Jesus, as Presence
Diana Butler Bass is a church historian, who has written several books and has followed trends in Christian and church life.
One time she was leading a workshop about church demographics and the decline in church attendance and talking about things that thriving churches do.
One of the ministers stopped her at one point and basically accused her of not talking about Jesus. “You’ve talked about sociology and church trends. But what about Jesus? Where is Jesus?”
She replied “Well as far as I know he is right here. Why? do you think he is absent?
But you haven’t said his name.
“Do I have to say his name for him to be here? I just assumed he be here is a room full of ministers.”
Someone else joked: “That’s not necessarily a good assumption.”
“Point taken” Diana laughed, “but I trust where two or three are gathered Jesus is there. And where love is, Jesus is.”
Diana in this little exchange has pointed out a couple of things that many Christians hold dear about Jesus, the risen Christ.
That Jesus lives in us. That Jesus is with us. In fact, Paul uses the analogy that the church is the body of Christ. That is a pretty profound statement.
We are all part of Christ. And Christ is part of us.
Where is Jesus. In us.
And that second thing that Diana points out is that:
Where love is Christ is. This refers to the fact that we believe Jesus is divine, part of the Trinity. And that God is love. Not just God loves. But God is love. So, by extension if God is love, wherever love is God is. And wherever God is, Jesus is. So wherever love is, Jesus is.
And I don’t know about you in particular but this has been very meaningful in my life.
This understanding that Jesus is in me, and in people. That Jesus is where love is.
You will also find in scripture that Jesus is wherever people are in need. Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, you did it to me.
This question of where Jesus is, however, is still somewhat debated and questioned and was not the easiest question for early Christians to wrap their heads around.
If Christ is on earth, does it mean he is, or is not in heaven as well? Is the Holy Spirit different from Jesus? Is God different from Jesus? and if so how?
Some thought that God was one entity and appeared in one of three forms: God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, so that when Jesus was on earth, there was not a Holy Spirit or God. And if God was Holy Spirit, then God wasn’t Jesus or God.
And it gets confusing doesn’t it.
The church struggled with this for the first few hundred years and finally came up with the doctrine of the trinity, spelled out in the Nicene Creed. God existed as three persons, yet completely one.
And of course, I studied this and have accepted it and believed it, but have wondered about it.
To me it is a metaphor to help understand the nature of God. That the divine exists in mutuality, equality and harmony and yet diversity. And surely this should tell us something about how we should live with others.
In mutuality, equality, harmony, yet diversity.
But my experience is that often we have used the Trinity or other doctrines, not as gateways to understand the divine, but as doors to keep out those who don’t understand things the same way we do.
We will say the Apostles’ Creed today in Church, the distillation of Greek and Roman thought that struggled with the questions of who Jesus was and where he is and the relationship of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit.
And there is nothing wrong with this creed.
But for me, there is so much it doesn’t say. It doesn’t talk about the Good News which is God loves you. It doesn’t talk about the ways we experience Jesus as friend or Saviour. It doesn’t talk about how he reached out to the poor, the different, the sinner, the foreigner and to those whom society didn’t value.
It doesn’t talk about Jesus’ words on justice and equality. And it doesn’t talk about prayer or what it is like to have a relationship with God. It doesn’t talk about Jesus living in us and being a part of us.
Living with Jesus is what I am about. I don’t consider myself a systematic theologian, but a preacher and a pastor who tries to relay to a congregation, not only words about God, or doctrines or theology, but an experience of God, an experience of Jesus, an experience of the Holy Spirit.
If you were to ask the average Christian where God is, there are two common answers.
And this was pointed out to me in a little story about a mother who was driving in the car home from church one day and a little voice came from the car seat in the back. “Mommy, where is Jesus.”
Mommy said: “Jesus is with you sweetie. He lives in your heart.”
When they got home, the little girl went up to daddy who was sitting on the couch watching the football game. “Daddy, where is Jesus.”
Daddy said: “Jesus is in heaven.”
It points out a bit of a theological conundrum, which theologians have talked about as being the immanence or transcendence of God.
On the one hand there are those who speak about
God as high and mighty and lifted up and other. God’s way are not our ways. God is mysterious and other, and Lord and King of all, and we should bow down and worship the one whose sandals we are unworthy to tie. God is perfect and omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent. All knowing, all seeing, all being and we are unworthy sinners.
And God is up there in heaven and different and other and transcendent. And that is there in scripture.
On the other hand, there are those who speak about God as in us and a part of us, and in everyday things, and everywhere present. That God is near and available and accessible because Jesus lives in us. We are Jesus’ body. We can talk to Jesus, know Jesus, have a relationship with Jesus. And that is there is scripture too.
And maybe your experience is of one or the other. To you Jesus may be heaven. To you Jesus may be in your heart.
The answer of course is that God is both. God is both near and far. That God is both high and mighty and different and far above us; and close and near and in us.
But we often don’t do paradox very well, and we tend to favour one or the other. And certain church traditions favour one over the other.
The Baptist church I attended was not big on emotional experience, and the Pentecostal church I attended was huge on experiencing the presence of God.
I was attracted to the Presbyterian Church in part because it was similar to the United Church of my roots and there was more of an intellectual faith.
And I love to think and use intellect to work on sermons, to dig deep into the mysteries of the gospel, and to analyze the stories, the scriptures and then be creative in putting words together to preach, relating the gospel to everyday life to unfold the mystery of Christ as best I can.
