Making Real the Presence of Christ in the 21st Century
Excerpted from the Inaugural Address of Rev. Jim McDonald, President of San Francisco Theological Seminary
By Rev. Jim McDonald
"Taking the five loaves and two fish, He looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to His disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled." —Mark 6:41-42
Today Christianity is alive and well, and it is everywhere across the globe. While the real presence of Christ in the world is not dependent on the Church, the Church can and should point to and embody the real presence of Christ through our words and actions. Jesus feeding the multitudes — the story of the loaves and fishes — helps us understand how Christian institutions can embrace and proclaim the Gospel.
Let's begin by considering the crowd that gathered around Jesus as this miracle unfolded. He was surrounded by a microcosm of Galilean life — rich and poor, young and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile. It was diversity in all its glory. They had no common bond except this: they were listening to Jesus.
The celebration of diversity is not simply a tenet of progressive politics. Diversity is a hallmark of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember what happened at Pentecost long ago? Those who had gathered from numerous locations across the ancient world began to speak in their native languages, and all could be understood — a reversal of the Tower of Babel. The Holy Spirit gives people from different cultures the capacity to hear and learn from each other.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus' first response to the crowd that had gathered around him was compassion. In Matthew's account, Jesus’ compassion moves him to cure the sick and, later, to feed the hungry crowd. Compassion is Jesus' natural response, but it's a cultivated response for us. It asks us to enter into the reality of others, to understand their places of pain — to share their brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.
Compassion is what moved Jesus to teach, to heal, and to feed hungry people. Compassion is the essence of what it means to be the human beings God created us to be.
In our story, compassion moves Jesus to ensure that the multitudes have something to eat. It was the Lord's Supper. In this act, the mystery of Christ's life is expressed in the most succinct and stunning way.
As we become more compassionate, we lay the groundwork for doing justice — because compassion by itself is not enough. As theologian Doris Donnelly writes, "We must be willing to get our hands dirty—to participate with the suffering, not merely as onlookers full of suggestions."
That's the essence of justice. Seeking justice is about restoring a lost balance in human relationships—between rich and poor, between the powerful and powerless, between the celebrity and the forgotten, between the vaunted and the undervalued among us.
Our primary task is not self-preservation, but the proclamation of the Gospel, the demonstration of Christ’s saving presence in our world. We should be, at the heart of who we are, evangelical — not in some narrow, ideological sense, but in the broadest, biblical sense. We are bearers of the Good News. Not only are we tellers of the story of God’s saving work in human history: we are the continuation of that story — messengers and message rolled into one.
The Rev. Jim McDonald is the former managing director at Bread for the World. On Feb. 11, Rev. McDonald was inaugurated as the president of San Francisco Theological Seminary.