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The Absent Present Christ
by 
Alexander MacLaren
(1826-1910)
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"I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the  world seeth me no more; but ye see Me; because I live, ye shall live also." -- John 14:18,19 

                   The sweet and great comforting with which Christ had been soothing the
                   disciples' fears went very deep, but hitherto they had not gone deep enough. It
                   was much that they should know the purpose of His going, whither He went, and
                   that they had an interest in His departure. It was much that they should have
                   before them the prospect of reunion; much that they should know that all through
                   His absence He would be working in them, and that they should be assured that,
                   absent, He would send them a great gift. But reunion, influence from afar, and gifts
                   from the other side of the gulf were not all that their hearts needed. And so here
                   our Lord gives yet more, in the paradoxes that, absent He will be present, unseen
                   visible, and dying will be for them for ever, life and life-giving. These great
                   thoughts go to the centre of their needs and of ours; and on them I now touch
                   briefly. 

                   There are in the words I have read, though they be but a fragment of a
                   closely-linked together context, these three great thoughts then: the absent
                   Christ the present Christ; the unseen Christ the seen Christ; the Christ who dies
                   life and life-giving. Let us look at these as they stand.

                      I.First, then, the absent Christ is the present Christ. 

                        "I will not leave you comfortless," or, as the Revised Version has it,
                        "desolate-I come to you." Now, most of us know, I suppose, that the literal
                        meaning of the word rendered "comfortless," or "desolate," is "orphans." But
                        that is rather an unusual form in which to represent the relation between our
                        Lord and His disciples. And so, possibly, our versions are accurate in giving
                        the general idea of desolation rather than the specific idea conveyed directly
                        by the word. But still it is to be remembered that this whole conversation
                        begins with "Little children "; and there seems to be no strong reason for
                        suppressing the literal meaning of the word, if only it be remembered that it
                        is employed not so much to define Christ's relation to His brethren as to
                        describe the comfortless and helpless condition of that little group when left
                        by Him. They would be like fatherless and motherless children in a cold world.
                        And what is to hinder that? One thing only. "I come to you." "Then, and only
                        then, will you cease to be desolate and orphans. My presence will change
                        everything and turn winter into glorious summer."

                        Now, what is this "coming?" It is to be observed that our Lord says, not "I
                        will," as a future, but "I come," or "I am coming," as an immediately
                        impending, and, we may almost say, present, thing. There can be no
                        reference in the word to that final coming to judgment which lies so far
                        ahead; because, if there were, then there would follow from the text, that,
                        until that period, all that love Him here upon earth are to wander about as
                        orphans, desolate and forsaken; and that certainly can never be. So that we
                        have to recognize here the promise of a coming which is contemporaneous
                        with His absence, and which is, in fact, but the reverse side of His bodily
                        absence.

                        It is true about Him that He "departs from" His people in bodily form "for a
                        season, that they may receive Him" in a better form "for ever." This, then, is
                        the heart and centre of the consolation here, that howsoever the external
                        presence may be withdrawn, and the "foolish senses" may have to speak of
                        an absent Christ, we may rejoice in the certainty that He is with all those
                        that love Him, and all the more with them because of the very withdrawal of
                        the earthly manifestation which has served its purpose, and now is laid aside
                        as an impediment rather than as a help to the full communion. We confuse
                        bodily with real. The bodily presence is at an end; the real presence lasts for
                        ever.

                        I do not need to insist, I suppose, upon the manifest implication of absolute
                        Divinity which lies in such words as these. "I come." "Being absent, I am
                        present in all generations. I am present with every single heart." That is
                        equivalent to the Omnipresence of Deity; that is equivalent to or implies the
                        undying existence of the Divine nature. And He that says, when He is leaving
                        earth and withdrawing the sweetness of His visible form from the eyes of
                        men, "I come," in the very act of going, "and I am with you always, with all
                        of you to the end of the ages," can be no less than God, manifest in the
                        flesh for a time, and present in the Spirit with His children for ever.

