“When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
A recent article in USA Today by Cathy Lynn Grossman cites examples of the growing tendency in churches to treat the Internet as a genuine ministry-provider. It’s not just about having websites and email contacts, but about assuming that digital contact is actual ministry. [Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Church Outreach Takes on a New Technical Touch," Wednesday, April 18, 2012.] According to the report, for example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offers a page for visitors to sign on the sinner’s prayer and “turn up in a real-time scroll of latest ‘decisions’ at www.SearchforJesus.net…” Grossman writes, “Technology should ultimately be an enhancement, not a replacement, for gathering in person for worship, discussion, debate and service to others, Drew Goodmanson says. Goodmanson is chief executive officer of Monk Development, which helps churches use the Internet to fulfill their missions. He appreciates that ‘you can have a digital Bible in the palm of your hand or connect with others in prayer any time anywhere.’ Nevertheless, Goodmanson says, ‘Jesus would not have a Facebook page. He wouldn’t be stopping in an Internet café to update his status.’” Thank God.
Responding to the USA Today article, Al Mohler helpfully points out some of the costs and benefits. It’s a great benefit that we can read lots of content on-line to which he had limited access before. Yet, he observes, “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”
The episode I cited at the beginning, reported in Matthew 8:1-3, just wouldn’t have tweeted well.
First, it can’t be abstracted from its historical context. Under the old covenant, leprosy was a sign of sin’s guilt and corruption. Its victims were not just contagious, but ceremonially “unclean,” polluting the camp of Israel; they had to be quarantined from the covenant community (see Leviticus 13-15; Num 5:1-4). Which is what makes Jesus’s action all the more provocative.
Second, the healing can’t be abstracted from bodily contact. In most instances, Jesus spoke the word and people were healed, but in this rare case, he “stretched out his hand and touched him…” It would be a compassionate stroke by itself. On those rare foreys into public, sufferers from leprosy would have to yell, “Leper!”, as crowds parted nervously to avoid contact. Jesus reached out and touched the man. Yet this also meant something far more daring: he was making contact with someone who was ceremonially untouchable. Matthew adds the healing of another outcast: a Roman centurion’s son, in verses 5-13, commending the centurion’s faith: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And then he promises that people will come from all parts of the globe to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The servant’s son “was healed at that very moment.”
Clearly the point in both episodes, as well as thee other healings, including a demon-possessed man in verses 28-34 and the paralyzed man in 9:1-8, are signs confirming the truth of Jesus’s announcement about the kingdom.
Jesus touched people who shouldn’t have been touched, dined with people who shouldn’t even be in the neighborhood, enjoyed fellowship with people whose exclusion from the community was thought to be the condition for the Messiah’s arrival and re-institution of the national theocracy. Instead, the “unclean” are cleansed and fed the richest fare with Abraham, while those who were the most ceremonially santized are “unclean,” cast into outer darkness.
Jesus still bathes, feeds, and looks after sinners. But you can’t reduce this story to something “tweetable.” Jesus did not love people anonymously, but said to them, “Your sins are forgiven.” People came to him in faith, sat on the margins, or plotted his death—but they all did so in his presence.
Even after the resurrection, Jesus is made known to the disciples as the risen Lord through the Word that he expounded and the breaking of the bread (Luke 24). “As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ but they were startled and frightened and thoughty they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:36-29).
What about today, after Jesus has been raised bodily and ascended to the Father’s right hand?
Paul tells us that we do not have to climb into heaven or descend into the depths to find him; he’s as near as the gospel that is preached. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is why we need preachers and they need to be sent (Rom 10:5-17). The Spirit works ordinarily through the common lips of fallible and sinful ministers.
The apostles also teach that the Spirit works through the most ordinary elements in creation, sanctifying them for his holy use. United to Christ visibly in baptism with water and the Word, they are fed at the table with Abraham and all of the saints seated with Christ. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
Jesus doesn’t have a Facebook page. He doesn’t “friend” and “unfriend” at the click of a botton. He doesn’t offer anonymous advice. Although of him it could be uniquely said that he is unique, he does is not obsessed with expressing his uniqueness but delights in forming a fellowship of forgiven sinners around his hard-won victory.
So the apostolic community was embodied. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They even shared their material treasures freely with each other according to abundance and lack. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:42-47).
The gospel is not just information. It is high-touch in a hi-tech age. Christ’s gathering of sinners in these last days is an official diplomatic mission, not from any earthly capitol but from heaven. Understanding God’s Word—being swept into the story—is not something that can happen in an instant; you can’t Google it. We have to be touched by Jesus Christ, as he speaks, baptizes, and delivers himself to our fleshy hands through ordinary stuff he has made. The leper may have been able to post the astounding announcement on his personal page, “I’ve been cleansed—Jesus just touched me and said, ‘You are cleansed’!” Yet the significance of the sign required context. Furthermore, for others to be touched, they need Jesus to touch them.
There are a lot of things we can do now in terms of distributing content, starting conversations, and networking with others. Yet no more than the fruit of Guttenberg’s printing press—mass-distributed books—can the Internet proclaim a new creation into being. No one exploited the printing press more than Luther, but he cautioned, “The church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house.” Even today, Christ is forming an assembly of guests for his wedding feast by his Word and Spirit.
Like all common gifts, technology requires wisdom and discernment. There is a time and place for everything. We don’t pretend that we are really present at Thanksgiving if we’re “joining” by Skype or video-conference. Children don’t grow up (or shouldn’t, at least) in digital homes, but real ones, where people have to wait in line for bathrooms. Why do people think that we can “grow up into Christ” without the joys and frustrations of living with other sinners?
Digitial deliverance from that now-ubiquitous fear of being disconnected, out of the loop or out of date distracts us from the real deliverance from the reign of sin and death. Are the uses to which digital technology are being put today advancing Christ’s mission or do they represent actually the avoidance of the kind of kingdom that Christ has inaugurated in the world—in fact, a way of conforming the kingdom of Christ into just another kingdom of this passing age?
Contrary to the propaganda of the techno-evangelists, the Internet cannot bring people together, bodily, to make them a communion of saints. It can deliver data, even crucial information about God’s Worrd, but it cannot deliver Christ with all of his benefits. For that, you just have to show up. You have to hear it to believe it, to be washed into its cleansing surf, and to be made into part of his “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” by tasting the morsels of that greater feast to come.