The Power of His Presence

Jesus and ThomasJesus and Thomas, by Matthias Scheits, woodcut 1672, fair use, courtesy of Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University ….

sermon for the second Sunday in Easter …. John 20:19-31 ….

Pastor Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral, once said that the most important attribute of a church was an accessible, large, fully available parking lot.[1] I’m sure Dr. Schuller must have been speaking within the context of property issues. In consideration of the tangible, quantifiable features for evaluating church property, good parking is important. But, since the Crystal Cathedral closed in 2013, we know for certain that you some things other than parking to have a church.

When we visit or read about successful congregations, there seems to be more variety than ever. But if you reflect upon their stories, then you find that these congregations share much in common. Regardless of denominational identity, these congregations have a well-defined mission, and programs and services clearly connected to the fulfillment of the mission. Whether the architecture is contemporary or reflects the tastes of another period, the buildings are usually both beautiful and functional. Whether the music is classical or contemporary, it inspires people, moving them deep in their souls. These congregations eat together, play together, and work together. What else do you need to have a church?

At least part of the answer lies in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, we see Jesus’ disciples gathered after his death. It’s not a pretty picture. In the wake of the crucifixion,  Jesus’ followers have scattered. This band of once bold men now cower behind closed bolted doors.

The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to show us the ways in which Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure. He has instructed them to love one another, to trust and obey him no matter the cost, and promised that a comforter would come to grant them help. But with Jesus’ death, all of that training goes out the window. My old preaching professor Tom Long says that here is the church at its worst, “scared, disheartened, and defensive.”

Long asks, “What kind of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? ‘The friendly church where all are welcome?’ Hardly …. ‘The church with a warm heart and a bold mission’? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees.[2]  Could this even be called a church? There is no sanctuary, no pulpit, no font, no Lord’s table, no choir, no Sunday school, and no parking lot. More significantly, this group has no plan, no mission, and no conviction. Here is a church that appears to have nothing going for it – except that when it is gathered, the risen Christ makes his way into their midst, and stands among them.

We spend a lot of time each week planning our worship services. We’d just made it through Holy Week, and three Easter services, when Tuesday dawned, and there was another worship service to outline. E-mails were sent to and received from Amy and Bob regarding music. Worship leaders were contacted, and received instructions. The bulletin was composed, the room arranged, the choreography considered, the communion elements set, and the sound system tweaked.

But anyone who works at worship for a time eventually makes a discovery. Despite all of the educated planning, worship is not entirely a human creation, but rather is a gift. When it works well, the living Christ slips through our closed doors. With a sense of wonder,  we experience grace. In other words, Jesus is who you need if you are to have a church.

One of my former colleagues Lonnie Lee called my attention to a Doonesbury comic strip about the baby-boomer couple that makes a decision to return to the Church.  They are immediately faced with two problems growing out of this decision: first, which church has the best gym for recreational activities; and second, how to explain to their ten-year old son why he doesn’t get to sleep in any longer on Sundays.  When the boy complains that church is boring, his father has a ready answer. He explains that he, too, hated going to church as a kid. He says: “But church was good for me, so my parents made me stick it out. You may end up hating church, too, but you have to come by that feeling honestly. You have to put in the pew time like Mom and I did.” The boy forms a thoughtful expression, and responds, “Oh – what if I like it?” Dad doesn’t know what to say, so mom comes to the rescue, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there honey.”[3]  For these parents, it didn’t seem possible that worship could be a powerful experience of celebrating Christ’s presence.

One person who taught me to expect Christ’s presence was Dr. William Beeners. A professor of speech, he was the elder statesman of the faculty during my years at Princeton Seminary. I had come from the University of Michigan, where the standard uniform was a flannel shirt and Levi’s, but Dr. Beeners dressed in dark, tailored suits. My hair was a bit longer than it is today, and usually was windblown. But Dr. Beeners was topped by a head of perfectly groomed silver hair (I suppose I’m getting closer to the “silver” part). Dr. Beeners always looked like he was going to a wedding. Maybe that’s because in the seminary chapel he always expected to meet the heavenly bridegroom.

As I stood in the pulpit during speech class, Beeners’ stern eyes stared over bifocals from his position near the rear of Miller Chapel. His constant theme: the way you read the text is critical – it doesn’t matter how much a minister studies scripture if he or she can’t convey its meaning in delivery. His advice included the regular roar of “Mr. Hembruch, say it like you believe it!”

Even punctuation and pauses were subjected to rigorous analysis. For example, Dr. Beeners taught that in the Lord’s Prayer, it’s not “gloryforever,” with no pause between the words. “Gloryforever” is not a proper noun,  he said. “’Forever’ doesn’t refer only to ‘glory.’ ‘Forever’ applies to all three nouns. It is as if it reads ‘O Lord, thine be the kingdom, thine be the power, and thine be the glory, these three, forever.’”

Years later, I was going through one of life’s valleys. The church I served had experienced damaging conflict. In the midst of the conflict, my supervisor died of a heart attack while I watched a physician attend him. A tremendous workload was laid on me shortly before I started my doctoral program. I had great difficulty feeling much of anything positive about worship.

One Sunday, shortly after arriving in Princeton, I dragged myself out of bed, and walked down to Nassau Presbyterian Church. I went more out of duty than desire. Then, during the Lord’s Prayer, something happened. Immediately behind me, I heard a strong voice, slightly out of cadence with the rest of the worshipers. “And thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory (pause) forever, Amen.” I knew who it was. As strange as it may sound to you, and does even to me, it was a deeply comforting thing to hear the sound of my old professor’s voice. In that moment, Christ was present to me in Dr. Beeners, who was for me a mediator of Christ’s love and encouragement.

Perhaps you come to worship today not fully in synch with the joy of the Easter season. Maybe you’re not feeling it. Perhaps something about work or health or family or some prospect of a less-than-fulfilling future has you down. At one time or another,  it happens for all of us.

Pay attention to the songs and prayers, the words, and movement of the Spirit underneath all the words. He wants to move around all the barriers erected against him, and through the doors closed to his transforming presence.

May we hear his voice; may we experience his grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


[1] As recorded by William Willimon, “Pulpit Resource” Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As told by the Rev. Dr. Lonnie Lee in sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Springfield, IL, April 13, 1997.


~ by JohnH1962 on April 5, 2016.