                        I cannot but think that the average Christian life of this day woefully fails in
                        the simple, conscious realization of this great truth, and that we are all far
                        too little living in the calm, happy, strengthening assurance that we are
                        never alone, but have Jesus Christ with each of us more closely, more truly,
                        in a more available fashion, and with more Omnipotence of influence than
                        they had who were nearest Him during the days that He lived upon earth.

                        Oh, brethren, if we really believed, not as an article of our creed, which has
                        become so familiar to us that it produces little impression upon us; but as a
                        vital and ever-present conviction of our souls, that with us there was ever
                        the real presence of the real Christ, how all burdens and cares would be
                        lightened, how all perplexities would begin to smooth themselves out and be
                        straightened, all the force would be sucked out of temptations, and how
                        sorrows and joys and all things would be changed in their aspect by that one
                        conviction intensely realized and constantly with us! A present Christ is the
                        Strength, the Righteousness, the Peace, the Joy, and as we shall see, in the
                        most literal sense, the Life of every Christian soul.

                        Then, note, further, that this coming of our Lord is identified with that of His
                        Divine Spirit. He has been speaking of sending that "other Comforter," but
                        though He be Another, He is yet so indissolubly united with Him who sends as
                        that the coming of the Spirit is the coming of Jesus. He is no gift wafted to
                        us as from the other side of a gulf, but by reason of the unity of the
                        Godhead and the Divinity of the sent Spirit, Jesus Christ and the Spirit whom
                        He sends are inseparable though separate, and so indissolubly united that
                        where the Spirit is, there is Christ, and where Christ is, there is the Spirit.
                        These are amongst the deep things which the disciples were "not able to
                        carry" at that stage of their development, and they waited for a further
                        explanation. Enough for them and enough for us, to know that we have
                        Christ in the Spirit and the Spirit in Christ; and to remember "that if any man
                        have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His."

                        We stand here on the margin of a shoreless and fathomless sea; and for my
                        part I venture to think that the men who talk about the incredibilities and the
                        contradictions of the orthodox faith would show themselves a little wiser if
                        they were more conscious of the limitation of human faculty, and
                        remembered that to pronounce upon contradictions in the doctrine of the
                        Divine Nature implies that the pronouncer stands above and goes round
                        about the whole of that Nature. So, for my part, abjuring omniscience and
                        the comprehension of Deity, I accept the statement that the Father and the
                        Son and the Holy Spirit come together and dwell in the heart.

                        Then, note, further, that this present Christ is the only Remedy for the
                        orphanhood of the world. The words had a tender and pathetic reference to
                        that little, bewildered group of followers, deprived of their Guide, their
                        Teacher, and their Companion. He who had been as eyes to their weak
                        vision, and Counsellor and Inspirer and everything for three blessed years,
                        was going away to leave them unsheltered to the storm. And we can
                        understand how forlorn and terrified they were, when they looked forward to
                        fronting the things that must come to them, without His presence. Therefore
                        He cheers them with the assurance that they will not be left without Him,
                        but that, present still just because He is absent, He will be all that He ever
                        had been to them.

                        And the promise was fulfilled. How did that dispirited group of cowardly men
                        ever pluck up courage to hold together after the Crucifixion at all? Why was
                        it that they did not follow the example of John's disciples, and dissolve and
                        disappear; and say, "The game is up. It is no use holding together any
                        longer?" The process of separation began on the very day of the Crucifixion.
                        Only one thing could have stopped it, and that is the Resurrection and the
                        presence with His Church of the risen Christ in His power and in all the
                        fulness of His gifts. If it had not been that He came to them, they would
                        have disappeared, and Christianity would have been one more of the abortive
                        sects forgotten in Judaism. But, as it is, the whole of the New Testament
                        after Pentecost is aflame with the consciousness of a present Christ, working
                        amongst His people. And although it be true that, in one aspect, we are
                        "absent from the Lord" when we are present with the body, in another
                        aspect, and an infinitely higher one, it is true that the strength of the
                        Christian life of apostles and martyrs was this, the assurance that Christ
                        Himself-no mere rhetorical metaphor for His influence or His example, or His
                        memory lingering in their imaginations, but the veritable Christ Himself-was
                        present with them, to strengthen and to bless.

