June 24, 2018

Real and Present

magnifyingglass.jpgAdjectives are sneaky. You have to keep your eye on them. Especially those that tend to be redundant and, perhaps, confusing.

Let’s say that “Bob is present.” Now let’s say “Bob is really present.”

What exactly do we have here? Well, that could depend on context, of course, but ordinarily, it would be redundant, and I’d red pen it as unnecessary.

Now, I’m poking this hornet’s nest on purpose.

It’s Sunday a.m. in Anytown, USA. Folks are in their churches, calling on God in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus said that where two or three were gathered in his name, there he was in the midst of them. Present.

But some of those churches believe Christ is a “real presence” in their midst in a way he’s not at another church. In other words, he’s present with all, but the real presence of Christ is only with some.

Huh? Huh is right. If you are like me, that dog won’t hunt.

Let’s suppose of of these various believers get together for lunch after worship.

“The Lord was really with us today,” says the Pentecostal. “The Spirit was powerful. Our pastor was anointed.”

“God is always present where his people gather, his Word is proclaimed and his sacraments ,” says the Presbyterian.

“I feel like the Lord is with me all the time, but I especially sense him when I’m worshiping with our congregation,” says the Baptist.

“God is always with us, but Jesus was really present as we shared the sacrament,” says the sacramentalist believers.

Now each of these Christians is affirming, in their own way, their belief that:

1) the Lord is real.

2) the Lord is present.

3) the Lord is really present.

4) This is true in some way both in worship and outside of it.

5) Each one focuses on the presence of God in a slightly different way and in different language, but all are affirming that God is really present through the Holy Spirit.

They aren’t all saying the same thing, but they do all appear to be talking about the same experience of God.

God is real. God is present. And if someone said to the Pentecostal or the Baptist, “Jesus wasn’t really present at your church as much as he was at ours,” it would like be offensive.

I understand the theology, but I don’t get the language.

The only God I know of in the Gospel is a God who is real, a God who is present, a God who promises to be with his people corporately and individually, and a God who has given us multiple ways to focus on the particulars of his presence and the particular kinds of reality that involves.

I’m not insulting or demeaning anyone. I’m just being plain. “Real presence” seems to be one thing Christians can agree on, even if they disagree on how that presence is particularly manifested or effectual.

If we are going to separate Christians by the “real presence,” then perhaps we need to go ahead and speak honestly of the “real absence.” Of course, if we can’t do that…and I think most of us will agree we don’t want to go there….then can we simply say that God is present, as he promised, and that our differences in experiencing that presence are not a denial of the real presence of Jesus with other believers?

I can live with this. I can appreciate that we come at this different ways, and we have real differences. But one thing that isn’t different is that God is really present with all Christians in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. After that, it’s all secondary.

Comments

  1. Patrick Kyle says:

    Michael,
    I’m afraid that you have created a straw man in your presentation of the doctrine of the “Real Presence” When spoken by Christians of a sacramental bent, the “Real Presence’ is shorthand for maintaining that Christ is present according to His human and divine natures. Unfortunately, this imprecise shorthand often leads to misunderstanding.

    Lutherans, Catholics,Orthodox,etc. believe that Jesus is omnipresent according to both His human nature and His divine nature, especially where He promises to be in the LS.
    (see my comment in a previous post.) We believe this is true whether a church or individual believes it or not. The issue for us is that many deny that He’s present according to both Natures in the Lord’s Supper.(Reformed and many Baptists and Evangelicals)Therefore the concern is that some brethren may not be “discerning the Body of the Lord’ as commanded by Paul.
    This denial does not change the fact that He is ‘really present’ according to both natures in a Baptist Lord’s Supper for example. So its not a matter of “We have it and you don’t.” Its more a matter of we all have it, but some say He’s not present according to His human nature. So the issue becomes “What do you say about how Christ is present?”

