Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:20)
This promise is like the sunrise. It is as though we were standing on a high mountain and saw the farthest peaks and valleys lighted by a ray of the morning sun. I am with you unto the close of the age. This was the last word the Risen One spoke to his disciples. For some of us it might lose part of its beauty because we find it hard to believe that Jesus spoke in human terms to his disciples after his life on Earth had come to an end. But, I believe, what really matters is the eternal truth enshrined in these words. The outward form in which the Risen Lord addressed his disciples in order to strengthen and comfort them may be a symbol, a parable. What is crucial to us is that we know what it means, whether we have experienced his promise in our lives: I am with you.
What tremendous inner power exists in spiritual communion with another man! How pitiable and destitute men are when they are spiritually alone, when they have no one to understand and encourage them. Doubly pitiable if they don’t even feel the need for it!
The older we grow the more we realize that true power and happiness come to us only from those who spiritually mean something to us. Whether they are near or far, still alive or dead, we need them if we are to find our way into life and action only when they are near to us in spirit. When I hear the phrase, “eternal life,” I don’t immediately think of the peace and joy of those who have passed from this life. I first think of the eternal life which has become manifest to me as a spiritual presence of those who are no more and of those who are still alive: men whose proximity I feel primarily as spiritual beings rather than earthly existences. When human beings with all their weaknesses and defects can mean so much to us, how much greater is our feeling for him who embraces all that is pure, spiritual, and eternal. In this saying, “I am with you,” lies the fate of every human life. Those who can say, “Yes, it is so. I know what his spiritual nearness is” — they are rich and happy beyond expression. Those for whom this promise means nothing relevant and connotes no real experience — they are poor, poor men whether they realize it or not.
But how can we find him? He is there, in the Gospels, in the teachings of the church, truly present. In the Gospels his life on Earth is described. In the church’s teaching we discover what he means to us. Yet so many pass him by and cannot find him, spending their lives unaware of the reality of his spiritual presence. I speak not only of those who want to believe with all their hearts but cannot yet experience him personally or feel his eye upon them, cannot incorporate their will in his. I also think of those who have not been aware of his presence. Everything they hear or read about spiritual communion with him is meaningless in terms of God’s nearness as they sense it, a weak definition of the intensity they feel. For spiritual communion surpasses all description, something to be experienced but, never put into adequate words.
And now, how does it come to pass that this Jesus of the Gospels, this Savior of the church’s teachings, enters our lives as a living, spiritual being? You will remember how St. Paul says in his letters: “I will speak to you in a human way.” So I would speak to you in a human way For I am afraid we don’t speak of Jesus in a human way today. Last Good Friday, while we were meditating in deep devotion upon his death, in France someone was removing his picture from the law courts, where until then he had looked down at the judges. Those who gave the order for this could never have heard anyone speak of Jesus in a human way. They heard him referred to in dead formulas and dogmas, so they thought he belonged only to the church, and they did not appreciate his simple human greatness. Often if appears that the world cannot penetrate to Jesus because he is so boxed in by dogmas. It is like a glorious ancient cathedral whose splendor has been made invisible by the houses encroaching upon it. Space must be cleared around Jesus so he becomes accessible.
I may be wrong, but I have the impression that many are waiting in vain to feel his presence, waiting for this promise — I am with you — to become valid in their lives. They wait and wait until finally this living communion, in which true religion really begins, becomes elusive, a goal out of reach, an end they can never realize. In the end they forgo it. If we could see the religious life of those we meet, of many who are with us in church Sunday after Sunday, we would be aware of countless silent unfulfilled yearnings. We would see much resignation in people who have given us hoping they can ever find spiritual communion with Christ, ever know his presence.
