What Christ's Presence Looks Like ...
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14, NIV).
For years I have used the movie Sister Act to graphically illustrate what the local church being Christ’s Body in a community might look like. In short, it is the church being “present” in the community and “dwelling among them."
Despite this illustration, a lot of people don’t get it.
They tell me, “the church (by which they usually mean the building) is right downtown, in the very center of all the action! How can we not be present?”
Well, for many, they seem to think about being present in the community as being a little bit like the sailors on a submarine being “present” in the ocean. The sailors ARE technically in the ocean, but they are protected from it by a hull of steel and glass, have their physical environment mechanically modified for their comfort and survival. For me, that is a picture of many churches’ presence in their communities. They worship in the midst of a town, city or community, but the walls of the church create a “safe” environment for their members. The scene of Mother superior watching from an upstairs window while the other sister tear down the fences and make the church grounds available to the neighborhood comes to mind. We create these environments for well-meaning reasons, but we have very little connection, very little in common with the world we actually dwell.
But is this “safe” place what Christ wants?
CS Lewis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe described Aslan, the Christ figure in the series with these words:
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
When Christ chose to “dwell among us” it wasn’t safe. He didn’t go off and find some cave in the desert to hide. Instead he lived life fully in the midst of the culture, even though that culture was a dangerous place for Him to live. And that is what He is calling His church to do as well, to be fully present in the community and culture in which we exist, despite the challenges and the dangers that may exist.
Presence like this is more like a piece of bread that is being made into French Toast. It is plopped down into a bowl of eggs, milk and spice and pushed down under the liquid. It begins to absorb and to be coated by the mixture, taking on the flavor of the spices and absorbing the eggs and milk but not losing the structure or character that makes it bread. It absorbs the mixture to make it better without changing the Bread’s core character or characteristics.
This to me, is the picture of how our churches should be engaged with their community and culture. They need to be so connected to the community that they take on the flavor, the spirit and the ethos of that community, without losing the structure and character of being Christ’s Body. That’s why a church in Denver is not going to look like, feel like or be exactly like a church in Casper, or a church in France, to tie more closely to the metaphor. Each will take on the character and flavor of their community if they are being fully present, without losing the character and characteristics of Christ.
This is the secret to being Christ’s Body.
Our love for others grows out of our presence with them. Our ministry and service to others, grows out of that unconditional love Christ gives when we are present in the community. And the presence and the service give our proclamation of Christ’s great love for the world credibility as we faithfully share that message to those we serve.
I have to admit, I prefer being inside the submarine to being dunked into a cold, slimy milk and egg mix. But the air in a submarine gets pretty stale and there’s not a lot of new growth. But French toast, it nourishes and powers one’s body!
Prayer: Lord, you call us to be present in the world even as you were present. Help us to be present as you were present, absorbing the flavor and the character of our community and culture without compromising the character of our being a part of the Bread of Life. Amen.