By Daniel Vestal
Sept. 24, 2009
The Presence of Christ in the World: An Apology, Part 2
In what way is the presence of Christ working in and through people of other religions or people of no religion? Is it possible that the presence that is gladly named and celebrated in the church is hidden and active in those outside the Church? There are hints in Scripture that such is the case.
On one occasion the disciples reported to Jesus that there were those performing miracles in his name yet not in his gathered community. Jesus responded with a command to leave them alone and that "those who were not against him were for him." On another occasion Jesus identified himself as the "good shepherd." He said, "I know my own and they know me ... I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice." Perhaps Jesus was speaking of the Gentiles who would one day be included along with the Jews in the new covenant community. Or perhaps he was speaking of those in whom he would work even without their realizing or acknowledging it.
At this point I want to confess what I see, what I believe and what I am willing to leave as unanswered questions. First, it is obvious that many people of other religions exhibit qualities of character that are like the qualities of Christ. They demonstrate sacrificial service, non-violent resistance to evil and compassionate acts of mercy. They are kind, courageous and loving. We should celebrate such lives and thank God for them. We also should learn from them and ask that the living Christ teach us through their examples.
Our own commitment to Christ and desire for Christ's presence to work in and through us is in no way lessened by the Christ-like beauty and power of those whose lives do not acknowledge Him. Our own experience of Christ is not diminished nor the urgency of our mission to proclaim Christ minimized by the glad acknowledgement of those who show Christ-like character even if they do not follow Him. Neither should we feel distracted from a single minded passion for Christ's presence in us and through us by these philosophical/theological questions.
For me it is not contradictory to declare with St. Paul that "God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself," and also to declare with St. Peter, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." For me it is not foolish to believe the words of Jesus, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me," and be willing to leave some questions unanswered as to how the presence of Christ is at work in the world outside of the Christian community.
If Christ is "the image of the invisible God" and the One by whom all things have been created and redeemed; and if in Christ "was life, and the life was the light of all people," then is it not possible that in ways beyond our understanding the presence of Christ influences and affects all humanity? The truth of the centrality, supremacy and uniqueness of Christ is enlarged, not ensmalled, by acknowledging that presence working throughout the world.
The Presence of Christ in the Church
The experience and conviction of the risen Jesus is what caused the birth and growth of the early church. They were convinced that after his death, the tomb where he was buried had been emptied because God raised him from the dead. They were also convinced because on numerous occasions he had been seen/touched, and though in a radically different form, he was the same person as before his death. They were also convinced that the risen Jesus had returned to God and now shared in the life and power of God in ways that made his Spirit present among them and within them in new and different ways than before.
Christ was absent from them in a physical/tangible sense but present with them in a spiritual sense. That presence was none other than the Holy Spirit, which was the presence of Jesus Christ. That presence transformed them from being fearful/timid disciples into bold/powerful witnesses. That presence was experienced, celebrated and proclaimed in ways that changed the world.
Today the presence of Christ within us and among us is what creates Christian community and makes us the Church. We are more than a collection of individuals (like a society, club or fraternity). We are more than an organization that shares a common mission (like a business, choir or charity). We are more than an institution that is created to perform some noble function (like a university, hospital, government).
We are the dwelling place of God, the sanctuary where Christ is present, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are a human community, but we are a human community indwelt by the divine. What makes the church "more" and "different" and "unique" from all other human agencies is that in the church the personal, transcendent, powerful presence of the living Christ dwells.
To this truth Scripture gives witness with a number of symbols. Ephesians 2:19-22 says, "So then you are ... members of the household of God, built ... into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." I Peter 2:5-6 reminds us that as individual believers we are "living stones" and that we are "built into a spiritual house." II Corinthians 4:7 says, "But we have this treasure in clay jars so that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."
Jesus himself spoke of the disciples as being "branches" from which life and fruit come because they are grafted into the "vine." He then declares, "I am the vine and you are the branches." (John 15:5) Later Jesus will pray for the unity of all who believe in him on the basis of this divine indwelling, "The glory that you have given me I have given them, that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one." (John 17:22)
One of the most dramatic symbols for the church is that we are the mystical body of Christ on earth. I Corinthians 12:13 says, "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." And then in that beautiful word of assurance, "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (I Corinthians 12:27).
The presence of Christ among us and within us has profound implications for how we treat one another. It should cause great humility, and even awe, in one another's company. How can we engage in harsh criticism and rude behavior to one another if indeed we together are the body of Christ? Tension and stress are inevitable in any human community, and the church is no exception. But if we see our community as indwelt by Christ, we must always be looking for ways to edify and encourage on another rather than be isolated from one another.
I often want to remind churches when they are in the midst of conflict and tension, "Remember who you are and what it is that binds you together." It is nothing less than the reality and mystery of the presence of Christ that makes you a church. It is not culture, or taste, or agreement on every point of doctrine. Therefore, humble yourselves before the divine presence and before one another.
The presence of Christ among us and within us also has profound implications for our mission to the world. Let us not forget that the church's mission is preceded by the mission of God. And the mission of God is in Christ. It is because of our participation in Christ that we participate in God's mission. It is because we are "in Christ" and "Christ is in us" that what we say and do can extend God's mission.
I often want to remind churches when they are struggling with their identity and ministry that their calling is not to be successful but to be faithful to the mission of God by reflecting the presence of Christ. To the degree that we ourselves are transformed by this presence we will bear lasting and abiding fruit. Our mission is not to "market the church" or "grow the institution" but to be who we are as a continuing embodiment of Christ in the world.
Daniel Vestal is executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving since 1996.