Sensuous Christianity


Sensuous Christianity

Published: 18th April, 2023

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m going to start with some words from the First Epistle of St John:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…

It may be that the First Epistle of St John was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel according to St John.  Or it may be that it was written by a different individual who belonged to the same Christian community.  But one way or another it is clear that there is a close affinity between John’s gospel and the three letters also attributed to St John.

And although this passage from the First Epistle of St John was not amongst the readings that we heard this morning, you will probably have guessed that I have read from it because of the point of connection with the story of St Thomas in John’s gospel.  There is a sensuousness about it – “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” – and this reminds us of the story of Thomas, who says: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

This sensuousness is reflected in traditions of Christian worship.  Of the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, Christianity is by far the most relaxed about images.  Yes there have been phases of iconoclasm in Christian history; if you go and have a look at St Leonard’s chapel you can see the scars of the last significant outbreak of iconoclastic violence, back in the seventeenth century.  But the dominant tradition of Christian worship has been permissive of the use of images in worship, and has encouraged an approach to worship that makes use of all the senses as well as the intellect.

The intellect is addressed in the words of scripture and liturgy and often in the words of the hymns that we sing, and hopefully in preaching too.  But the senses are addressed as well: sound, obviously; sight, in the beauty of our churches and the use of images, whether in stained glass or in icons or statues, to encourage devotion, and also in the flowers that adorn our churches especially during the Easter season; touch and taste when we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion; and smell, whenever incense is used, or from Easter lilies.

The first major wave of iconoclasm that we know about in Christian history took place in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century in response to the rise of Islam, with its very different approach to religious images.  St John of Damascus came to the defence of orthodox Christian iconography, and through his writings largely settled the issue until the Protestant Reformation several centuries later.

He drew very strongly on the traditions of John’s gospel and epistles: Christianity is a religion of Incarnation, the religion of the Word made flesh.  The apostles proclaimed what they had heard, what they had seen with their eyes, what they had looked at and touched with their hands.  St John of Damascus put it like this: “since I am a human being and wear a body, I love to have communion in a bodily way with what is holy and to see it”.  And so the use of images in churches, and even their veneration as an aid to worship, has been practised for most of Christian history.

That’s all very interesting, but let’s get back to Thomas.

Does he actually touch Jesus, or not?  Artists of course love to depict Thomas probing Jesus’ wounds.  It makes for a much more interesting and dramatic painting.  But the text doesn’t tell us whether or not Thomas carried out his stated intention of placing his fingers in the marks of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ wounded side.

Perhaps you’d like to imagine yourself in Thomas’ position?  Would you want to actually touch Jesus to be sure that He was real?  Or would the sight of Him, and the sound of His voice, be enough for you?

There are those who argue that Thomas could not have touched Jesus, because it would have showed the persistence of his doubt; in the story, Thomas does not persist in doubt, but rather comes to a stronger faith, exclaiming “My Lord and my God!”, words that go farther than any disciple has gone in speaking of Jesus as divine.  So I think we can rule out the touch of doubt; I don’t think that Thomas touched Jesus in a probing, questioning sort of a way.  I don’t think that’s consistent with the story as it is given to us.

But I still think it likely that Thomas touched Him.  Remember Mary Magdalene’s reaction to the Risen Lord: Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me”, clearly implying that she has either done just that, or is attempting to do so.  I don’t think she sought to touch Jesus out of doubt; I think it was rather the touch of devotion, the touch of love.

And so likewise with Thomas, I think we can rule out the idea that Thomas touched Jesus in a probing, questioning, doubting way; but did he touch Him out of wonder, out of awe, out of reverence, out of love?  My guess is that he did.  In his shoes I think I would have done.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…

Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation, the religion of the Word made flesh.  It is a sensuous religion.  It has even been described as the most materialistic religion.  Our faith makes its appeal not only to the head, nor only to the heart, but also to the body with all its senses.  And so it is natural that at the heart of our life together we share in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, which we can see and touch and taste, a tangible sign of the presence of the Risen Lord in our midst.  And so we give thanks and praise to God, that in the Incarnation and still more in the Resurrection of His Son, God communes with humanity in a bodily way, blessing the human body with a renewed dignity, and revealing the fulness of His loving kindness to us.

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.