The centrality of human senses to their witness of Christ

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

St John, Apostle and Evangelist: Good senses

When our lovely friend Christobel Mattingley used to teach children how to write good stories, she used to insist that they describe as fully as possible how things in their stories looked, how they felt, sounded, tasted and smelt. She taught them that this emphasis on our senses was going to draw the reader most completely into the story; it would make the story real for the reader.

The community who handed us down the Gospel of John and the three letters quite obviously shared Christobel’s opinion. We declare to you 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. The first letter of John thus proclaims the centrality of the human senses to their witness to Jesus. And it’s the same again at the end of today’s brief passage from that letter; God is declared to be light. God – the uncreated light – reveals what all things are really like.

It’s appropriate then that all of our readings chosen to mark St John’s Day are filled with the witness of the five senses. In Proverbs 8, the world’s first bits of soil are about as primally physical as you can get. We hear the voice of wisdom describe her delighted partnership with God in creating the physical cosmos. The Psalm too is an intensely sensate poem, and our Gospel features a foot race!

If we think about it, we only have to consider the name ‘St John’ in the wider community to recognise that an emphasis on physical practical care is central to our heritage; St John’s first aid and St John’s ambulance services for a start, and the ancient Hospitalers of St John; it’s all there.

I’ve always found this parish to be true to the character of our patron, St John the Evangelist. Many of the distinctive qualities of our gatherings and the way we care for this parish environment demonstrate our emphasis on physical, sensual care. We know how things which address the senses can also uplift the spirit.

I think of the weekly touch of the healing ministry, the scent, the beauty and the inviting welcome of the gardens, the care of the buildings, the quality and the abundance of music here, and the impressive culture of hospitality. And even things which in other parishes are private, secluded times – going to the altar for the Eucharist or to the font for healing – here they are times of encouraging embraces and smiles. And as for the sharing of the peace after our prayers each Sunday, you can say goodbye to traditional English restraint! It’s a sheer delight.

So today is a time for me to take the opportunity to encourage this gifting of the parish. We need to wonder together how we might develop our ministries and our outreach further; particularly our care of people’s physical well-being – our care of people’s ways of experiencing God in the world through the senses. In this time of bushfire emergency and climate emergency, the need is very immediate and urgent.

With John’s Gospel as our guide, we see there’s a crossover between physical care and spiritual care, where we must quite often minister in the symbolic realm. That too is part of our brief if we are people who emulate the discipleship of St John. So let me remind you of some opportunities, guided by moments in John’s gospel where Jesus mixes the sensate and the symbolic in both pastoral care and proclamation. Let’s go through all five senses.

We’ll start with touch. The Holy Spirit touches Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (1.32) and Thomas is invited to touch him at the end (20.27). Both touches proclaim who Jesus is, and both lead to discipleship. And Jesus touched people too; think of him washing his disciples’ feet!? Can a ministry of touch bring people into contact with Jesus here? Certainly healing ministry, but what else? Let’s think…

And sight: there’s so much about this in John’s gospel and as we’ve already seen in the letters of John. See life; never see death (8.51); the spiritual blindness of those who won’t see (8.39). Then in our gospel reading today, the beloved disciple sees Jesus not there and believes!

We think of John as the symbolic gospel, and there’s certainly rich, endless symbolism. Yet it’s through the sense of physical sight that belief often comes. St John’s Adelaide is visually striking; but we need to sit down together and think about how this effect might help people to become disciples of Christ. …

What about hearing? The extraordinary Prologue to the Gospel stretches our senses deep into symbolic territory; how might the Word have a voice? We think a word can’t sound unless it comes from a voice. But here, is the voice secondary? People hear the Word speak; they meet the Word, Jesus, and immediately follow him. In chapter 10.5, sheep follow the good Shepherd because they know his voice; they run away from the voice of a false shepherd. What might all this be saying to us? …

The sense of taste is given a wonderful workout in this gospel, from the first miracle, the wedding at Cana, through the feeding of 5000 to Jesus calling himself the bread of heaven. And then there’s the confronting fact of Jesus feeding Judas in the upper room (13.26f). This all speaks deeply into the table fellowship which we share each week together. We’re always sent out from the table to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. And we know this means ‘care for the needy, support the weak, feed the hungry’. The heavy baskets full of groceries that go out from this parish each week are a sign that we have heard this call. Is it something that we are called to develop further? …

And finally, the sense of smell – particularly poignant with the recent reminder of the smoke haze. Once again, John’s gospel is not backward in coming forward. The two most prominent occasions are the threatened stench of Lazarus’s tomb and the overwhelming fragrance of the perfume that Mary of Bethany poured on Jesus’s feet. Is there something beyond our incense and flowers that we’re called to?

We declare to you 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. What do we do about this witness: what’s the next step for us?  Amen