                        That same conviction you and I must have, if the world is not to be a desert
                        and a dreary place for us. In a very profound sense it is true that if you take
                        away Jesus Christ, the elder Brother, who alone reveals to men the Father,
                        we are all orphans, fatherless children, who look up into an empty heaven
                        and see nothing there. It is only Christ who reveals to us the Father and
                        makes our happy hearts feel that we are of His children. And in the wider
                        sense of the word "orphans," is not life a desolation without Him? Hollow joys,
                        fleeting blessednesses, roses whose thorns last long after the petals have
                        dropped, real sorrows, shows and shams, bitternesses and disappointments-
                        are not these our life, in so far as Christ has been driven out of it? Oh! There
                        is only one thing that saves us from being as desolate, fatherless children,
                        groping in the dark for the lost Father's hand, and dying for want of it, and
                        that is that the Christ Him- self shall come to us and be with us.

                     II.The Unseen Christ Is A Seen Christ. 

                        It is clear that the period referred to in the second clause of our text is the
                        same as that referred to in the first, that "yet a little while" covers the whole
                        space up to His ascension; and that if there be any reference at all to the
                        forty days of His earthly life, during which, literally, the world "saw Him no
                        more," but "the apostles saw Him," that reference is only secondary. These
                        transitory appearances are not of sufficient moment or duration to bear the
                        weight of so great a promise as this. The vision, which is the consequence of
                        the coming, has the same extension in time as the coming-that is to say, is
                        continuous and permanent. We must read here the great promise of a
                        perpetual vision of the present Christ. It is clear, too, that the word "see" is
                        employed in these two clauses in two different senses. In the former it refers
                        only to bodily sight, in the latter to spiritual perception. For a few short
                        hours still, the ungodly mass of men were to have that outward vision which
                        might have been so much to them, but which they had used so badly that
                        "they seeing saw not." It was to cease, and they who loved Him would not
                        miss it when it did; but the withdrawal which hid Him from sense and
                        sense-bound souls would reveal Him more clearly to His friends. They, too,
                        had but dimly seen Him while He stood by them; they would gaze on Him with
                        truer insight when He was present though absent.

                        So this is what every Christian life may and should be-the continual sight of
                        a continually-present Christ. It is His part to come. It is ours to see, to be
                        conscious of Him who does come.

                        Faith is the sight of the soul, and it is far better than the sight of the
                        senses. It is more direct. My eye does not touch what I look at. Gulfs of
                        millions of miles may lie between me and it. But my faith is not only eye, but
                        hand, and not only beholds, but grasps, and comes into contact with that to
                        which it is directed. It is far more clear. Senses may deceive; my faith, built
                        upon His Word, cannot deceive. Its information is far more certain, far more
                        valid. I have better reason for believing in Jesus Christ than I have for
                        believing in the things that I touch and handle. So that there is no need for
                        men to say, "Oh, if we had only seen Him with our eyes!" You would very
                        likely not have known Him if you had. There is no reason for thinking that the
                        Church has retrograded in its privileges, because it has to love instead of
                        beholding, and to believe instead of touching. That is advance, and we are
                        better than they, inasmuch as the blessing of those who have not seen, and
                        yet have believed, comes down upon our heads. The vision of Christ which is
                        granted to the faithful soul is better and not worse, more and not less, other
                        in kind indeed, but loftier in degree too, than that which was granted to the
                        men who saw Him upon earth. Sense disturbs, faith alone beholds.

                        "The world seeth Me no more." Why? Because it is a world. "Ye see Me."
                        Why? Because, and in the measure in which you have "turned away your
                        eyes from seeing vanity." If you want the eye of the soul to be opened, you
                        must shut the eye of sense. And the more we turn away from looking at the
                        dazzling lies with which time and the material universe befool and bewilder
                        us, the more shall we see Him whom to see is to live for ever.

