At Winter Conference for the Anglican Mission this year, we heard from a speaker named David Fitch. David is the author of a book called Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. In his book he tells a story about a friend of his named Wayne Gordon who moved into the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago in 1975. Back then, Lawndale was one of the poorest of the poor, and crime was commonplace. David says in his book, “Few could imagine anything good coming from this place. Nonetheless, God was already working there.”
God was already working there.
Whenever we encounter a place or situation that seems hopeless, it’s a statement of faith to say God is already working there. It’s a leap of faith to enter into that place or situation.
In the beginning, out of love, God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) creates light, creates a world, creates human beings to reflect his love to one another and back to him as a kind of mirror, as living images of the loving creator. God walked with his people in the cool of the day. They knew his presence. They lived in his presence.
Yet human beings rebelled against God in the garden of Eden and the whole world has suffered for millennia. The rift in relationship between God and humanity has caused us to wonder if God has left us.
We were meant to care for creation, yet we seem to cause environmental disaster after disaster, exploiting and abusing the land, the sea, the animals. I just read a news article that said we’ve managed make outer space a mess with hundreds of thousands of pieces of our trash. Our disdainful and disrespectful attitude toward God’s cosmic sanctuary has led to unchecked destructive behavior with serious consequences for ourselves and even more serious consequences for our children, and our children’s children. I find myself asking,
Where is God with creation?
And of course it’s not just the environment and lesser creatures that we exploit and abuse.
We have a created a world that has been attempting to run on things racial injustice, the oppression of women, ignoring the plight of refugees and immigrants, enslaving children, murdering unborn babies, discarding the elderly and abandoning the mentally ill.
Where is God with the suffering?
Despite all our social and scientific “progress”, the kingdoms of this world remain caught in cycles of violence and fear directed toward one another.
Where is God with the nations?
In our own neighborhood of Sunnyslope, some children go hungry (especially in the summer), many families are struggling to make ends meet, we hear of many broken marriages, and the homeless are often treated as criminals.
Where is God with those in need of compassion?
In our own physical struggles, our own illness, our own broken relationships, our own financial catastrophes, haven’t we all asked ourselves, where is God with me?
Where is God?
I get that all this comes from our fallen nature, our pride, our sin-sickness and the curse that came upon creation as a result of those things, but I want to know: Where is God? Is there a plan to change the world and undo what we have done? And given all the serious issues in the world, am I wasting my time doing something like “church”?
I need to know the answers to these questions because I can’t have faith to enter in these places and these situations unless God has entered them first. Unless God is already at work there.
I’m not strong enough. I’ve bumped up against my limits and I know I can’t change the world on my own. None of us can!
But there’s Good News from God’s words written, the Holy Scriptures. We read there that
God is where he has always been: with his people.
There is a plan to change the world, and it is absolutely centered around Jesus Christ, and it absolutely involves you and me, together.
The plan is God’s faithful presence in the world through his faithful people.
Even when Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, God did not leave them. As they stood, naked and shivering in the cold of a cursed Earth, God clothed them. Although they had hid from his presence, he came to them with loving care. The whole rest of the biblical story is about the God that we continue to hide from, coming to us, revealing himself to us.
First, he established a people through Israel to bless the world. He made a promise to Abraham that the whole world would be blessed through his offspring. When God’s people had suffered for generations in slavery, wondering where God was, he proved that he had been with them every moment and indeed he would rescue them:
“And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.
God had seen everything. None of this took him by surprise, because he was there the whole time.
Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Moses knows he can’t change this system of oppression on his own. He can’t lead over half a million people on his own!
[God] said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”” (Exodus 3:9–12, ESV)
God’s presence enabled Moses and the people of the God to escape,
so they could fulfill God’s plan to be a light to the world as they served him and worshiped him. Of course, even though God led them closely, and his presence was palpable in clouds and fire and lightening and miracles, they still rebelled.
God’s people continued to go their own way—like Adam and Eve—and reject the presence of God.
So God came even closer, in the person of Jesus Christ.
God looked at the situation that seemed hopeless to humans, and God entered in. God became a human being.
This is called the Incarnation.
One of Jesus’s names is Emmanuel, God with us.