Perhaps they have cherished a false picture of him. They expect a Savior to comfort them, and certainly he has manifested himself as the comforter to many who lay in bonds of sin and misfortune. And yet — please don’t misunderstand me — to put it inadequately and briefly, isn’t is unnatural, I sometimes wonder, for every man to wait for some violent event or inner experience in his life — for example, like that of Augustine or Luther — in order for Jesus to comfort him? This is not the way for everyone. I am convinced that many in our time are waiting for a special need to be comforted, hoping that he will appear to them then; and because they never have the need, he never comes to them and they never find him. How did he come near to the first disciples? Not as a comforting Savior. He does not approach only miserably unhappy men and say to them: “Come, I will comfort you.” Rather, he says to men who are healthy and fresh in the midst of life: “Come, I will make you fishers of men. That means you will help me in my life’s work.” Is it not significant that just before the words of our text: “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” we find the command to continue his work: “Go ye into all the world and teach the nations?” The “I” in the “I am with you” is preeminently a demand. It means: I will not let you go; you must continue my life’s work. And his promise, “I am with you,” continues throughout the world from generation to generation. Only by continuing his life’s work, in battle and labor for him, do we realize what is meant by, “I am with you.” This has not changed. The natural way to him is to take part in his work. By sharing his labors, we enter into ever greater and stronger spiritual communion of personal intercourse with him. Is it not marvelous, this personal communion among men? Those who come close to us become dear to us because the same goal and the same ideal keep up together. We are united with men with whom we have nothing else in common, men we would otherwise fail to understand. This is why our human will must become one with the all-powerful will of Jesus. Then a communion with him will be created, and men will experience the meaning of his promise: “I am with you.”
Therefore, if I may proclaim the Christ message in a human way, I would say to all doubters and to all those who yearn in vain to feel his living presence: All right, let everything else go, as long as you hold fast to this one truth: he is a man who has the right to demand your help in the work he began. If you will do this, his glorious presence will come over you and you will become rich, richer, far richer than you can imagine!
I always return to this thought, and I always begin with it. Like a clearing in the wood, a focal point where all paths meet, it was a comfort and it still is. Those who study theology, some say, must face hard battles because of the doubts that arise when they engage in close study and research into Christian doctrine and its history. I cannot speak of this from experience, for I myself have never for a moment known such a state of mind. I always told myself: Should everything else fail, one thing will remain. We poor weak men may continue his work, and our life, our thought, our aims, and all our actions will thus be hallowed. Isn’t that enough — more than enough — for true joy, true blessedness and peace? And because I have been so certain of his spiritual presence, doubts and temptations have never assailed me.
Now you will say: Such religion is lacking in humility. You are treating the Savior as an equal; you are not a broken and contrite man. I believe that contrition and humility come imperceptibly. Who could step into the shadow of a great mountain without feeling insignificant? “I am with you all the days” — there is more in this than meets the eye. It says: I am with you all the days to teach you humility. For what can we possibly do for him that will give us the right to feel we are really serving him? You remember the legend of St. Christopher. When he carried a small child across the river, his burden became heavier and heavier until it weighted him down. St. Christopher said he could bear no greater load and the child replied, “Thou has borne on thy shoulders all the world and him who created it.” In Jesus’s promise, “I am with you,” there is a heavy weight like that. For whoever feels his presence will be weighed down by him. Only those who feel his presence know how unholy and sinful their wills are. Yes, I would say only they truly know what sin is.
And now one last point. Jesus says: I am with you to comfort you and lift you up above the world and all the experiences it brings. Whoever enjoys spiritual communion with him, whoever asks him questions and receives an answer, knows that nothing on Earth — no misfortune, no trouble, no suffering — could ever be greater than the comfort he returns. That is how he strengthened his disciples of old in their persecution and loneliness. In the time of battle and in the hour of death, they could hear him say: “I am with you.” Is not this assurance, “He is with me,” written on every page of the letters of St. Paul? You remember the saying, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me, Christ.” Infinite comfort floods over everyone who lives in communion with him. Blessed is he who has found it.
God’s goodness toward us is a gift so great that we cannot accept it lightly.