Presence

A few notes on God-with-us in his Word and at his Table.

Assumed Audience: Other theologically-orthodox Christians, especially (but not only) those in traditions which affirm Real Presence.

Epistemic Status: Learning in public.

In reading John Webster’s The Culture of Theology over the past week, I’ve been (wonderfully) confronted again and again by his insistence that when we encounter God’s word, we are in fact coming into the presence of God himself: Christ revealing the Father to us through his Spirit, Christ with us through the Spirit. That goes not just for our individual reading of Holy Scripture, but for the public proclamation of the word in the gathered church: in public reading (and hearing!), and in the exposition of Scripture in a sermon.

We took communion for the first time in four months this past Sunday, and the meal — as a meal — was terrible. Prepackaged wafers-and-juice-cups are a poor substitute for real bread and wine. (They’re a poor substitute even for the bad bread and grape juice we normally use, which are themselves are poor substitute for real bread and wine.) I was reflecting afterward, though, that the goodness of this particular meal is — gloriously — not a function of the quality of the ingredients used in it. The goodness of the Lord’s Table is that, even when we drink bad grape juice and taste the most flavorless wavers, still we meet with our Lord. He is present everywhere and always, but he is especially present at his Table with his people.

As I mulled on both Webster’s point about Scripture and this related note about the Supper, I was also encouraged to remember: the presence of God with his people when we gather to hear his word does not depend one bit on the quality of the music or the preaching, on whether the music or the preaching particularly connects with us. It is not that those do not matter: it is good when music and preaching engage our mind and emotions. But those are not ultimate. What is ultimate is that God promises to meet with us, and in even the most badly-preached sermon and the worst-sung hymns, Christ is present to us through his spirit. Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them.”

Holding onto this is hard work sometimes. It is easier when sermon and song particularly help us believe that Christ is with us. But he is with us, whether easy-to-believe or no.