36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The gospel today is the story of an unilateral act of love. The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ status as a prophet, but do not even consider that the woman, Mary perhaps, might be acting prophetically too. She sees in her Spirit the outrageous, unilateral love of God in Christ that will take him to the cross, to death and beyond. And this evokes and empowers in her a response of equally outrageous and unilateral love that saves her, and turns the world of her accusers upside down.
We are called to be now as that woman was then. We are called and called again in the daily out working of our ministries to make unilateral acts of love like hers. Acts of love very often symbolised by the same physicality of sacramental touch as hers. Anointing, baptising, confirming, ordaining, healing, the holy communion. Or just a simple hand on a shoulder.
When we love like this, we are calling people into Christ’s love and light, into Christ’s community and communion, into Christ’s ministry and mission. And whether you translate those into the Church of England’s quinquennial goals, the Archbishop’s personal priorities, the roots, shoots and fruits I bang on about, or the likely themes of a diocesan strategy for the future, it all comes down to the same underlying living out of the love of Christ, without limits or conditions.
Nothing could be more exhilarating than such a calling. And nothing could be more exhausting. That’s why the clerical life comes out top, on the one hand, on job satisfaction surveys. But why on the other we give a very wry smile when we read them. The simple truth is that without Christ’s own touch on us, such a calling cannot be sustained. Without the touch of his love the exhilaration will inflate our own ego. Without the touch of his love the exhaustion will empty our heart. It is at heart his ministry not ours. Thank goodness. Thank God.
So it’s no wonder if people think we must be a bit touched to be a priest or a preacher. Indeed we must, and more than a bit. You probably know that the phrase about “being a bit touched” originally meant having had a touch from the gods, which made you mad. Sometimes it may feel like that, but God’s gift to us is actually the touch of Christ which makes us whole.
Can you call to mind the times of touch you have already known? Can you get back in touch with the call of Christ to you?
As you ponder, have a look at the painting on the back of today’s service sheet. I’ve been speaking on the story of Cross in art this week. It’s an interest that goes back to a sabbatical I had about ten years ago now, when I not only looked at older religious art, but made a point of meeting some living artists too – and amongst them Helen Meyer who painted the picture you’re looking at.
What does the painting suggest to you? What do you see? For me, the thing that stands out most is the sense of touch. The tenderness and sadness of the touch of John and Mary on Christ – and strangely of his body on them and of his hands towards the world – draw me too into the touch, as if I was there with them.
Meyer is in her eighties now. She lost her brother in the invasion of France near Caen in 1944 when she was just 14, and she said that the memory of that loss surfaced strongly when was she was painting this scene, with the verse from Luke chapter 2.35, that Mary’s child was set “for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” Fall and rising, birth and death – there is an ambiguity in Simeon’s words to Mary, and an ambiguity too in this painting. It seems to be poised between death and life – that moment of stillness around which the universe turns, the moment of equilibrium when fall finally ends and rising can begin again.Lines from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets pour into my mind.
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
Christ on the Cross is the touching place of the divine and the human, the eye of the needle through which all history must pass. The great power of Helen Meyer’s painting is to present that moment in such a way that it draws us into it, and makes for us a touching place too, to which we can take all our unresolved issues and aching agonies. Words from John Bell of the Iona Community’s modern song make a very modern commentary on the picture:
Feel for the parents who’ve lost their child,
Feel for the women whom men have defiled,
Feel for the baby for whom there’s no breast,
And feel for the weary who find no rest.
To the lost Christ shows his face;
To the unloved he gives his embrace;
To those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.
Bell pulls no punches, nor should he: but however hard the blow, Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place. “I call you friends,” he says to us. As for Christ’s sake and in Christ’s name we touch the barely touchable, we are touched by Him, or – better – become aware of His touch that was always with us, but to which we had become calloused.
I will always remember, myself, the time when my wife Jean touched what for me was untouchable, and left me with an open wound that will never let me ignore the challenge it brings. We lived on the tramps’ highway between Coventry and Oxford. One dark night a regular called for shelter. We had a chapel room kitted out for such occasions, but the smell of the poor man’s feet could not be ignored. Jean peeled off his shoes, then his socks, and with them as it seemed part of his feet as well. He was in a desperate state. We took him to a hostel next day: I fear he was not long for the road, or for life.
You too, in your ministry, will have been taken and will be taken to your boundaries and beyond them, and there, as you touch a new reality, will be Christ’s touching place for you. We have our treasure in earthenware vessels; but though we are afflicted in every way, we are not crushed; though perplexed, not driven to despair; though persecuted, not forsaken; though struck down, never destroyed.
For this is Christ’s ministry not ours.
And in the words of Vanstone’s beautiful poetic hymn to love’s endeavour and love’s expense, he is God, whose arms of love Aching, spent the world sustain.