And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28.20)
A deadly heat wave hit Chicago in 1995, turning it into a crazy quilt of dark and light patches. From our high-rise apartment, Walt and I literally watched sectors of the city flicker out. We were getting through it just fine, until dusk on the third day of the five-day ordeal, when everything went quiet. We waited for the building’s generator to kick in. As darkness thickened, it seemed unlikely. So we started our 40-flight descent. The stairwell’s emergency lights weren’t working, making it an impenetrable vertical maze. (Typical of us, our flashlight’s batteries were dead.) To keep from tripping, we counted off steps between landings, causing us to lose track of where we were. Voices echoing off the walls further disoriented us. What I remember most from that night, though, was periodically reaching for Walt. Though I couldn’t see him in the darkness, he always reassured me: “I’m still here.”
For all we’ll ever fully comprehend about our walk with Christ, one of its most baffling aspects—to me, anyway—is the fact that He’s still here. I know this by faith and also by witness: any time I’ve reached for Him, I’ve sensed His presence. Though I can’t see Him, I feel Him, much like we intuitively know when those we’re close to—partners, parents, or children, for instance—enter a room before we actually see them. In hours of darkness and disorientation, I hear His inaudible yet clearly perceptible voice speaking peace and assurance to my spirit: “I’m still here.” Yet knowing and sensing His presence don’t adequately capture the real reason for His constant, unfailing companionship. It’s comforting and reassuring to know He’s always here. But why?
The still-ness of Christ’s presence is the priceless legacy of His promise to the disciples. When He appears to them in Matthew 28, they’ve just spent three traumatic days without Him. Having their Rabbi pulled from them, watching Him die in torment, and laying His broken body in a cold tomb crushed them. Though Jesus carefully prepped them for these events, the stark sensation of suddenly being alone overwhelmed them with grief and fear. And now, He returns only to inform them He’ll soon leave again. He’s also discussed this departure with them, but exactly where He’s going and for how long are much more vague than the details about His first absence. In John 14.2 and 3, for instance, Jesus says, “I am going… to prepare a place for you. And I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Statements like that usually provoke a lot of questions and provide few answers.
How hollow the disciples must feel, as Christ commissions them to carry on while He’s away: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28.19-20) How can they do this? Who’d possibly listen to a motley band without a leader? How can they make it if Jesus isn’t with them? As it was, verse 17 says some of the disciples weren’t sure this person was Jesus. (“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”) One sees anxious confusion fluttering over their faces as they fidget in distress. Jesus quells their fear with a promise: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” It’s a vow only The Christ can keep; He alone can leave the disciples yet remain with them. Then, to offset any chance they’ll ever doubt He’s with them, He guarantees His pledge will never expire. “I’ll be here from now to the end of time.” Thus, here we are and here Christ is—still present, still honoring His promise nearly 2,000 years later. But why?
His Purpose in Being Here
Having Christ with us always is a benefit of discipleship. We’re essentially grandfathered into His contract with the first disciples. As ephemeral and elusive as following Jesus sometimes seems, the constancy of His presence remains sure. Whether we ever “feel” or “hear” Him neither limits nor enhances our ability to know He’s there. His promise is all the proof we need to be convinced He’s with us. The reality of His presence isn’t contingent on our sense, recognition, or understanding. Once we answer His call, He’s here. From that point on, short of us abandoning Him, He never parts company with us. But oh how hard it can be to anchor knowledge of Christ’s presence with faith in His promise, particularly when life floods us with emotions (good and bad) that challenge what we need to know with what we want to feel.
A clearer comprehension of why He’s here will bolster our confidence in His presence. Benefits we receive from having Him with us are really secondary to His purpose in being here. Consider what leads up to His promise—His call to service: “Go.” We are His instruments. He’s here because He needs to be here, always keeping us steady through life’s dramas, not merely to help us but, more importantly, to strengthen and steer us to help others. When we grasp this is His main reason for remaining with us, trusting the still-ness of His presence becomes vital, despite how vividly we may or may not feel Him at any moment. Christ is still with us simply because we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
As He promised, Christ is always with us. The main reason He’s still here is because there’s still work that needs to be done.
(Tomorrow: Still-Ness: Without Prejudice)