                        Oh! Brethren, does that strong word "see" in any measure express the
                        vividness, the directness, the certainty of our realization of our Master's
                        presence? Is Jesus Christ as clear, as perceptible, as sure to us as the men
                        round us are? Which are the shadows and which are the realities to us? The
                        things which are seen, which the senses crown as "real," or the things which
                        cannot be seen because they are so great, and tower above us, invisible in
                        their eternity? Which world are our eyes most open to, the world where
                        Christ is, or the world here? Our happy eyes may behold and our blessed
                        hands may handle the Word of Life which was manifested to us. Let us
                        beware that we turn not away from the one thing worthy to be looked at, to
                        gaze upon a desolate and dreary world.

                     III.Lastly, the present and seen Christ is life and life-giving. 

                        The last words of my text may be connected with the preceding, as the
                        marginal rendering of the Revised Version shows. But it is probably better to
                        take them as standing independently, and presenting another and
                        co-ordinate element of the blessedness arising from the coming of the Christ.
                        Because He comes, His life passes into the hearts of the men to whom He
                        comes, and who gaze upon Him.

                        Time forbids me to dwell upon that majestic proclamation of His own absolute
                        and Divine life, from lips that were so soon to be paled with death. Mark the
                        grand "I live"-the timeless present tense, which expresses unbroken,
                        underived, undying, and, as I believe, Divine life. It is all but a quotation of
                        the great Old Testament name "Jehovah." The depth and sweep of its
                        meaning are given to us in this apostle's Apocalypse, where Christ is called
                        "the living One," who lived whilst He died, and having died "is alive for
                        evermore."

                        And this Christ, coming to all His friends, possessor of the fulness of life in
                        Himself, and proclaiming His absolute possession of that life, even whilst He
                        stands within arm's length of Calvary, is life-giver to all that love Him and
                        trust Him.

                        We live because He lives. In all senses of the word life, as I believe, the life
                        of men is derived from the Christ who is the agent of creation, the channel
                        from whom life passes from the Godhead into the creatures, and who is also
                        the one means by whom any of us can ever hope to live the better life which
                        is the only true one, and consists in fellowship with God and union to Him.

                        We shall live as long as He lives, and His being is the pledge and the
                        guarantee of the immortal being of all who love Him. Anything is possible,
                        rather than that it should be credible that a soul, which has drawn spiritual
                        life from Jesus Christ here upon earth, should ever be rent apart from Him by
                        such a miserable and external trifle as the mere dissolution of the bodily
                        frame. As long as Christ lives your life is secure. If the Head has life, the
                        members cannot see corruption. "Take me not away in the midst of my days:
                        Thy years are throughout all generations" was the prayer of a saint of old,
                        deeply feeling the contrast of the worshipper's transiency and God's eternity,
                        and dimly hoping that the contrast might be changed into likeness. The great
                        promise of our text answers the prayer, and assures us that the worshipper
                        is to live as long as does He whom he adores.

                        We shall live as He lives, nor ever cease the appropriation of His being until
                        all His life we know, and all its fulness has expanded our natures-and that will
                        be never. Therefore we shall not die.

                        Men's lives have been prolonged by the transfusion of blood from vigorous
                        frames. Jesus Christ passes His own blood into our veins, and makes us
                        immortal. The Church chose for one of its ancient emblems of the Saviour the
                        pelican, which fed its young, according to the fable, with the blood from its
                        own breast. So Christ vitalizes us. He in us is our life.

                        Brethren, without Jesus Christ we are orphans in a fatherless world. Without
                        Him our wearied and yet unsatisfied eyes have only trifles and trials and
                        trash to look at. Without Him, we are dead whilst we live. He and He only
                        can give us back a Father, and renew in us the spirit of sons. He and He only
                        can satisfy our eyes with the sight which is purity and restfulness and joy.
                        He and He only can breathe life into our death. Oh! Let Him do it for you. He
                        comes to us with all these gifts in His hands, for He comes to give us himself.
                        And in Himself, as "in a box where sweets compacted lie," are all that lonely
                        hearts and wearied eyes and dead souls can ever need. All are yours if you
                        are Christ's. All are yours if He is yours. And He is yours if by faith and love
                        you make yourselves His and Him your own.

 

Archived by Robert L. Cobb
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com
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