I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
-Ephesians 3:16-19 (NIV)
If you’ll excuse a Christmas-y post, post-Christmas…
Someone shared a prayer with me a few weeks ago, as the Christmas full-court press began. The introduction went like this:
As the days get shorter in December, it seems the time I spend with God does too. I long for His presence. I know I need His perspective and peace. But as I prepare for the holidays, my heart can get so focused on planning and buying gifts that I forget to unwrap the most important gift—the gift of Immanuel—God with us.
In all the hustle and bustle, it's easy to fill our heart with everything but Him, and miss the calm hush His presence brings. I felt an unusual void around the holidays several years ago, and wrote this Christmas prayer to help me keep my heart where it needs to be. I display it where I'll see it often - to remind me of what matters most.
The prayer itself then began with this line: “This Christmas, Lord, come to the manger of my heart.”
Now, I would be a very strange minister indeed if I didn’t agree with that sentiment. The prayer goes on to ask that God will “fill me with your presence,” “remind me of the gift you gave,” “restore to me the wonder that came with Jesus' birth,””surround me with Your presence,“”clear my mind of countless concerns,” “slow me down…in the midst of parties and planning,”"invade my soul like Bethlehem, bringing peace to every part,” “dwell within and around me,” and “keep me close to You, Lord.” What’s not to like about all that?
But, I have to admit, a few questions crossed my mind as I read through that lovely prayer:
- What does the hope of Jesus have to offer for those who aren’t “in the midst of parties and planning”? Who have no one to party with and no one to plan for?
- What about the fact that Jesus’ coming didn’t exactly bring only peace to Bethlehem? If I don’t have peace, is that because Jesus hasn’t come to me?
- And then there’s this: The prayer is very first-person. The pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” are all through it. What about second-person — “you”? What about third-person — “us”?
Listen, again, I have no problem with what the prayer is trying to communicate, and I think it could be very helpful as a sort of reminder and bit of spiritual discipline to keep us focused on Jesus. It’s more that it’s an example of a blind spot that Christians in our time and place sometimes have: We sort of tend to internalize salvation. To us, the gospel tends to be about some variation of “Jesus in my heart.” Jesus is with me. He helps me. He forgives me, and he makes me feel better. And it’s not that such a view of salvation is wrong. It’s just that it’s one-dimensional.
This might surprise you: I was only able to find one verse in all of the New Testament in which Jesus is said in any way to be in our hearts. It’s Ephesians 3:17, part of Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus. He says that he’s been praying that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Even there, it’s plural; it’s not as much about individual experiences of Jesus in individual hearts as much as it’s about the church together finding together the blessing of Christ’s presence and power among them.
Jesus, after all, turned things upside-down. He welcome people dismissed as “unclean” by the religious. He said that the humble would be exalted and the exalted would be humbled. He taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to love each other. He said that things like who you ate with mattered, but not for the reasons we usually think. He spoke of the kingdom of God, and said it demanded allegiance even over the kingdoms of his day. He talked about enduring persecution and not to be afraid and most of all to trust in a God who had his eye on the birds and flowers and thought every human was of infinitely greater value.
If Jesus really just came to be in our hearts, forgive our sins, and give us peace, they wouldn’t have killed him.
Jesus did talk about being present with us. He assured his disciples he would be with them “until the end of the age” — but he also told them to go into all the world. In John, there’s a lot of language about Jesus being with his followers — but also about them being in the world and loving one another. The point wasn’t just that Jesus would be with them, in a warm, comfortable, personal way. It was that he would be with them for the purpose of continuing his mission in the world through them.
Jesus also talked about being present with other people, not just the church — the hungry and thirsty, the alien (xenos — like, xenophobia), the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, those who were poor and on the margins and in danger of being excluded, forgotten, and taken advantage of. Sometimes, in the particularly American brand of Christianity we tend to practice, we’re quick to think of Jesus as present with us and less likely to think of Jesus as present with them. Which is why our politics, our attitudes toward those who are in need, and our stance toward those outside the realm of what we think of as “normal” don’t always reflect the presence of Jesus. But it’s hard to have a hostile attitude toward the refugees who sneak across our borders or the protesters clamoring for justice or kids struggling with their sexuality or single parents in the inner city for whom SNAP is the difference between their kids eating and going hungry when you think of Jesus — our Lord, the one who gave his life for us — as present with them.
Listen, don’t mind me. It’s great if Jesus is in your heart, it really is.
But — and of course you know this — he is present in the world in a much bigger, more expansive way than just in your heart. Or in mine.
He’s present when his church agrees together to share the gospel and announce forgiveness.
He’s present through his Spirit, bearing fruit in our lives.
He’s present in the communities we build in his name and through which we can act in the world as his physical presence, his actual body, making the Word flesh all over again.
He’s present in the people around us, the most broken and pitiable of them, inviting us to express our gratitude to him in service to them.
I guess here’s the thing, the thing I’m trying to get across in all of these words: if Jesus is in your heart, please make sure he looks very similar to the Jesus who is present in our world in all those other ways. He doesn’t need us to preserve him in our hearts, but to allow him in our lives.
And then the people around us can get to know him, too.