The Full Absence and Full Presence of Christ Among Us.
by Neal D. Presa
Gospel Reading: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
For Sunday, May 27, Year B − Pentecost
As I write, the coroner’s report of Whitney Houston’s death has been made public. I couldn’t help but think about her last song, “I Look to You,” as she directs her voice heavenward, both in lyrics and in the music video. The chorus:
I Look To You,
I Look To You
After All My Strength Is Gone
In You I Can Be Strong
I Look To You,
I Look To You
And When Melodies Are Gone In You I Hear A Song
I Look To You
A Coming Presence
Our text finds Jesus going Cross-ward, then tomb-ward, and then heavenward, to what theologian Michael Horton calls the Triune God’s adventus “a coming presence, a presence in absence and absence in presence.”
The gifting of the Spirit by the Father through Jesus will fill and accompany the Church in the in-between living of Pentecost to Parousia.
Jesus will be and is fully absent as He is also, by the presence and power of the Spirit, fully present with, in, and among us. The gift of the Spirit is earth-ward, propelling and prompting the disciples outward and upward.
A Hard Thing
Jesus knows the sorrowful hearts of the disciples. Who wouldn’t be? They invested their lives, left families, risked their futures, received teachings about life—they accompanied the One who is Life. And now Jesus speaks of leaving, and, in exchange, giving them the Spirit, who will be the Advocate, the One who will convict and convert the world. Absence is a hard thing to accept and embrace.
But so is presence. Presence is hard to live with when the presence is the kind that reminds you of which/whom is absent. The presence of a song reminds us of a deceased singer. God’s gift, from the Father through the Son, is One whom we don’t see, who comes into hearts, who comforts, who teaches, who unites us to one another and to God.
Nothing to Weep About
Even when the disciples (and us who follow them) broke bread and “Do this in remembrance of me,” a visible sign of Christ’s absence, we don’t break down and cry, we don’t break out in a funeral dirge, because in a mysterious but vivid way, there’s nothing to weep about, even as we are reminded of Christ’s absence. The Spirit makes the difference.
It seems that’s how it has always been for God’s people: living in the tension of absence–presence; note the em-dash (−). Absence—presence. We confess the full absence of Jesus as we confess, simultaneously, the full presence of Jesus Christ in, through, and among us by the Spirit.
Familiar, yet Strange
In the closing portions of the text, Jesus clarifies to the disciples what the Spirit will do and how the Spirit will be teaching and doing what Jesus, himself, teaches and does. It’s almost as if to say, “Don’t worry, the Spirit and I and the Father are all on the same page. We’ve got you covered.”
These reassuring words, to them and to us, speak into our human desire to both know and believe. What we can see, hear, feel, and experience—that which is familiar to us–is juxtaposed with so much more; that which will appear strange and mysterious. To both the parts of our heart and soul that want the familiar worlds and to the other parts that are anxious, yet excited, by the new and otherworldly and empowering.
The Hardest Question
Jesus calls us to live with the Spirit in the absence–presence tension. But what does a faith that’s being shaped into the reality of our Lord who is both fully absent from us and fully present with us act like? Is it more dangerous to dwell in the known or in the mysterious…in the absence or the presence?
Neal Presa is pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in Middlesex, New Jersey, and a member of the residential faculty of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in the capacity of Affiliated Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship. Neal is a candidate for Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He and his wife have two sons, and have traveled to six continents, including the Caribbean. He loves black coffee, running, Perry Ellis suits, and NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” He dabbles in the world of liturgical and ecumenical theology through writings, meetings, and teaching. Visit www.NealPresa.com