Before concluding this series (and turning it into a sermon), let’s review with some application, then look at three other scriptures elsewhere in the New Testament that speak directly to the question.
Using the letter to the Ephesians as a kind of summary theology, we discover that post-resurrection, the Christian has a rich diversity of ways to think about the presence and person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is risen and exalted, the Lord of the universe at God’s right hand. By the power of the Spirit, he dwells in the hearts of believers and dwells in the midst of his church. In both he pursues the agenda of God and his Kingdom that all things will be conformed to the loving, holy, fulfilled, mature image of Jesus Christ. We are both risen and exalted with Christ, and following-suffering with Christ in the present. As Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, his presence is both the great, glorious fact of the universe and the hidden, secret treasure known only to those who believe.
In worship, we recall and remember these things not as dead realities, but as the living story of the world and the true story of our lives. In baptism, the eucharist and receiving the gifts that Jesus gives to his church/people, we enjoy and savor the presence and reality of Jesus Christ, poured out in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The presence of Christ is not a substance to be dispensed. It is not a game we play with God where we get his attention and he throws us some favors. It is not something to be chased or conjured, manipulated or made accessible only to the initiated. The presence and person of Christ is the glory that lights up the whole of history, all of the universe and that shines powerfully into the darkest corners of our hearts. It is a presence that gathers, gifts, grows and co-glorifies the people of God in the love of Jesus.
I would suggest the glad announcement that “God is with us” is as important as the good news that “God is our salvation,” but that understanding the idea of the presence of God in Christ is essential to a proper sacramentalism and avoiding the extremes of desperation, manipulation and religious control of the presence of God.
(Those of you who are New Testament scholars might want to look into how it is this very thing- the presence of God with Jesus and OUTSIDE of the CONTROLLED SYSTEM that was a key element in the opposition to Jesus among official Judaism.)
If we move out of Ephesians to the Gospel of Matthew for a moment, we will encounter some further statements of Jesus himself that specifically answer the question, “Where is Jesus?”
In Matthew 18, in a key teaching on forgiveness and relationships among his followers in the ecclesia, Jesus says “20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Because of the placement of this statement at the end of the pericope, it is important. It is the background to everything else that is said. The presence of Christ is not a result of something that is done when two or three believers gather. It is the assumption on which that gathering is based. It is the basis of prayer and of the concern for holiness and righteousness among the people of God. It is the source of forgiveness. (Those of you non-liturgical types might consider this in light of the importance of a call to worship in liturgy.)
A similar, broader statement of the presence of Jesus is found at the conclusion of the Great Commission and the Gospel of Matthew as a whole.
28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“I am with you always” now becomes the ultimate statement over everything in the Gospel of Matthew, especially it’s directives and commandments. It’s hard for me not to see this as a statement that is the one sure foundation of everything Christians do and believe.
As a result, I think it’s a valid question about whether Christian worship should include anything that purports to “bring” the presence of Christ where it was not previously.
I am not talking about a sacramental realization or mediation of the presence of Christ, but actually “bringing God down” or “going up to God” through the various actions, rituals and experiences that increasingly fill out the language and practice of Christians, especially evangelicals.
If we believed Jesus Christ and all his salvation is with us as described in Matthew and Ephesians, would we be talking as if singing gets his attention? Prayer brings him down? A particular minister has the power that wasn’t there before he arrived? And so on?
Coming to this conclusion sheds light on the final passage in Matthew that I want to bring to our attention: Matthew 25:31-46. the Great Judgment section that includes this:
Matthew 28:35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Some of you may recall that Tony Campolo was actually the subject of a fundamentalist heresy trial over saying that this passage taught that Christ was somehow mystically present in the poor and the oppressed.
I’m not sure what grammatical gymnastics are necessary to make this passage say that Jesus was not somehow present with the suffering persons he described, but I don’t want to acquire those exegetical skills.
If there is no magic, manipulation or game to be played to bring the presence of Jesus into the world, then we are able to find the presence of Jesus in this world in the places where it appears that God is most absent. Jesus is describing the people who cause so many skeptics to say “Where is God?” Jesus is saying God was right there, in the poor, suffering and the oppressed, all the time. The question was whether you responded to these persons with an assurance that you were, somehow, also ministering to Jesus Christ.
This is one of the most sacramental passages in the Bible, but not one that brings out the usual debaters. Here is the “real presence” of Jesus; a presence that must be recognized for Jesus to recognize us as belonging to him.
While some Christians are indoors playing games to acquire the presence of God, God is in the streets, the jails, the ghettos and the hospitals, asking us if we know Jesus well enough to recognize his identification with this suffering.