Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The Presence of Jesus
May 19, 2010, 11:57 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 9th May, 2010

“I am with you always, to the end of the world.” With these words, Matthew ends his Gospel, as he had started it when he cited Isaiah, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel- a name which means God-is-with-us.” Matthew was writing maybe forty years after the events he was recounting, probably for Galilean Christians. Unlike Luke, who ended his story in Jerusalem, as the prelude to his second book taking the story on from Jerusalem to Rome, Matthew wanted to end where his readers were, in Galilee where the Lord had spent most of his life, and where older members of the community still had living memories of him.

Luke ends with the promise of the Holy Spirit, to empower the disciples to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth. Matthew also has a command to make disciples of all the nations, but whereas Luke then depicts Jesus as in some sense departing from his followers, ascending into heaven, Matthew does not use the language of departure at all: rather, he emphasises the continuing presence of Jesus with his followers.

The sending, or coming, of the Spirit; the continuing presence of Christ: these are two ways of speaking about the same reality. We believe in one God, not three gods. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one Being, not three. They are the three “Personae” (if I may be allowed to use a term from psychology) of the One God. None can be present without the other two. “The Father and I are one,” said our Lord at the Last Supper. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son together, the Breath of God which is the Love of the Father and the Son.

God is present always and everywhere by his Power; and where his Power is, there also is his Wisdom and his Love. That is his objective presence. But God is not everywhere subjectively; by which I mean that he is not necessarily present in the minds and hearts of human beings. Some are simply ignorant of him, or have distorted ideas that are not really him at all. Some have a theoretical and abstract belief, but no warmth of love for him, or because of him, at all. To all intents and purposes, and as far as they are concerned, God is not present but absent.

God in the Person of his Word took flesh and was born of the Virgin so that we might know him as Emmanuel, God-with-us; not an absent God, but an ever present God. Through his life and death and resurrection he revealed his true nature to us. He gave us an Image, a focus, in a form we could understand. We could understand better through his teaching, we could experience his mercy and compassion through his works of healing. Through his resurrection we have been given the hope that our existence is not bounded by the world we see.

God knows that we are limited and bodily beings. That is how he made us. The Incarnation is his accommodation of himself to our limitations. It is not likely, then, that he would withdraw his visible and tangible presence without leaving us some other visible and tangible expression of his presence. This we have in the Blessed Sacrament. The outward forms of bread and wine both veil and reveal his presence among us. “Faith, our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear.” The Gift of the Holy Spirit within us enables us to recognise the Lord in the breaking of bread, and indeed in the continuing sign of Bread wherever the Blessed Sacrament is reserved or shown forth.

I find it very comforting to visit a church in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Without that Presence, the building feels empty and bereft, even though of course God is present everywhere. But just as the God who is present everywhere is, so to speak, more present in the humanity of Jesus Christ, so he is more present in the Sacrament. The wafer in the monstrance somehow defines his presence as being not just anywhere and everywhere, but here and now. We have a focus, a point towards which we can direct our attention, our prayers.

Through the prophet Zephaniah, God told his people to rejoice, because “the Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst.” The Israelites believed very strongly that God was especially present in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, enthroned between the cherubim that crowned the Ark of the Covenant. Once a year the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy Place and stand before that throne, and utter the otherwise unutterable name of God. Before he could do that, he had to bathe and put on clean garments; afterwards he had to repeat the process before he could resume ordinary life. In the New Testament we are told that Christ is not merely the new High Priest, but he is also the new Temple itself. His humanity is the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, his flesh is the outward and visible sign of that Presence. Now, that Presence continues in the Bread which is his Body, the Wine which is his Blood.

We are very fortunate, here at All Saints, that week by week we not only have the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, but the continuing presence of Christ for our devotion in the Blessed Sacrament. As we kneel in adoration before him, we see the gate of heaven opening wide to man below, that we may give glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.

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