Dr. Daniel Vestal: Being the Presence of Christ

Being the Presence of Christ: An Apologetic

The abiding, indwelling, transforming presence of Christ is predicated on the resurrection. The hope of every Christian, not only for life after death, but also for transformation in this life is predicated on the resurrection. The promise of Jesus that the Kingdom of God, inaugurated during his life and completed at his return, is predicated on the resurrection. The new heaven and the new earth as a vision for the future and as a motivation for mission is predicated on the resurrection.

It is the defining event for the Christian gospel. If there is no resurrection, the death of Jesus is only the death of a martyr. But with the resurrection, the death of Jesus is the sacrificial act by which God redeems the world. If there is no resurrection, the teachings and claims of Jesus are not only suspect but are blasphemous and insane. But with the resurrection, the teachings of Jesus are the truth by which all other teachings must be judged. Indeed they are the words of eternal life. If there is no resurrection, the story of Jesus itself is inscrutable, contradictory and confusing. But with the resurrection, his story unfolds in a way that makes him the center of history as well as the universe.

All the New Testament documents were composed from a post-resurrection experience. Every writer was living in a community created by profound belief in the resurrection and personal experience with the living Christ. One simply cannot understand the New Testament without seeing each document from this perspective.

It is important to remember that the resurrection was not a resuscitation of Jesus’ body and a return to the way he was before death. The empty tomb is important, not to prove the resurrection, but to show that the human body of Jesus had been transformed and now fit a mode of existence that can only be called “eternal.” And in that resurrection body he appeared on several occasions to demonstrate that although there was a continuity with his earthly existence, there was also a radical discontinuity.

The resurrection appearances were important, again not to prove the resurrection, but to demonstrate that the resurrected Christ now inhabited a body which – though tangible and touchable – was transcendent. It was very different than before death. So for 40 days Christ appeared to the disciples; not to Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees or other unbelievers. He appeared only to believing disciples, and even in those appearances there is great mystery. He is sometimes identified and sometimes not, but each appearance is only to those who love and believe in him.

Then comes the ascension of the risen Jesus. Scripture uses a number of metaphors to describe this event. He is said to “be exalted at the right hand of God,” or “seated at the right hand of God,” or “standing at the right hand of God.” The meaning of the ascension is that the risen, living Jesus is now glorified. Christ is now a cosmic presence with no boundaries, no limits, no restrictions, not even of a transformed body.  And after the gift of the Spirit, this cosmic presence becomes a personal presence available and accessible to all who love and believe in Him.

Christ is now a hidden presence, i.e. not seen by human eyes or grasped by human reason, but only known through faith and love. Christ is now a mediated presence, i.e. Christ is experienced and communicated in many ways and through multiple means to human beings. Christ is now both a transcendent and immanent presence i.e. reigning and ruling the universe yet closer to us than the breath we breathe. Christ is now a trinitarian presence i.e. the threeness of the one God is in the presence of Christ. The very fullness of the divine being dwells in the glorified Christ just as it did in the incarnated Christ.

And it is this Presence that we can receive, nurture and practice. It is by this Presence that we are transformed. This Presence can be embodied in us both as individuals and as a community so that we participate in the transformation of the world. However, this Presence is not a magical spell that can be conjured up or an impersonal power that can be manipulated at will. When Simon the magician saw the manifestation of Christ’s presence he offered the apostles money for his own selfish purposes. But Christ is the sovereign Lord of the universe, free to act in ways that cannot be understood, predicted or controlled.

This means that the presence of Christ is not limited to being embodied in the Church. Though this Presence is in all who believe, this same Presence inhabits and pervades the cosmos. Christ has been exalted and reigns as Lord of history, of time and eternity. The Christ who is within us is also above us, below us, beneath us, beside us, before us.

The presence of Christ is now embodied and mediated in many ways. It is embodied in the experience of Christian worship. Christ said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” It is embodied in a suffering humanity. Christ said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It is embodied in those that are marginalized and powerless, Christ said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” And it is embodied in the Church. Christ said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

The presence of Christ embodied within us is a real presence. Through the centuries there have been fierce debates as to whether Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is to be interpreted as symbol or substance. But there has been little debate about the sacramental presence of Christ within the Church as a whole and within the individual believer. We become flesh and blood “signs,” partaking of the presence of Christ, revealing the presence of Christ.

This is not merely a metaphor, model or symbol but an actual reality in which we continue Christ’s ministry, suffering and power in the world. This continuation in no way violates or replaces our human identity. Christ’s spirit within us does not obliterate our spirit, but rather “bears witness” with our spirit that we are children of God. Christ’s spirit “joins with our spirit” in providing assurance, strength, affirmation.  Christ’s spirit inhabits us at the center of our personality without destroying our personality. Christ’s spirit does not “merge” with our spirit nor does it “deify” us, but it does incorporate us into the mystical Body of Christ and makes us a temple of the Holy Spirit.   

This presence within us continues the Old Testament narrative where God is said to dwell among His people. From the fiery pillar of cloud to the “shekinah” glory to the anointing of prophet, priest and king, God dwelt with the chosen people of Israel. So our experience of the indwelling Christ provides continuity with this expansive narrative.  This presence within us extends the mission of Christ to reconcile the world to God. Christ continues his redemptive mission through us. We are sent as Christ was sent. We speak His words. We perform His acts. We suffer for His sake. We serve as His hands and feet. This presence within us is part of the consummation of the present and coming Kingdom of God, when the dwelling (presence) of God will be among us. It is part of the goal of the coming Kingdom where the New Jerusalem will descend from Heaven and “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”

What a grand and glorious reality is ours as Christ followers. We not only imitate Christ and make him our example, but we experience Christ’s transforming presence and become means by which that presence transforms others. What an awesome privilege.

_ Daniel Vestal is executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving since 1996. _

Used by permission from "Words from the Executive Coordinator," Aug. 20, 2009. www.thefellowship.info. Copyright 2009 The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship