Steve Seamands writes more about the ascension of Jesus in The Unseen Real: Life in Light of the Ascension of Jesus.
Jesus did not leave us in the dark about what we should do to seek his presence. There are certain places where he himself has promised to meet us. John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism and the Wesleyan Christian tradition, called these appointed places “the means of grace.”1 They are the common, ordinary channels or means through which we become aware of his presence, the “likely places” where we encounter Christ.
According to John Wesley, Christ himself ordained and instituted five such means of grace. First, prayer, in all its various forms, private and public, which he considered “the grand means of drawing near to God.”2 All the others are only useful when they are combined with or lead us to prayer. Second, searching the Scriptures, which included regularly reading the Bible, studying and meditating upon it, putting it into practice, and hearing it preached and taught. Third, attendance at the Lord’s Supper, since, like the men on the Emmaus road, Christ’s presence is known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). Fourth, fasting, since it was commanded by Christ (Matt. 6:16–18), intensifies our desire for God, and increases spiritual sensitivity. And fifth, what Wesley called “Christian conferencing,” i.e., conferencing or gathering with a few other Christians for fellowship, accountability, study, and prayer. He based this on Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).
Wesley believed that these five means of grace, instituted by Christ himself, are the divinely appointed places of waiting. If then we are to be receptive and attentive to Christ’s presence, we cannot neglect them. Indeed, we must devote ourselves to them. Interestingly, they parallel the description of the activities of the earliest Christian community outlined in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [searching the Scriptures] and fellowship [Christian conference], to the breaking of bread [attendance at the Lord’s Supper] and the prayers [prayer].” If we add to this the description of the congregation at Antioch (Acts 13:1–3), which was “worshiping the Lord and fasting,” then we see that all five of Wesley’s means were an integral, vital part of the life and practice of the earliest Christians.
Of course, you may be a part of a different Christian tradition and have never heard of John Wesley’s means of grace. But regardless of how you describe them, I’m sure you have something similar in your tradition. All Christians everywhere recognize the crucial importance of spiritual disciplines, devotional practices, means of grace—call them what you will. There are also various other important practices we could discuss (Sabbathkeeping, the Divine Hours, Lectio Divina, and silence, to name a few).
In this there is broad consensus within the whole Christian tradition. These practices are absolutely indispensable for cultivating an awareness of and attentiveness to Christ’s presence. We must regularly and habitually engage in them. If we are going to know the reality of his ascension presence, there simply is no other way. When we neglect these means, disciplines, or practices, our faith—the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1)— quickly dissipates and dissolves. Consequently, our awareness of Christ’s love for us—so deep, passionate, and undeserved—soon fades. We forget his precious promises to us (2 Peter 1:4). Our conviction of “things above” (the unseen real) diminishes. Before we realize it, we are assuming and acting as if we are all alone—as if everything depends on us. Our faith spirals downward and anxiety, stress, frustration, and fear rises within us. As Oswald Chambers said, “Our problems come when we refuse to bank on the reality of his presence.”3
So let me emphasize it again: we must seek his presence in these “likely places” where he has told us to meet him. There is no other way.
Christ’s Presence in the Unlikely Places
But Christ’s ascension to heaven means we can seek him in unlikely places too. Remember, he ascended, so that he can fill all things, all times, and all places. If we are attentive, every moment, every experience of life, no matter how ordinary or mundane it might seem, can open a door that ushers us into Christ’s presence.
That’s what Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth century Carmelite friar, discovered as he made “the practice of the presence of God” in the midst of all his everyday activities the goal and ambition of his life. After several years, he came to the place where he could say, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”4
But practicing his presence is not only for extraordinary people like Brother Lawrence. Greg Boyd, in his helpful book Present Perfect, described how for the past several decades, with help from people like Brother Lawrence, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and Frank Laubach, he has worked to do it in his own life.5 We too can learn to practice the presence of Christ. Each moment, each experience of life, no matter how dull or ordinary, can become a Christophany if we learn to be attentive. In the midst of all our activities we must learn to pray, “Lord Jesus, I acknowledge you are present here. Make me aware of your presence.”
Another significant but unlikely place where we can seek Christ’s presence is in the face of human need. In the parable of the last judgment, both the sheep and the goats—those who were received and those who were rejected—were puzzled and surprised: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” (Matt. 25:44). He had been there all along, yet they had failed to see him. But where was he?
They wanted to know. Then the answer came: “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
Christ meets us in the faces of the poor, the broken, the hungry, the lonely, the disenfranchised. When we reach out to them, we encounter him there. So Mother Teresa and her sisters discovered in serving the poor in Calcutta. While she held a dying leper in her arms, she was face-to-face with Christ. As the sisters ministered to the broken and the dying, they were ministering to their present-yet-unseen Lord. That’s what made their ministry to the dying unique, she said, as distinct from social work: “We do it to a Person.”6
In the face of human need, our natural tendency is to turn and look the other way. Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, we would rather “pass by on the other side” (Luke 10:31–32). Jesus, however, said, “Don’t turn away or keep your distance. Look deep into the eyes of your hurting brothers and sisters. Reach out and touch them. You’ll be touching me if you do.” Christ is ascended so that he can fill all things—all times and places with his presence, the likely and the unlikely places.
Steve Seamands writes more about the ascension of Jesus in The Unseen Real: Life in Light of the Ascension of Jesus. The ascension means that Jesus is King and humanity is exalted. He is always personally present with us and gives us power to rule over our enemies. We have been called to join Him in his on-going ministry of intercession and in his mission to the world.
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- The post-Easter season
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- Individuals seeking deeper theological understanding
1. See his sermon, “The Means of Grace” in The Works of John Wesley, 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984), 376–97.
2. John Telford, ed., The Letters of John Wesley, Volume 4 (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 90.
3. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1963), 147.
4. Nicholas Hermann (Brother Lawrence), The Practice of the Presence of God (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1958), 29.
5. Gregory Boyd, Present Perfect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 2010).
6. See Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (London: Collins/Fontana Books, 1972); Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 26.