An absent Jesus and the missing Holy Spirit
"Jesus is here, right now, ready to welcome you home. Just come to Him in faith."
How many times have you heard such an invitation in church? And how many times did you look around, perhaps craning your neck or even standing up, to get a really good look at Jesus – only to find that, once again, He wasn’t actually there?
Are preachers just lying when they say Jesus is there, in church, right then?
Churchgoers will scoff at such a silly question. They know pastors don’t mean to say Jesus is – well, what is it pastors do and don’t mean to say?
This theological question needs a good answer. And then that answer needs translating into the language of contemporary Canadians who can’t tell Abraham from Moses or incarnation from resurrection. Otherwise, as I heard one agitated pastor put it (with unintentional humour), "Our ministry won’t be a blessing" – which, to most Canadian ears, sounds like, "Our ??? won’t be a ???"
As Easter approaches, let’s be clear what we should and shouldn’t mean about encountering the Lord Jesus Christ in a Canadian church on a Sunday morning.
Jesus is risen! We love to proclaim the resurrection on Easter Sunday. A few weeks later, if we mind the church calendar, we celebrate His ascension. Jesus is not here now. He is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, exercising His dominion over the world, and particularly the Church, while He intercedes as high priest for us with the Father.
To unpack the concepts of the previous paragraph would take a few sermons, of course. I’ll leave that for you pastors as homework. For now, let’s just get clear that Jesus is not here and that He will come again. (There is no Second Coming to hope for if Jesus never left.)
So how can someone in a Canadian church encounter an absent Jesus on a Sunday morning?
When I was reading the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a book I wrote a while ago, I noticed he used this language of immediacy all the time. The Christian life was nothing other than Nachfolge – "following" Jesus.
But Bonhoeffer knew Jesus had ascended to heaven. Again, how can we follow someone who isn’t here?
Bonhoeffer never directly answers that question, as far as I know. The answer is, in fact, the person of the Holy Spirit – the member of the Trinity often left out of theology and yet essential to making sense of certain crucial elements of the faith. This is one of them.
We contemporary Canadians simply cannot and must not avoid the fundamental mysticism of our religion. As impressive as our apologetics may be, as praiseworthy as our good works may be, and as admirable as our families and churches and charities may be, at the heart of Christianity is a personal encounter with, and discipleship to, Jesus Christ. And since He is physically absent (Maranatha!), we connect with Him via the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sent to replace Jesus in our lives (John 14:16–27).
This idea – that we can encounter Jesus here and now through the mediating presence of the Spirit – will take some very careful explaining for even Christians to understand. To then offer this gospel in an intelligible way to our neighbours is a major challenge beyond that.
Polls of those neighbours show not only a lack of understanding of Christianity, but widespread misunderstanding of it. What they think we believe is often not what we do believe. So we have a very large task ahead of us, each of us, as we evangelize our friends and family, and the obligation is especially heavy on those of us who teach the community.
If we fail to think through these basic things and express them clearly, resorting instead to vague clichés such as, "Jesus is here. Just receive Him now," well, I daresay our ministry won’t be a blessing.
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017). Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.