  2. Patrick,

    I don’t see how an examination of an adjective is much of a straw man. I’m not going “inside” anyone’s confession and saying they are wrong. Far from it. I’m simply saying that every church in Anytown believes Christ is “real” and “present.” That’s a major point for anyone who uses that term. The question is “Are you claiming Christ is absent for other Christians and in other churches?”

    If a particular church wants to say “Here’s ten things you must believe are going on during singing,” and then announce that they are doing all ten, that’s great. That’s their prerogative. But if they were to say, “other churches’ congregational singing is not worship because it doesn’t contain the ten elements” that’s another thing.

    peace, MS

  3. The Lord may have been present at church yesterday. I wouldn’t know- as I didn’t attend.

  4. Michael writes: They aren’t all saying the same thing, but they do all appear to be talking about the same experience of God.

    “Appear” being the operative word.

    “Real presence” seems to be one thing Christians can agree on, even if they disagree on how that presence is particularly manifested or effectual.

    If two people use a word or phrase to mean two different things, then they are not in agreement in what they are saying. Period.

    Actual unity of Christian belief is impossible. Once Christians realize that, we might come closer to obtaining an actual unity of Christian believers.

    I can live with this. I can appreciate that we come at this different ways, and we have real differences. But one thing that isn’t different is that God is really present with all Christians in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. After that, it’s all secondary.

    Amen! 😀

  5. bookdragon says:

    It seems to me that Patrick is saying that no one is claiming that Christ is absent for others in other churches, but only claiming that those others who don’t have a Real Presence view of the Eucharist are not recognizing an important aspect of His presence in the supper. For many that lack of recognition is a problem. (Not me btw, Anglicanism allows a wide range of views of the Eucharist according to the conscience of each believer.)

    But I’m replying here more because your essay made me think of something else. Namely, how your argument easily seems to extend beyond Christianity. For instance, I’ve had the privilege of joining Shabbat services at a few synagogues over the course of the last 20 years or so and I know that the members of those congregations would also say that they believe in “a God who is real, a God who is present, a God who promises to be with his people corporately and individually, and a God who has given us multiple ways to focus on the particulars of his presence and the particular kinds of reality that involves.” And I certainly have had the experience of God being ‘really present’ in many of those worship services (although certainly not recognized as ‘in Jesus’ in any of them) and sometimes far more pwerfully than in a number of churches I’ve attended.

    I know this observation/suggestion is completely unacceptable to a lot of Christians (you may even be one of them) so I thought I’d just ask for comments because both the idea that God is present for Christians but not Jews and the idea that God is present for some Christians but not others (or present in different ways for either case) is based on drawing boundaries based on what are perceived as ‘bright lines’ in theological distinctives – saying ‘if you don’t see this spiritual reality, God can’t really dwell with you the way He does with us’.

  6. Even though Christ is always present, I am sure we can experience him in different ways. For instance there are times in prayer when I am talking with God and I know he is there. Other times I have a powerful experience of God. Look at Moses on the mountain as God passes by or Isaiah or Ezekiel’s vision. These are most likely changes in how we relate to the presence of God rather than changes in him.

    It is possible that our experience of God, both individually and corporately, is altered by many things in our lives. It could be that God wants us to experience him in some ways and thus wants us to do certain things to obtain this experience. If this is true then this could give some meaning to Christians telling other Christians to “really” experience God.

    I’m just trying to speculate on what could be meant by saying God was “really present”. I’m not trying to assert anything at all here.

  7. It seems that this centers around each person’s attempt at explaining how they experience God. Some, I would say are fairly ridiculous (claiming to have superiority or exclusivity w/ Jesus). I fear that too many believers are careless in his/her words when trying to describe ‘experiencing’ the Lord.

