Friday, July 09, 2021

The present presence of the risen Lord

The Lord Jesus is alive - risen, ascended, enthroned.  As the Living One, he is present in and to his church by the Holy Spirit.  He himself, as the One who is in heaven, is present with us on earth.  This is something which hopefully all Christians would acknowledge, but what do we do with it?  Is the presence of the Lord Jesus of functional importance to us?

One of the themes running through John Webster's collection of essays Word and Church is the constant danger of ignoring or minimising this presence.  As Webster points out, there are plenty of things - theological things! - that threaten to squeeze out the place of the risen Christ.  The church, for example, can easily expand to take his place, and the doctrine of the church can come to supplant the doctrine of the risen Lord Jesus.  When this happens - and we should probably not move too quickly to glance over at Rome here, since it surely happens closer to home than that - the church's sacramental and liturgical life continues, and it continues to talk about the risen Christ, but it becomes increasingly hard to see what difference it would make if Jesus were absent.  Perhaps he just set up the church and then left it to run - a kind of gospel deism.

I suspect that sometimes in evangelical circles the doctrine of Scripture can pose a threat in this way.  It is good that we have a high view of the Bible and its authority, but there is always a danger that the authority of the Bible is cut loose from the authority of the Lord.  In analogy to the danger with the church, might we come to act as if Christ had provided Holy Scripture as a deposit of sacred truth and then basically left us to it?  What difference would it make to our preaching and teaching if he were absent?

We are used to looking back, to see Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection; we are used to looking forward, straining to see Jesus in his glorious return.  Are we used to looking up, to see Jesus in heaven - and not only to see him there, but to be lifted up in our hearts to be with him there now, because he is with us?

Because the only substitute for the presence of the Lord Jesus which is held out in the New Testament is the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Think about the discourse in the latter chapters of John.  Jesus is going away, but he will send another Counsellor.  And yet it turns out this is no substitution at all - for where the Spirit is, there is Christ himself!  It is his spiritual presence that we're talking about, or his presence by the Spirit.

It all raises questions particularly for our corporate worship (and I think the NT gives us reasons to talk specifically about Christ's presence in the gathered worship of his people).  When the Scriptures are opened and the word is preached, do we have a sense that Christ is presently speaking to us - is it first hand or second (or third) hand?  Is it the viva vox dei that we're hearing as we hear the voice of the reader and the voice of the preacher?  When we gather at the Table, is it the Lord's Supper that we're attending - is he the host?  Is he present, as the one who was crucified and is now risen, to feed us with his own body and blood?  Or is this just a memorial of a thing that happened long ago and far away?

The Lord is here!

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