Lesson 2: Presence as Promise

This series has not gone as I expected. My original plan was to critique as many theories about God’s presence in this world as I could find. I was thinking of word and sacrament, grain of the universe, Body of Christ, and that sort of thing. Things ran amok when I began by reading Ellul whose thoughts immediately reminded me of several other recent reads and discussions. All warned against getting mired down in conceptualizing when the times call for simple discipleship to save our civilization and even the world.

I realized I had set up myself to prolong the fruitless doctrinal discussion that has divided the institutional Church for several centuries. For instance, when Catholics and Protestants try to justify their separation, they usually include their different understandings of how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. And that tragic breakdown in unity continues when different Protestant bodies insist on their own particular explanations.

Seeing no sense in engaging in these kinds of intellectual exercises that bypass the everyday relevance of God’s presence among us, I decided to go in another direction. Last week, I suggested the divine presence is ultimately tested in the words and actions of personal testimony. Rather than getting sucked into the traditional theological exceptions to this argument, I elected to emphasize how much our failure prevents people from discerning God’s presence. The damage done by widespread clerical abuse is only the most public example.

This week I want to suggest that speaking of divine presence assumes some kind of omnipresence. It is true that the Bible often speaks of God coming to visit us on earth or returning to his home in heaven. Yet we who live in modern times find no separate place in an infinite universe for God to dwell. If there is any space for God, it is among us. The scriptures certainly do not see this as a pantheism but a presence. Psalm 139 paints a picture that works in our time.

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

The first chapter of John observes the problem then is discernment. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” The Evangelist maintains God resolves this problem with the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Twenty centuries later we cannot meet the incarnated God walking down our streets as Jesus of Nazareth, but we have his promise that he is still there. In Matthew 18:20, he promises to be present when two or three of us gather in his name. In Matthew 28: 20, he promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And certainly, the Easter Resurrection makes the same promise.

Anything else I intend to say in the following lessons about God’s presence among us will begin with Jesus’ promise. Our eyes are opened when we look where the Risen Lord promises he will be. Seeing him there, we then see him everywhere. For example, the real significance of God promising he will be present when we share the Communion meal is that this then enables us to see him present whenever we gather around a dinner table with each other.

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