These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 15, 2017. The discussion was based upon a reading from Ruth 2:1-4 and Matthew 18:15-20 and the “Sursum Corda.”
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the conversation in your home or small group. You can download it here.
The first two lines of the Sursum Corda, “The Lord be with you/And also with you,” are a plea or hope that the Lord’s presence might be known and experienced. We say those words most often as a preface to communion, and sometimes during prayer, but what does it mean for us to experience the Lord? How do we spot Christ’s presence? How do we know it’s the Lord?
As a child growing up my family would occasionally hop in the car and go deer spotting in Harmonie State Park just a few miles from our home. It was a fairly common activity. We would slowly drive around the park with our parking lights on around dusk. Everyone’s eyes would be glued to the window to see who would spot the first, and then the next, white-tailed deer. On a good night, we would see between 15 and 30. On a great night, we would even catch a glimpse of a fawn or two.
Deer spotting was a common experience at Harmonie State Park, people from across the region would come to see, to spot the deer as they wandered through the woods, grazed in the fields, and darted across the road. Harmonie State Park was the place people went to see deer. It was the place where you were almost guaranteed to find one.
Where do you go to see Jesus? Where are you most likely to spot him? How do you know its him?
I have many vivid memories of growing up in the church, one is of the choir singing “Surely the Presence of the Lord” as the introit to worship. I would stand on the pew (about halfway back on the left, the pulpit side), and wave my hands with Lloyd Novak, the choir director, as the choir sang (No. 328, The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989):
Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place;
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings,
I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
It’s a beautiful song, a prayer almost, about the wonder of worship. And, yet, it never really made sense to me. I’ve never heard the brush of angels’ wings—I’m not even sure every angel has wings—nor have I seen people’s faces radiate with glorious light. Are these the marks of the Lord’s, God’s presence in our lives? If so, have I ever really, truly experienced the presence of the Lord?
Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them. In context, Jesus’ words come in the middle of a teaching on correction, welcome, and forgiveness. Jesus teaches that when two or three agree to forgive (or not), God will forgive (or not)—whatever “ you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven… I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you.” He then goes on to say that those who have received mercy and forgiveness, but refuse to extend mercy and forgiveness will be cast from God’s presence and punished (see Matthew 18:21-35).
Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them. Surely the Lord is present when there is communal forgiveness, when two or three agree to extend mercy and forgive one another. Forgiveness is surely a mark of Christ’s presence. If you want to spot Jesus, then forgive others and hang around those (two or three, at least!) who are forgiving.
“Dear friends,” writes John in his first letter, “let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God” (1 John 4:7-8, Common English Bible). Surely the presence of God is manifested in the love God’s people share. For in sharing love, says Jesus, people will know you are my disciples (John 13:34-35) and they will glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16)
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17, Common English Bible). For Paul, Christ’s presence was known in our ability to choose love. He writes to the church in Galatia (5:13-15, 17, 19-26, Common English Bible):
13You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!
17A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do… 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.
We, the people who claim the name of Christ, should be good at spotting Christ. We should use the freedom Christ gives us to gravitate toward places of forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And, when we’re having a hard time seeing Christ, well, then, we should strive all the harder to create a space where Christ can be found. For surely the Lord is found—surely, he can be spotted—in places where forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are found.
How can we know the presence of Christ? God is love. Where there is Love (forgiveness, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), there is God.
Where have you experienced Christ?
Other Thoughts and Questions
- Imagine how different the c/Church might be if forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were the marks of our gathering—marks of the body of Christ. Unfortunately, these are not the prevailing perceptions of the church by those outside the church.
- Most people believe that they can find Christ apart from community (say, in nature), but how can we be forgiving, loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and disciplined alone? How can Christ be known in solitude? When we forgive ourselves first, love only ourselves, are kind, good, faithful, and gentle only to ourselves, then we are being selfish, greedy, and prideful. These things when done primarily for ourselves are sinful. Its only in offering and living in community that we find life and love through Jesus Christ.