    :: From my blog, regarding presence/absence and the parable of the Talents: Matt. 25:14-30…

    “I’m challenged (yet reassured in what I’ve experienced) in dealing with what I perceive to be God’s absence in my life. Yeah, I know that He’s always with me, that the Holy Spirit is within me, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel that way. I mean, I can’t see Him, touch Him, or even talk to Him face to face. In my experience, it often feels more like I met Him once, and it changed my life. I became a new person because of my encounter with him. From then on, I share in His happiness, and go about my way, trying my best to do well with my talents. Many times I receive ‘letters’ and ‘postcards’ from Him, telling me about how He feels about me, and giving me new insights/truths about Himself and myself and the world. Sometimes those letters and postcards are frequent, and sometimes they’re not. Some are more intimate, and others are more just information. But I don’t fret. I know that someday, He will return to settle accounts with me. I look forward to that day, but at the same time, I’m thankful for each day that I’ll have until then.”

    – – peace

    nW

    http://naturenick.blogspot.com/2005/03/kingdom-of-god.html

  8. Patrick,

    I would also be careful to assert “the fact that He is ‘really present’ according to both natures in a Baptist Lord’s Supper” as a position held by Catholics and Orthodox, for example — as I understand them they would deny that because the Baptist minister (or worse, lay person leading the service) is not properly ordained.

    Michael,

    the Catholics I associate with (in various renewal and reconciliation movements) would not say Christ is not really present in non-Catholic services; they would say that as far as they understand God’s revelation, He is not present (at all) in the elements of the LS in such services. So far they agree with these Protestant (Baptist, Evangelical, Charismatic, etc) believers, who also do not believe that Christ is present specifically in the elements. Some Lutherans and Anglicans, of course, disagree with them concerning their own services. These Catholics also say, however, that this particular, incarnational experience of His presence is of vital importance to the Christian life and that thus participants in non-Catholic services are short-changed.

    To the extent that non-Catholic Christians assert the “mere symbolism” of the Lord’s Supper, they cannot rightly be offended at Catholics denying the Real Presence in the elements of their Supper, because they deny it themselves. Of course they also regard it as unimportant, because they believe Christ to be really present anyway, LS or no LS.

  9. Some clarity goes out of all of these discussions when the wrong terminology ends up at the center of the discussion. While most Lutherans are happy to accept the label “Real Presence” for their doctrine, the substance of the doctrine is found in what we say about it, not from picking apart the label.

    As Article X of the Augsburg Confession states: “Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise.”

    We are talking about the body and the blood of Christ when we speak of the Real Presence. Not Christ in general. And to say that something unique with regard to the body and blood of Christ happens here is Biblical. 1 Cor. 10:16 says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” I would argue that St. Paul concluded this from the Words of Institution. You could not conclude this from the Words of Institution if you were a Zwinglian.

    This is where we really differ from others. For others, all the words on the subject are at the same level being inspired. But we say there are seats of doctrine, that is, passages which are more central to the doctrine. You must understand them, first. As with the institution of marriage, Jesus would not allow other even divinely inspired words to take precedence in our understanding of what God had instituted (See Matthew 19:8). Likewise here. The Words of Institution are primary.

  10. That’s actually very helpful.

    What you are saying is “The ________ body and blood of Jesus was present in our worship.” That’s not something I would say or have any interest in saying if the blank was filled with “actual” or “physical.”

    What it leaves me asking- again- is if the other side can say “Jesus isn’t with you as much as he is with us,” and then unpack what that means. How are we deprived of the presence and power of Jesus Christ and the Gospel?

  11. That’s a beautiful post … I’m sorry I waded through all the nitpicking comments. I loved the spirit of the post though.

  12. Adam Morton says:

    Michael–

    But the other side denies that Jesus is physically present with them in the Supper. That isn’t what we say about them, it’s what they claim about themselves. It’s not about their being deprived of His presence, it’s about their refusing to recognize it–and worse, about their asserting a Jesus whose body can be completely separated from his “presence”. I think we’d say that such a christology is Nestorian–Jesus has been broken into a spiritual part, which we can participate in here, and a bodily part, which stays far away from us, in heaven.

