This quote came to me from the Emergent Village e-mail.
“How do we preach Christ’s presence? We do so by constantly and consistently saying to people, ‘Look, there’s Christ in your midst, and there, and there, and there!’ We do it by showing people that even if they are in darkness, they can find Christ’s light shining through the love of a family member, the kindness of a friend, a phrase in a book, or the inspiration from a song. We can also preach Christ’s presence by reminding people that Christ is in the Scripture, in the sacraments, and in all of worship. We preach Christ’s presence by pointing to the incarnation of Christ in everything: our sufferings, our joys, our relationships, and our hearts.”
– N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church
[As always, what follows is a theological exploration, not a dogmatic assertion that I know what I’m talking about. I’d love your input – good, bad and ugly.]
Here, Standish is asking a question about how we preach Christ’s presence. I find his answer baffling. It’s baffling because the Church has always claimed, quite boldly, that Jesus’ resurrection was literal and not figurative. The Church through the ages has also claimed, quite boldly, that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven where he awaits his return at the proper moment to “judge the quick and the dead”, as the creed asserts. Jesus, himself, told his disciples on many occasions that he would be leaving. He promised that he would not leave his followers alone, however, because he would send them a helper, the Holy Spirit. The teaching of scripture, and affirmation through the ages, is that the resurrection was physical, meaning that right now Jesus lives and breathes in a physical body.
To me, that points to something quite different than Jesus being incarnated “in everything”. It also points to something quite different than Jesus himself being present through the “love of a family member, the kindness of a friend, a phrase in a book, or the inspiration from a song.” All of those things are good. They can point to God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit in significant ways. They can give evidence to the reality that people today can live lives pleasing to God under the power of the Spirit as they follow the teaching of Jesus. I just struggle when these kinds of things are labelled “Christ’s presence.” I wonder what the author means by “present” and I wonder what criteria is used for discerning the work of God in the world if Jesus is incarnate “in everything”.
At stake in what might seem like splitting hairs is the question of the very nature of the resurrection itself. There are basically three views concerning the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There are lots of variations on each view, but I think it’s fair to say there are three primary views. One, Jesus rose bodily from the dead – he was actually, physically resurrected. Two, Jesus didn’t rise bodily from the dead – he was not resurrected at all. Three, Jesus didn’t rise bodily from the dead – his resurrection was figurative, not literal.
If you are not familiar with that third view, you may ask; What is a figurative resurrection? Christians who hold this view would say that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross and did not come back to life. This caused his followers to go into hiding and to sink into despair. Then something miraculous happened; Jesus life and teaching and kingdom vision sprang back to life in their midst. They were then empowered to take the gospel which Jesus proclaimed to the world. What came back to life, in this view, was not Jesus himself, it was his vision of the kingdom of God. This would be a minority position within the church.
Just to be clear, I don’t buy that at all. And yet, that is what popped into my mind when I read the quote by Standish. It seems to me like Standish is taking a figurative view of the resurrection, in that the way he uses the word “presence” doesn’t speak to a physical presence the way we might understand it. For example, if I said, “I was present at my daughter’s soccer game last night.” you would naturally think that I was standing on the sideline, physically present at the game. If you found out I wasn’t at the game, you could rightly question what I meant by “presence.” When we ask the question”How do we preach the presence of Christ?” how we understand the nature of the resurrection itself has to guide our answer. Therefore, Standish’s quote leaves me with more questions than answers. If Jesus is alive in a physical body, somewhere with God, in what sense can he be incarnate (literally in the flesh) “in everything”?
I can hear people saying, “But didn’t Jesus say that wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them?” Yes, he did. And that might be a clue in unpacking a bit of this. And yet, even that is more narrow than Standish’s notion that Christ is incarnate “in everything”. [I know, I know…I would make a terrible mystic!] Jesus didn’t say that whenever someone was inspired by a quote in a book that he was present. Jesus didn’t say that whenever your family shows love for you that he is present. He actually said that whenever two or more folks are gathered in the context of reconciling a relationship broken by sin, that he was with them! Does that mean that Jesus is physically present with them? Well, that would make for one dynamic prayer meeting if he did, but I don’t think so. I think his comment is connected to the notion of the church as a binding and losing community – or a community filled up with real power and authority from God to do God’s work in the present. The church, quite literally, is empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the work of Christ here and now. When we do that, as exemplified by working on face-to-face reconciliation with brothers and sisters, we are continuing his work. Jesus is with us in the same way that I am with my brothers and sisters from Colombia even though I am not physically present with them. I think that’s an important distinction.
Another wrinkle, then, in Standish’s quote is the presence of Christ in the Scripture, the sacraments and worship. I think the same kinds of questions apply. What does Standish mean by presence? This is one thing that my more sacramental friends have never been able to adequately explain to me. I am unconvinced that Jesus’ teaching at the last supper implies a real, physical presence in the memorial meal that he instituted. Of course, my use of the world memorial tips my hand a bit. When someone says, “Jesus is present in the supper?” I want to know what they mean. In what way is he present? Is he physically present? If so, when, where and how? When someone says they encounter the real presence of Christ in the supper, what do they mean? Can you explain that to me in a way that is consistent with a physical, real, literally, bodily resurrection? These are properly theological questions that should be answered if we want to continue to use the language of presence.
I love the sentiment of Standish’s quote. But given the nature of the resurrection as a physical, literal, bodily resurrection – I can’t help but wonder if it’s more sentiment than good theology. Is that the way that Jesus would explain his presence with the church, his followers, and all people in the world, today? I also wonder what the effect of preaching the presence of Jesus this way has on his followers today? If Jesus is incarnate “in everything” than “everything” becomes the site of the incarnate Jesus, which means nothing is distinctly Jesus. This flies in the face of the particularity of Jesus himself. Instead of a church that is trying to find Jesus in everything, wouldn’t it be better to have a church that tries to follow Jesus’ teaching in everything? That seems to be what Jesus was getting at, as I read him and the early church.
How do you preach the presence of Christ? Well, I would preach that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, and is awaiting the kairos moment when he will return. From his place at God’s right hand he intervenes on behalf of his people advocating for us to the Father. From his place at God’s right hand, he sent us the Holy Spirit who guides and empowers our obedience on earth. How is the power of God made manifest in the world today? Through the faithful obedience of His people. What does that look like? It looks like a bunch of people living like Jesus under the power of the Spirit. Sometimes that will manifest itself through the written word, the scriptures, worship , the sacraments, music, loving actions and so on. However, Jesus isn’t all of those things. To say he is makes no sense within the narrative we are given. It has more in common with pantheism than Christianity.