A Powerful New Presence
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It was a safe question considering the context. Jesus’ disciples who were about his age or younger had very likely experienced Israel’s decline. At that particular time in history they lived under the rule of Rome. It made sense to them that if Jesus’ mission would ultimately benefit Israel, that could logically mean Israel’s restoration to some former glory.
Then I noticed that young people are often not as concerned about things that worry their elders. That is perhaps because their context is the present, their present. They often have little knowledge or true appreciation of history. At best, the vast majority of them have grown up in a loving family, in a comfortable home, with a comfortable supply of junk food and video games. The height of tragedy in their lives would mainly revolve around playground politics, being momentarily deprived of their cell phone, and the agony of not finding a working Wi-Fi signal. Unfortunately, some young people have also been exposed to abuse, neglect, addiction, and violence. They might be able to look back to a time in their young lives that was more enjoyable and carefree. This then becomes their context when faced with any present hardship. And for those who may never have known such enjoyable carefree times, their best day may simply be one without overwhelming physical or emotional pain.
Those who have lived longer, on the other hand, have come to know a range of joys and sorrows, successes as well as challenges. Just in the last quarter century, we have witnessed a great deal of change, some of it wonderful, some of it worrisome. But when we think back to a better time, we who have lived longer most likely think back to a time when the pace of living was much slower, and only minimally affected by social media, the global economy, international diplomacy, or the 24-hour news cycle.
So just forty days after the horrific events surrounding the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the frightened and fragile band of his disciples and followers would never have imagined they were anywhere ready to face an uncertain future on their own. And if their context before the events of Holy Week six weeks ago was a simple, quiet life in some sleepy backwater hamlet with extended family and nosy neighbors, and a steady livelihood of farming, shepherding, vine-growing, and fishing on the Sea of Galilee, I don’t think any of them would mind terribly if their lives simply returned to that. But Jesus had much bigger plans. When he last appeared to them, he instructed them “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for ‘the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” None of what he said just then probably made much sense. Only much later would they understand his meaning. So when he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight, they literally did not know what they were supposed to do next.
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It was quite a devastatingly anti-climactic conclusion to the last three years. For three years they had traveled with Jesus, listening to him speak, breaking bread with him, witnessing amazing signs and wonders, and their lives had been completely overturned. After all this, how could they ever return to some past, simpler, more quiet life?
Some people say they’re not good with goodbyes. I don’t think anyone is. But goodbyes like hellos are very much a part of life. But we believe that those we love who have gone from us are still with us, although in a different way. We feel their powerful presence in particular places, when we immerse ourselves in the things they loved, when our hearts are stirred by a memory, a song, a smell, a photograph, or something they have said many times. The farther away we were from them in relationship, the more difficult it is to feel their presence. Conversely, the closer we were with them in life, the stronger and more powerful that presence will strike us. We might not be able to explain it. But we know it intensely deep down inside.
In his farewell discourse at the last supper in the gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that he had much more to tell them, but that they could not bear it, and that he would send his Spirit to guide them to all truth, to live with them, in them, and among them. Jesus is very much present in the church and in the world today through his Holy Spirit. It is reasonably a different kind of presence from when he lived in the flesh and walked the earth, as it is different from even our belief in his true presence in the Eucharist. We might not be able to adequately explain it. But we know it intensely deep down inside. And we feel the presence of Jesus much stronger when our connection with him is deep and true and personal. When some people talk about Jesus’ presence, sometimes it just sounds like an idea, a way that church-y people talk. But when that speaker has a deep and true and personal relationship with Jesus, what they say and how they say it conveys Jesus’ presence in a different and powerful way.
That is probably why when the apostles talked about Jesus in the early days of the church, they always spoke with great passion and conviction, that their listeners came to faith in droves, and hundreds were often baptized at once. People felt Jesus’ presence strongly in the deep, true, and personal witness of his disciples and closest followers. That is because Jesus was more than just an idea for them. Those who knew him deeply, truly, and personally conveyed his presence in their words and in their way of life, and their listeners came to know Jesus in very much the same way.
We will sometimes lament that young people are walking away from their Christian faith, and leaving the church in great numbers. I think most of them don’t know Jesus Christ well enough to reject him, probably because those who teach about Jesus don’t really know him well either, not deeply, not truly, not personally. When we tell others about Jesus, our words and our way of life will clearly proclaim whether or not we have truly encountered him. Through many generations, countless women and men have encountered Jesus and been transformed, often through the powerful witness of others who have themselves known him deeply, truly, personally.
Jesus is alive and present in the church and in the world, and we give powerful witness to him with passion and conviction through the words we speak and the way we live. If you haven’t convinced yourself yet, how are you going to convince anyone else?
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Acts 1: 4-5
Acts 1: 11
John 16: 12