SDB Chicago

The Power of the Presence of God

The Orthodox Church has a practice known as the veneration of icons. As with many of the Orthodox Church’s practices it may seem odd to Protestants. Indeed there are those today who consider the practice a form of idolatry. The history of this conflict is fascinating to a historian like me, but is not the point of this post. Unlike the iconoclasts (those that smash icons), I do not consider the Orthodox theology on icons as idolatry. In The Orthodox Church, former Protestant and convert to the Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware describes the theology behind the practice like this:

The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by figures of Christ, the angels, and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Litrugy… The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of ‘heaven on earth’.

The events of the last few months have drawn me to focus on the the meaning of the presence of God. Thus, in preparing for this update I was reminded of the Orthodox practice of icons because I think it is one of the most tangible ways that Christians have created to express the reality of the presence of God among us.

Celebrating the Resurrection

Living in Chicago I am surrounded by different cultures. The main street near my apartment is full of Mexican restaurants and bakeries. Just a few blocks down is Little India. If we travel just west of the city there is a large Jewish population. All three of these groups were celebrating this past week, but all three celebrated in different ways. For the Mexican Catholics it was Easter. For the Muslim Indians it was Ramadan. For the Jewish communities it was Passover. 

Let me begin with the event that most of us will have shared: The Celebration of Easter. This holiday is rightfully the one upon which the whole of Christianity orbits. Without the resurrection of Jesus there is no Christianity. It is the event that proves that Jesus was God incarnate. When I think about the incarnation I think of the all things that Jesus did leading to the cross. The healings, miracles, and teachings all show the power of the presence of God on earth. People’s lives were changed two thousand years ago and continue to be changed today because of that presence of God. And it was that presence of God that swallowed up death in Jesus. It is because of the power of that presence that Paul, quoting Hosea, can declare “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

I grew up celebrating Messianic Seders and this year my wife and I hosted one for some friends. I am truly thankful for my mother for instilling this tradition in me. That experience has shown me that Jesus is present in the Passover as well. In fact He permeates every aspect of the Passover tradition. I do not have time to detail all the ways here. Instead I will focus on the way that Jesus identified Himself in the Seder to His disciples. 

During Passover you are only supposed to eat unleavened bread called matzah. This bread is a reminder that the Israelites did not have time to let bread rise during the Exodus. At the Seder there are three special matzot that are wrapped together. During the Seder, but before the actual meal, the middle matzah is removed and broken in two. One half is returned and the other, known as the afikomen or coming one, is hidden. During the meal the children search for the afikomen and return it to the leader for a reward of candy. Traditionally the afikomen is the last thing eaten at the Seder. 

Do you see the similarities to Jesus? He is the second (or middle) person of the trinity. He was broken. He was “hidden” in a tomb. On the third day he rose. It is this afikomen that Jesus uses as a representation of his body at the last supper.

Likewise there are four cups of wine at a Seder. Two before the meal and two after. Luke mentions two cups in his account of the last supper. One before and one after the afikomen. The cup after the afikomen is known as the Cup of Redemption. This is the cup that Jesus uses as a representation of his blood.

Night Church

At the most recent Northside Pastors Network meeting we talked about Night Church. It is what it sounds like, church at night, but the difference is that it is in the community. It runs through the summer. The goal is to bring the presence of God where it is needed most – the street corners. Night Church runs all summer and there are multiple churches and locations. Those who participated last year shared how the community would come out, not necessarily for the church, but because while Night Church ran it was safe. Parents would bring their kids to the park that night of the week. It was also shared that the drug dealers on the block would note that business was slow during Night Church. They would often just go home. 

Hearing this I was reminded of how the presence of God changes the atmosphere. Even those who did not recognize the presence as God were effected by it. Bethany and I are excited to participate in Night Church this summer and see how the presence of God changes Rogers Park.

Response to Murder

Another program mentioned at the pastors meeting is called Response to Murder. Response to Murder is simply the people of God taking time to respond in prayer to the murders in our communities. The pastor who organizes it shared how in 2021 the murder rate dropped after starting Response to Murder. At the meeting he shared how the rate has gone back up this year and he equates that to the backlog of 17 murders from the last two years that have not been prayed over. He requested for people to commit to going with him into the community and praying one night a week. I agreed to go Mondays at 9:30pm.

Since the meeting I have attended two of these prayer gatherings. At each we meet at the spot where the murder took place. We then pray over the area. After we pray we take communion because “the blood of Abel calls for vengeance, but the blood of Jesus brings peace.” In taking communion we were asking for the blood of Jesus to cover the violence and hate.

Living in the Presence of God

In Revelation we are told that in the presence of God death shall be no more. We are told that he will wipe the tears from our eyes and the there will be no more pain or crying or mourning. This is the power of the presence of God. Evil has no place in the presence of God. All the old things shall pass away. This is the future hope of Christianity. That there will be a day when God will be all in all. That day is not today. But we can get glimpses today of that perfect presence of God. 

I hope it is clear from what I shared above that the presence of God is moving here in Rogers Park. God is also moving where you are. There are things that God is doing in your neighborhood that you may not even notice. I encourage you to start looking for the presence of God in your daily life. I am confident He is there. 

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Pastor Phil

Pastor Phil

Philip Lawton received a Masters of Divinity from North Park Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minster in the Seventh Day Baptist Church. He is currently working on a church plant in Chicago.

One thought on “The Power of the Presence of God

  1. Love reading what you are up to and your insights. Praying for you and the people of Chicago. Another interesting part of iconography in Orthodoxy is their historical function. Back then the majority or society were illiterate and access to God’s word was difficult (expensive and rare) – so icons told the stories of the Bible in a visual way. Though I do not think the veneration of icons is a healthy practise for the faithful, I do appreciate their beauty, history, function and form.

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