    So then, if we want to connect with the whole Jesus, the “spiritual” part has to be a vehicle for communicating our spiritual selves into heaven, or some such. Then the Supper becomes a matter of our spiritual ascent into heaven, where we can encounter the real (physical) Christ, and not a matter of the Word made flesh, who comes to us here on earth. But then, our flesh never encounters the flesh of Christ–we are kept nice and separate. Wouldn’t want to get Him dirty, after all.

  13. Good questions.

    If one just stops to think a moment, the imprecision of the notion of God being “really present” verses being “just present” is astounding. Usually these judgements are based on fellings. Careful reflection on why one might feel — good, warm, anointed, unction — is glaringly absent.

    I, frankly, think concern about whether God is “really present” in a worship service is a waste of good brain space.

    I think your post is insightful and helpful.

  14. Marc Anderson says:

    First of all I have to confess I’m an amateur Christian and my views here are based on limited experience. That said, there seems to be in my background some recollection of the validity of the LS to non-repentent recipients. This is irrespective of where it’s received. My personal feeling is the real presence is anywhere it’s received with a faithful and contrite heart. The physical setting is completely irrelevant….

    Big danger in second guessing God. History has shown (and continues to show) the pitfalls in assuming any complete and total knowledge about him or how he wants things done in a particular way.

    In the end Michael, this just seems to be an argument about semantics and I agree with fr. Peter.

  15. “What you are saying is ‘The ________ body and blood of Jesus was present in our worship.'”

    Getting warmer. But “present in our worship” is not something we say. To say that He was present in our worship, but not theirs, suggests that one group’s worship was by its nature able to pull God out of heaven.

    We sometimes do talk of receiving the body and blood of Christ with our mouths. But here we say He’s coming to us.

    As to the blank, the word ‘physically’ has more than one dictionary definition. On is “of or pertaining to the human body.” I would agree with that one. That’s another way of saying that it is His body we are talking about. But to say Christ’s body is there physically is redundant. I might, however, say “Christ is physically present in the Sacrament” to mean that His body was present. The other definition of ‘physically’ is ‘materially.’ And when people take it that way, they are getting into the mode or manner of presence. If we ask “what” is present, the answer is “the body and blood of Christ.” If we ask “how” it is present, well, that is something we haven’t spent as much time on, and regard as pretty speculative.

    One of the arguments I found helpful was coming from the other end. How if you take the denials too far, you end up with another kind of troublesome statement. If Christ is present in our service according to His divine nature, is his human nature separated from it? I don’t want to say yes. Luther argued that what was unique about communion was not that Christ was present, even according to the human nature, but that He chose to be present there for us.

  16. This might sound really shallow, as I know I’m not following the whole complexity of this article and the discussion about LS and all.
    But, the parts I do understand resonates with me. I’ve discussed elsewhere my struggles with knowing how to pray. In the past, one way I dealt with that was to say, “Lord, be with so and so.” But, at some point, I realized I couldn’t keep saying that. Because, no matter what, He WAS with them. It would be more accurate to pray, “Lord, help them see you or turn to you in this.”

    In life or in a worship service, the constancy of His presence doesn’t ever change. What changes, I believe, is our awareness of it. And, sometimes, even our lack of sensing or being aware of His presence is a gift from Him. So, while I’m thrilled when I sense His presence, the bottom line is, I don’t really like that being a measuring stick of how spiritual a person or worship service was.

    Still, I guess it is good to think about vocabulary for expressing this, because there are times when I really am bubbling over with how God made Himself known to me or touched me in a specific service and I want to be able to share that. And sharing it does take words.

  17. I’ve heard the saying, “The Spirit was really there in our Sunday service” or words to that effect at my Pentecostal church.

    My usual response is, “When is He not present?”

    This is followed by a bit of sputtering and back-tracking as the Pentecostals affirm that He is always present—that every Christian is indwelt by the Spirit—but at the service they could really tell He was there.

    In other words, they were really aware of His presence where otherwise they would just take Him for granted.

