Longing for Presence

Back when the Covid outbreak was still in its early stages, I wrote a post about the biggest spiritual questions I was pondering at the time (you can read it here: Burning Questions). In the nearly two months since I wrote that post I’ve had a lot of time to wrestle with those and other questions, and to do some general self-reflection. Some of you may have noticed that it’s been a month since my last post on here. Why the absence?

Well, there’s really no profound or exciting answer. Indeed, to the list of burning questions I could add, “What do I want to write about?” Ha! But perhaps one reason is that I just didn’t want to say much.

I wanted to listen.

For the last month, there has been absolutely no shortage of words and of content. Of debate over this or that policy, or this or that conspiracy theory, or this or that doctrine. Of outrage over this or that incident. And as I’ve been listening, to be honest, I’ve found myself more than a little tired. Weary. Even a little cynical. Exhausted with all the noise, to the point where I didn’t care to hear even myself, really.

Tired of words on screens. Longing for conversations face-to-face.

There is power in being present with others. It’s so qualitatively different than communicating through a screen. This shouldn’t really be news to anyone, but it’s been driven home in a fresh way to me in this season. Me, the premier introvert, suddenly starving to be social!

I think this longing to be physically present is a healthy and essential part of being human. I also think it reveals something of why God took on flesh and came down to dwell among us as Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, a good case can be made for the idea that the most unifying theme of Scripture is God’s desire to dwell with the people he’s made — from his walking with Adam & Eve in the Garden, to his presence in Israel’s tabernacle and later Temple, to him becoming a human as Jesus Christ. And all the way down to that final day Revelation speaks of, when God will resurrect his people to dwell with them physically forever in the new heavens and new earth. He made us to be physically present and to have intimate communion — with him and with other people.

Between Christ’s incarnation and return, we live in a unique time where God dwells within believers by his Spirit. His presence fills the community of the church. “Where two or three are gathered” in his name, he is there (Matt 18:20). Not bodily, but in a mediated way; he is there spiritually. He is there in the preaching of his word, in the praises of his people, in the fellowship and encouraging words between fellow believers, and in the taking of communion. The Bible speaks of it as a “down payment” of the connectedness we will enjoy more fully after the resurrection (Eph 1:13-14).

And while it’s certainly true that the Spirit of Christ indwells individual believers, I really do believe one thing that many contemporary churches overlook is how much our communal togetherness is meant to convey this presence of Christ to us. Physical togetherness is, itself, a channel of God’s blessing. It’s a way in which he communicates something of his own nearness and kindness to us. It is a gift of grace and a source of joy — something Scripture reminds us.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11-12). Or consider the words of the elder John, who reminds us that there is a deeper kind of joy in being together than merely speaking virtually: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 1:12).

The blessing of presence is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood quite well, and sought to communicate in his powerful little book Life Together. In it he writes,

“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.” (pg. 18)

He continues,

“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament [aka communion] the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore [praises God] for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.” (19-20)

If there’s nothing else that the Covid season has taught us, hopefully we’ve at least learned not to take the blessing of physical presence for granted.

And if all this is nothing new to you, and you feel the same way, that’s great! Why do I write this? Well, in short, because one of the “burning questions” I’ve been pondering is this: How should we be “doing church” in our increasingly post-Christian culture? What elements that are common among local evangelical congregations need to change? (Or even be dropped altogether?)

And at least part of the answer I’ve come to is that we desperately need to reconsider just how important our physical connectedness is. We need a better theology of presence. We need a deeper understanding of and appreciation for communion — not just the sacrament, but the overarching notion of what it means to be a community in Christ. Each church needs to really know its members, foster deeper fellowship among them, and emphasize people more than programs.

This all sounds vague and idealistic, I know. I’m just thinking out loud. But to get more concrete, let’s talk about the sacrament itself (or “ordinance,” if sacrament sounds too Catholic-ish for you) of communion/the Lord’s Supper.

I’ve been writing about the significance of being physically present with other believers. Nowhere have I seen this truth more neglected than in the taking of “virtual communion” — a practice I have intentionally abstained from because I wholeheartedly believe it goes against the very spirit of the activity. Where two or three are gathered, you have a community; you can achieve communion. When I am alone in front of my television or computer screen, I do not have communion.

This is one of the many things that’s been discussed and debated all over the Internet recently, and I know that I’m probably in the minority on this among my evangelical peers. I certainly don’t intend to dictate what everyone else should do; this is a matter where each person should follow what the Holy Spirit puts on their conscience, making sure their decisions are in keeping with the whole counsel of Scripture. But I’ll stick to my guns and say that I personally don’t think communion should be taken in isolation. I may be virtually “connecting” with others, but I for one believe there is something inherent in the Lord’s Supper itself that is intrinsically meant to be a shared, physical community meal.

That brings up another thing. From what I can see in the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper was actually that — a supper, a meal; not a prepackaged wafer and a tiny juice cup. It was the big family lunch! The impression Paul gives us in 1 Cor 11:20-22, 33-34 is that it was a potluck! He chides the Corinthian Christians for eating the food they brought to the meal before everyone else had arrived. There was a ceremonial aspect at the center of it — the taking of the bread and wine, as a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice — but the larger meal surrounding it represented the intimate connection of the family of God on earth.

Even more than I long for the physical presence of other believers, I long to see more churches get back to this family atmosphere in their congregations. How they can go about doing that is, of course, a bigger question than I can answer in this post. There are all kinds of logistical questions involved when you have large congregations comprised of hundreds of people. Again, I’m just thinking out loud here. It’s a question, not an answer. A question I hope you too will ponder — especially if you, dear reader, are in any way a part of ministry leadership.

How can we help our churches better realize the truth that we are to be family? That we are supposed to be an alternative community gathered as the people of God around a family table?

And how can we help people recognize (and pass along) the great blessing of being physically present with Christ’s people? Is there something different about our communities that people coming in will notice and long to be a part of?

Something to ponder.

See you down the path.

Categories: Ecclesiology & Missions, Personal

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Ainslee, I love your sensitive heart. Your love for being physically present!!!! I am longing for that, too! I know when I do get to see you, and other ladies I love…I will not take anything for granted but will cherish the person!!!! The Love if Christ becomes visible when we gather!!!!


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