christ’s instruction to go out into the world as lambs in the midst of wolves. We are meant to be God’s gentle touch on the world.

When people of religion - or politics, or any passionately held belief - forget this things can turn very nasty. Tomorrow I’ll be flying to Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. On Monday a bomb went off there killing 41 people. It seems likely the perpetrators were followers of Islamic State. They were people who believed they were doing the work of God. They were people who believed that power - the power that comes with weapons and military might - can bring about God’s will. They believed that force - the force of violence - can shape hearts and minds and lead the peoples of the world to God.

Nonsense, of course. It can’t be denied, though, that in the past the Church has sometimes bought into that nonsense. When we have taken political power we, too, have sometimes flexed our muscles violently. I’ve sometimes said that the Emperor Charlemagne’s acceptance of Christianity was something of a mixed blessing. When we went from being the underdogs and the outsiders in the Roman Empire to being the overdogs and the elite; when we took secular power it put the leaders of the Church in charge of armies. Truth to tell we too had our times of “forced conversion” - especially in Spain and in Eastern Europe. Truth to tell it wasn’t very gentle. Truth to tell it wasn’t very pretty.

When it came to those in our communities who fell short of moral purity we didn’t always follow Paul’s advice and restore them in the spirit of gentleness. Back in the 17th Century we’d march them to the front of the church and humiliate them on the “repentance stool”. I know there was a bit more to it than that, but still it can hardly be said to be the gentle touch. We were able to do this because secular power had been handed to the Church. We could force people to come to church. We could force people to follow religious laws. Still today I detect a hankering in some circles to hang onto secular power and influence by insisting on special representation on committees and on law-making bodies like the House of Lords. 

Power, though - the power of the wolf to engender violence and fear - is an illusion. At least as far as doing what we’re supposed to do - spreading the Gospel - is concerned. You cannot win hearts and minds with at the bomb or the Kalashnikov. If you take someone by the throat you can get their attention, but you cannot touch their souls. When Jesus sent his followers out as lambs among wolves he knew exactly what he was doing. What wins hearts and minds is not the raised fist but the gentle touch. And we are meant to be God’s gentle touch on the world.

Here’s the thing. The most explosive period of expansion for Christianity was its first three hundred years when it spread from a guest room in Jerusalem to every part of the known world. It was carried not by conquerers, sword in hand, or by those that held power. It was spread by the weakest members of society - by slaves. It was spread by ordinary folk like traders and farmworkers. It was spread by people like you and me living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ; a Gospel that does not say that God so loved the world that he sent his own Son to head up a powerful army and conquer the world, but that he came to offer his life for all the people that secular power so often dismisses as unimportant. For the people that religious zealots dismiss as unimportant when they carry bombs into airports. The Gospel that spread through the world in the time of Paul and before Constantine was that in the love of God everyone is important.

Every life touches other lives. Your life touches other lives. So does mine. The things we do and the things we say touch other lives. We can’t help that. The simple fact of our being alive means we leave a mark on the world. The only choice we have is whether that mark will be a wound or a wound healed. We cannot help but touch the world around us. We touch those who come in contact with us - we can’t help that. The only choice we have is whether that is a touch of violence or God’s gentle touch.

Let me give you an example. You’re in the checkout at Tesco. The person at the till is ringing through your items. She asks how you are and you offer a grunt in reply - she’s just the checkout girl after all. You give every impression that you wish you’d used the self-service checkout. Or you offer a smile and reply, “I’m fine thanks. And how are you?” You affirm her as a human being. You remind her that she is every bit as important as you. You tell her that she is not just the checkout girl. She’s the person - the unique individual - named on her badge. It’s that simple. With a few simple words you can show people what the love of God is all about - what the Gospel is all about - that everyone matters.

There’s enough violence and selfishness and greed in this world. The lure of power works enough evil in this world. The desire people sometimes have to enforce their world-view through secular power - be it political power or military power or economic power - makes enough people’s lives a misery. The glamour of power has led people of religion astray often enough and the result has never shown the world the loving, caring God that Jesus came to teach us about. The world has enough wolves. Let us go out into the world as lambs. Let us show what the love of God is all about in simple acts of kindness, generosity - what my parents taught me were matters of simple human decency. Let us be God’s gentle touch on the world.

Lord, may the world call us “gentle”. May it know us to be caring and compassionate. May it know that, for us, everyone matters. May we live outage teachings of your Son and show your love.

Preached at Annan Old and at Dornock