  18. Adam Morton,

    I think it is going a bit far to assert that those who claim the spiritual presence of Christ without claiming the physical presence manifest a Nestorian Christology.

    Even Catholics and Orthodox tend to accept the truth of Christ’s statement, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” about non-Eucharistic gatherings of believers — their own and others’.

    My own take on this is that while I do not understand HOW Christ is present in the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper, Paul’s words in 1 Cor lead me to believe THAT he is present in some special way and that thus partaking of the consecrated elements is beneficial to me as a believer, not merely as an act of obedience but because God is at work in a special way in this sacrament/ordinance.

    I am not really interested in arguing about this (as opposed to discussing it intelligently), but what’s really clear to me is that someone who denies that Christ is present in a special way in the LS should not get upset when those who believe that he is limit that belief to their own eucharistic celebrations.

    For me this is a question of fundamental attitude, which I can illustrate with my reaction to the papal document Dominus Jesus. Many of my non-Catholic friends where scandalized because this document asserted that their churches were not churches in the narrow sense but merely ecclesial communities. That did not bother me at all; I am not a Roman Catholic because, among other things, I don’t believe the Pope is vested with an infallible magisterium. So why should I get upset when the Pope asserts something I disagree with? Instead of getting bothered by the Pope’s ecclesiology being different from mine, I rejoiced in all of the great things this document asserted about the Lord Jesus — which was really the point of the document, after all.

  19. Adam Morton says:

    Wolf–

    I never remotely suggested Christ was not present among non-Eucharistic gatherings of believers. Didn’t even touch on it. Now that it comes up, I’m just not quite sure what good it does to gather in Christ’s name and celebrate a “presence” in which he stays away in some important sense. Christ gives himself to us, holding nothing back, and we hang back and worry that he might be giving too much, that he can’t mean all of himself, as that doesn’t fit our reasoning about the body. Again, not a matter of what I say about such groups, but of what they say about themselves: Jesus’ body is up in heaven, and does not encounter us here.

    What I really intended (in fact, what I think I did) was to use the sacramental point to drive toward a christological one. If you don’t want to call it truly Nestorian, fine, pick a different word for it–but there’s something faulty about any christology that can separate Jesus’ body from his presence. He is the Word made flesh, the crucified, Jesus of Nazareth, but when he comes to us only spiritually, how can we say any of these things of what comes to us?

    So no need to speculate on the how of it. Doesn’t matter. He says he’s here, and we know that the (bodily) man Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, is the same as the eternal Word. So why would we do something as bizarre as try to separate out which parts of him come among us and which do not? Certainly he gives us no grounds on which to do this. Isn’t he one Lord?

  20. Adam,

    I would love to continue this discussion with you but am not sure that Michael’s combox is the right place for it. Mail me at wnp at doulos.at if you want to continue corresponding about that. Otherwise, let’s leave it at this point.

  21. caplight says:

    Back to Michael’s original post if I could. I wonder if there is something about God really being in a service that is more about a moment when we are more aware of his work in our lives. Then again there are moments when God does something in the hearts of a gathered group of people and they are very aware of it. That might be what is being described in Acts 4:31 for example. Some groups and denominations have a spiritual DNA that seems to value those moments more than other groups would.

  22. Unfortunately, I do see some tendencies toward a doctrine of the “Real Absence” in the way some mainstream Portestant churches conduct their worship services. I noticed this most clearly when I went with my Mom to my parents’ church after attending Catholic Mass regularly for awhile.

    While I’m sure if you asked them, the churchgoers would agree that Christ is “present”, they certainly don’t speak or act like it. Church seems more like a celebration that we are all together over HERE while God is somewhere over THERE. It’s the difference between words along the lines of, “We rejoice that we are gathered here to serve God” versus, “Lord, we are gathered here to serve YOU.” So much of the Mass is addressed directly _to_ God that it’s quite striking (at least it was to me) how much of a Protestant church service is instead _about_ God. I found it rather sad.