When it was time for him to leave the earth, Jesus said that his friends were lucky, because then the Holy Spirit could come and form a new community. Although his bodily presence was leaving the earth, this new community would become Jesus’ new body—“the body of Christ”—through which his presence would get extended.

Because of this, some writers of Scripture say things about God being present in people that take our breath away when we really think about them:

—“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

—“Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

—“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD.”

—“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

When Saul-alias-Paul was busy terrorizing and imprisoning Jesus’ followers, he was intercepted by Jesus’ asking him, “Why do you persecute me?” Of course, Jesus had already ascended to heaven by this time. Saul was persecuting men and women—members of the church. But apparently Jesus identifies so closely with his people that when they suffer, he suffers. What Saul did to the church he was doing to Jesus.

It is even harder to recognize God’s presence in the second Waldo than it was in the first one.

Initially Jesus was present on earth through the body that was conceived in Mary’s womb. But after the ascension he became present on earth through another Body—the community of his followers. It’s as if there were a second incarnation. The church is, in a sense, Waldo Junior.

Of course, it is even harder to recognize God’s presence in the second Waldo than it was in the first one. C. S. Lewis writes about this dynamic in his book The Screwtape Letters, which takes the form of letters from a master demon (Screwtape) to his nephew (Wormwood) about how to undermine his patient’s spiritual growth. Screwtape advises Wormwood to help his patient miss God’s presence in people by appealing to his pride:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

In some way we don’t fully understand, God has incarnated himself again. He is present to us through people: a real estate agent, a bank teller, a next-door neighbor, a homeless man. However, most of us don’t see. When it comes to people, it is perhaps supremely true: God is closer than you think.

Ortberg, John. 2009. God Is Closer than You Think. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

We have just completed a 10-Part Study of John Ortberg’s book, God Is Closer Than Your Think. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon