Jesus said to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

But just how did Jesus show his love to the disciples, so that we who follow might emulate his example?

He got down on his knees and washed their feet. He touched them, each one of them, even Judas. He touched them.

Throughout his years of ministry, Jesus touched people: a leper, Peter’s mother-in-law, a blind man, a 12 year-old girl, a deaf-mute, a crippled woman, children – and when Peter thought he was drowning, Jesus reached out his hand to save him. He touched hands and feet and eyes and ears. He took the children into his arms. “Love one another,” he says. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Scripture records so many examples of the loving, healing touch of our Lord. And that tactile, physical way of showing love has been entrusted to us, his followers. At St. Paul’s, I think of how we have– until recently — passed the “peace of Christ” though hugs and handshakes. I think of our healing team laying hands on those seeking prayer. The human need for touch is profound.

But what about now?  Again I quote the psalmist: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” How can we emulate Christ’s healing touch during a pandemic when we are isolated from each other?

I’ll tell you a story that starts like a fairy tale in the dark woods. If Rick and I go through the woods instead of along McKeen St. and up Berribeau, it’s only about a 20 minute walk between our house and our son’s house. Last week, he was going to walk with his little girls through the woods, and we were going to meet them half way. We met up as planned, wearing our masks and keeping our distance, but the girls almost immediately got into a tussle with each other and the younger one dissolved into a tantrum, and my son turned them around towards home. Our last sight was of the 4 year-old in angry tears and the 7 year-old with hunched shoulders, walking away from us down the path and disappearing into the trees. The piercing sadness I felt was not only for that lost time with them, but for all that it evoked: the feel of their hair as I brush it from their foreheads, their sweet weight as they lean against me when I read books to them, the power of their hugs. Their touch. And yet, though it breaks my heart, I know that this is a small thing, so small compared to families who cannot touch and tend their loved ones who are sick, and the dying who must die alone in this pandemic.

It all felt so hopeless. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus tells us, but I thought, “How can I? How can I?” It was days before I remembered the words from Michael Perry’s hymn:

Heal me, hands of Jesus, and search out all my pain;
restore my hope, remove my fear, and bring me peace again
.

Jesus is no longer here physically to lay his hands on us, but we believe he still holds us, still eases our fears, still offers hope and peace – that his loving hands still touch us. And if we are now supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus, then even without physical contact, we, too, can touch one another through our words and actions.

And so I’ve learned to use FaceTime to read books to our granddaughters. Our grandson in Massachusetts sent me a list of five animals he wanted in a bedtime story, which I told him over the phone. I found an old photo of my sister and me when we were little girls living in Illinois and I sent it to my sister, giving us a chance for reminiscences. These have become ways of touching my separated family. But I know that’s not enough.

Jesus is talking about a love that embraces far more than family, more than followers, way beyond our understanding. “Love one another as I have loved you.” From the confines of our separate homes, how can we do this?  If we have the resources, we can send checks to those who would be cleaning our houses, to daycares that can no longer operate, to other small businesses that have lost all sources of income. We can still tend the political and social causes that call on our hearts and our energy though phone calls, letters, and financial support as we are able. We can find creative ways to “touch” each other, engage in actions that show us to be disciples of Jesus.

And yet, as we are reminded daily, the best way we can show our love for one another right now, family and stranger alike, is to stay home. It feels so counter-intuitive, to follow Jesus’ command to love each other by staying away from each other. I hate it.

But perhaps accepting the pain of this separation is our greatest act of love.