Jesus did everything the Israelites were always supposed to do, living a life that perfectly reflected the character of the Father. When he offered himself on the cross as a perfect offering for the sins of the world, eternal life was regained for all that simply believe. And this was the undoing of every evil thing humanity has done or will do.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:3–10, ESV)
God is bringing Heaven to Earth in Jesus! This is the plan. It’s always been the plan. And you are I part of that. We are witnesses to his faithful presence with his people in the world, and it’s that faithful presence that changes people. Not laws. Not human governments. Not even lots and lots of good deeds done according to human wisdom. Only God’s faithful presence can change our hearts to be more like his, and this our witness. We don’t do it on our own, though. Jesus said,
“Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20, ESV)
Jesus is alive and has ascended to heaven, but he hasn’t left us.
No, he’s given us his Spirit so he is always with us, his people. Through us, then, he continues his work in the world as we witness to his presence among us.
Although we each receive the Holy Spirit personally to dwell in our bodies,
the fullness of Christ’s presence is manifested in the community, the church.
In the Common English Bible, we read Ephesians 1:22-23:
“God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22–23, CEB)
Each of us has the fullness of God residing in us in the Holy Spirit, however, it is the church, acting together as one body, that expresses fullness of Christ. As the Spirit empowers us to express a diversity of gifts, we manifest the fullness of Christ, even alongside our flawed humanity. As we each yield to the Spirit, the church moves beyond the individual to literally fill the world with presence of God as we go into the world as a community. It is the church, acting together as one body with Christ at the head, that is God’s chosen instrument to manifest his kingdom on earth in the present time.
We can’t overstate the importance of this. There is no other way of organizing, gathering, or identifying ourselves that takes precedence over the church. In other words, we belong to the church before we belong to our country, before we belong to our political party, before we belong even to our biological family.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse like this:
“The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” (Ephesians 1:23, The Message)
So, is it a waste of time to “do church” in the midst of the craziness of the world? Absolutely not, because the church is how Christ is faithfully present in the world until he comes again in the flesh.
As the church manifests his faithful presence, Christ will bring healing, hope, and help to the hurting creation…but we must be engaged in the business of discerning his presence among us so we can witness to it faithfully ourselves.
The church gets stuck when we stop tending to the presence of Christ.
We get stuck when we start focusing on self-preservation or keeping people happy, or even worse, when we look to powers of this world (namely, government and money) to accomplish what we want to accomplish. When this happens, we’ve lost our way, and we must return to faithfully discerning the presence of Jesus.
Remember Wayne Gordon, the friend of David Fitch that moved into the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago?
He believed that God was at work everywhere, even Lawndale, and he believed his calling was to go there and witness to the presence of God by being present himself in the community. So he entered into the situation. He got a job at the local high school as a football coach and history teacher. He started a small Bible study in his apartment building. That Bible study opened a free laundromat for the community, and there, many people experienced the presence of Christ among his people. 35 years later, that Bible study has become a church of one thousand that has provided hundreds of renovated living spaces, a hospital that only charges what people can afford (and sees nearly half a million patients a year) and a recovery center for those struggling with addiction. I think that more often than not, God accomplishes these individual and community transformations through the small, simple things. And it all starts with tending to the faithful presence of Christ in community wherever God has called you.
Christ is God with us. His faithful presence is what makes us a Christian community. His faithful presence expressed through us is what will make a difference in the world around us.
Yet, we often miss the presence of Christ. We get distracted. We get tired. We get busy. In order to faithfully witness to the presence of Jesus among us to the world, we have to discern the presence of Jesus. So, over the next several weeks we will be looking together at the Scriptures, and we will find that
God has empowered the church to discern and express the faithful presence of Christ by being faithfully present ourselves.
We have been called and equipped to be faithfully present with one another, with our neighbors, and with the wider world all around us—and in doing that—witness to the presence Christ.
We will look at seven biblical disciplines or practices to help us see where God is at work and enter in as participants, even in situations that might seem hopeless at first glance. We will explore ways to join him in his plan to change the world by being present in and through the church. I can’t wait!In this crazy world, we often wonder where God is. Remember, God is faithfully present where he has always been: with his faithful people, the church. Amen.
 Genesis 3:8
 Genesis 3:21
 Genesis 15:5–6
 Exodus 12:37-38
 Faithful Presence, p. 30