A friend and mentor from my time in seminary would often say that the most basic Christian ministry is the ministry of presence. In this statement he was beginning with God coming to earth in Jesus, then following the pattern in which Jesus calls his disciples to be with him, and finally, before leaving the earth, promises that he will be with them to the end of the age.
I continue to think about the ministry of presence as we develop our nascent church in Worcester. Here are the starting points:
1. Presence and salvation: We assume that God is generally accessible. If we want him, he’s there and we can find him. I see this playing out when people with varying beliefs, or even uncertainty about God’s existence, talk about praying. The bible rather begins with God’s otherness and distance from us, so that the great promise of salvation – “Emmanuel,” which means God with us. It is easy to get used to the idea of God’s nearness, but in fact this should fill us with wonder. The fact that the bible describes paradise as the fullness of God’s presence, should alert us to the stunning reality of being near God.
2. Presence and transformation: What is the source of Christian growth? How do we become more like the God who made us and has called us to himself? By his presence.
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:26-27
The solution to our misplaced priorities and worship of things other than God (v.25 of Ezek 36) is the presence of the Spirit of God. Theologians will talk about the “communicable attributes” of God, meaning those aspects of God’s being which we take on (i.e. his goodness, truthfulness, love). These stand in contrast to his “incommunicable attributes” (i.e. transcendence, omniscience, omnipresence). Like living with someone who has a cold, which we eventually catch, so we catch God’s goodness and love through the presence of the Spirit. There is a sense in which transformation is inevitable. A Christian has had God come into her life and there is no turning back. Thus growing in godliness is not so much an avoidance of certain practices or thoughts but an increased nearness to God, who has the power to cast out sin. James, the brother of Jesus, holds together these tensions when he says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Then a life of virtue grows which is first rooted in the presence of God, rather than our own efforts, so that our transformation is not corrupted by pride.
3. Presence and ministry: It is easy to think that serving God is a gigantic list of things to do when in fact, our service to others reflects God’s service to us. Presence is the beginning from which everything else flows. Love, the greatest command is never distant or abstract, but close and personal. One pastor has people scroll through the contact list of their cell phones as a quick way to consider the various people in our lives with whom we have some degree of connection and opportunities to be the presence of God as God is with us. A great way to think about growing in service to others is asking God to see those with whom God has brought into your life. How can my presence in their lives reflect God’s presence in mine? How can the things I catch from God be somehow conveyed to them?
4. Even as I reflect on the various letters making up the New Testament, I see these as an extension of the ministry of presence. The knowledge of the distinct situations, the personal greetings that either open or close the letters, and the affection that runs through these point to an incredible connection and love. The letters themselves are a way in which someone who is far away can be present to encourage, warn, and teach.