I like the intellectual side of faith, but….
… I consider myself a Presbyterian mystic. Presbyterian you probably know. But mystic simply means that like millions of Christians, I experience the divine. I feel the divine. I see the divine. I look for the divine. And I am often moved to tears by the experience of the divine.
And to be perfectly honest I cannot tell, God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit apart when I experience the divine. And for me I often use them interchangeably.
When I see God at work, when I feel God, it is the same as seeing Jesus and feeling Jesus, or the same as seeing the Holy Spirit or feeling the Holy Spirit.
And my experience of the divine has often happened right here in this sanctuary. I am overcome with the presence of God and moved to tears.
Often it can be singing some grand hymn with Joachim playing the organ, and the sopranos singing the descant, and it feels to me that God is singing and playing right along with us, or that we literally are Christ singing and playing.
Sometimes it is when I am doing a baptism or placing my hands on the head of teenagers who are professing their faith in Christ; or it happens at the service in January where we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and I invite you to come forward and renew your baptismal vows and I anoint you with oil.
I have cried like a big baby, because I see Christ in you.
I cried just last week when I talked about a choir member who recently passed away and how he blessed me and was Christ to me.
One time I was on a silent retreat, when I was doing my spiritual director’s course, and I walked for six hours along the river valley, and towards the end of my hike, the presence of God, Jesus, Spirit overtook me, and I was one with the trees and with people and with the dogs and everything; and so full of love and joy. It was amazing.
When I go to the movies, when I read books, when I watch tv., my Spidey senses are often alert to love, to kindness, to inclusion, to forgiveness, to reconciliation and I experience Christ.
When I go to the movies, when I read books, when I watch tv., I often see the gospel, when good news happens, or I relate to one of the characters as the Christ figure
I see Christ, hear Christ, touch Christ, feel Christ in so many things, in so many people, in so many experiences.
Fiona, my wife, said to me one time. Can’t you just go see a movie and just enjoy it and not have to analyze it.
No, I can’t. And it might appear in the sermon next week, because I like to share the gospel.
And Jesus surprises me by showing up where he is not expected, or redirecting me to scriptures or books which I have ignored, or speaking to me out of the blue, or challenging me to question my previously held assumptions.
But maybe it shouldn’t surprise us because the scriptures themselves often have Jesus showing up in all kind of interesting ways. He is word, way, shepherd, sheep, servant, slave, king, dishonest manager, thief, pearl, hen, flower, grain of wheat, bird, bread, wine, stranger, truth, victim, the poor, water…
Which seems to indicate that Jesus is not limited to who he can be, or where he can show up.
And it may remind us that even in the very simple things of life, Jesus is there. Family, children, food, love, doing the dishes, changing diapers, sharing a meal.
And there are those that challenge us to think in very different ways about Jesus.
In the Old Testament it was believed that God did not live on earth but lived in the sky in a cloud of glory called the shekhinah. And God would come down occasionally to earth, and he did when he met Moses on the mountain, or when he would come to the innermost part of the tabernacle, and later the temple, to the Holy of Holies on the day of atonement.
Interestingly enough the Shekhinah was feminine, and there are several images of God being feminine, and when Jesus died the veil of the temple was rent in two suggesting that this Shekhinah this cloud of glory was Jesus himself, and not up in the sky any more but here present to humans.
This prompted the English mystic Julian of Norwich to speak of Jesus as mother. I quote:
And so, Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation. And he is our true Mother in grace by taking our created nature . . . He is our Mother, brother and savior.
(Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus (pp. 238-239). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
So, Jesus is present in sometimes different and unusual ways, although I suspect a lot of you might realize that Jesus is present in your mother and in the act of mothering a child.
Today we are celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is the sacrament of Jesus’ presence. Jesus said: Take eat this is my body. Some talk about what is called “the real presence.” That Jesus is somehow really present in the sacrament.
And theologians have argued this. Roman Catholics theologians talk about transubstantiation, the bread actually turning into Jesus’ real body, so one is literally eating Jesus.
The Lutherans talk about consubstantiation which is Christ in and through the bread but not his actual body.
Many churches see communion as just a memorial or a remembering.
I guess that the Presbyterian view of a sacrament is that the symbols, the bread and wine are united with that which is symbolized.
And a lot of things are symbolized in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It re-enacts the death of Jesus. The cross of Jesus in some way is present. It is about feeding and being fed. It is about giving and sharing.
“This is my body” Jesus says, and we know that we, or the church are referred to the body of Christ.
And communion means union with. This is about union with Christ and union with one another.
Presence is an important word to me. Communion is about Jesus being present to us, Jesus feeding us grace and love, which is his very self. But it is also about us the body of Christ being present to one another, and feeding one another love and grace, and sharing food and the necessities of life with one another.
How important presence is in a person’s life? You would not have lived, had there not been someone present in your life to feed you, to nurture you, to love you.
And how important it is to have someone really present to you, who listens, who care, who forgives, who understands, who calls you to account, who challenges you to be your best self, who accepts you as you are?
Communion says that Jesus is all these things to you. And maybe you will find that Jesus is so real and present, that you start taking up a cross and dying to falsehood, to false selves to selfishness and to ego, and are raised to love, to grace and a new self that is your true self.