Where two or three…
Now here’s a phrase that we certainly hear and use in the community of Christian faith:
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
We claim this as a promise, we value it for Jesus’ commitment to us, to being with us, to standing alongside us as we gather to worship.
But I wonder what it really means for us?
When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
We often say that Church isn’t primarily about Sunday worship; that being the Church of God, being God’s people, Jesus’ disciples, isn’t so much about what we do for an on Sunday as it is about how we live for the other 167 hours of the week.
That worship isn’t, at heart, what we are doing now, but what we do with the whole of our lives.
And that’s true, and it’s important, but it’s only part of the story.
Because when we say that, when we remind ourselves that its the decisions we make day by day that shape our discipleship, we always run the risk that we will fall the temptation to individualise our faith.
The logic goes like this: our faith isn’t so much about what we do on Sundays as it is about how we live the rest of our lives (which is true); Sunday worship is about learning and refreshing ourselves so that we can live the rest of our week in ways that are honouring to God. The Church worship meeting isn’t the point; it isn’t the race, we tell ourselves, it is the pit-stop, recharging ourselves for the reality of living out our faith.
All of which is all very well, except for the way that it places the burden, the emphasis, the sense of the Christian lives, on ourselves, on the actions and values and decisions that we take, in our isolation during the six and a half days of the week that we are not at Church.
It fails to recognise that a central theme of Jesus’ teaching was the one we are exploring in this series – the Kingdom of God. A kingdom, of course, being a fundamentally corporate reality, not the experience of the individual. The Kingdom of God being, at least on one level, a description of how we are together God’s people.
But we do not have to choose between a faith which only operates for an hour or so each week in “worship”, and a faith that is expressed when we are on our own in the wider, faithless, secular society around us.
For Jesus’ words in our reading today offer another path, a road between the ritualistic religion which places all the emphasis on the actions of the community in formal worship, and an individualistic spirituality which cares nothing for what the rest of the world is doing as long as it can express its own sense of faith unimpeded.
It’s a path that builds echoes those words from Paul that we reflected on a couple of weeks ago: though we are many, we are one body in Christ and individually members one of each other.
We are something together that we are not alone.
These words of Jesus were not just an isolated saying, however much we might quote them in that way, but the conclusion of a conversation about the way that we live together, and in particular, about the way we continue to live together when another member of the Church hurts us.
Now there are a whole bundle of different sermons that can get preached on this text. One could reflect on the wisdom of this stepped approach to reconciliation – first try the personal approach, then just bring in a couple of supporters, and only if that fails will you let a wider audience hear your case – give the offender ever chance to change his or her ways while retaining their dignity.
And then, of course, there is the sermon on how terribly this advice has been abused by those in power within the Church and within the wider community. The way that it has been used to silence victims of sexual abuse because the accusation has to be confirmed by the evidence of two of three witnesses, or because the elders that are supposed to intervene, the leadership of the Church, all too often have placed a higher priority on protecting the good name of the institution than on honestly seeking the truth of the accusation.
And where an insistence on the letter of the law has overruled the direction of wisdom and of justice, this text has been deeply and harmfully misused.
But there is a fundamental value that this passage reflects; the call on the people of God to be reconciled to one another whenever such reconciliation is possible: because we need to be together, we need to gather together, to make real the presence of Jesus.
Because there is a generally unspoken implication of this text: where two or three are gathered in my name I am there with them is that there is a sense in which a negative is also implied: that when we are not gathered, Christ is, in some sense, less present.
Not to say, of course, that Christ is not with us when we are alone. Indeed, when we are alone and in need God’s presence can be very real for us, and many, especially, perhaps, the more introverted of us, find it easier to be aware of God on their own.
But there is some sense in which Jesus’ presence is enhanced, made more real, more tangible, when believers gather together.
Which makes sense, really, if we are to take seriously the proposition that we are the body of Christ; when we gather together we are meeting with others parts of the body, other representatives of Jesus; when we gather together, consciously, in the name of Jesus, we make his presence more real to one another.
We make Jesus’ presence real to one another. And together we make Jesus’ presence real to the world.
God is always present with us. How could it be otherwise? There is nowhere in all of creation that God is not; there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from God. So when Jesus says “when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them” it’s not that there is something different about Jesus – he is always, always, there – the difference is with us. When two or three are gathered in his name, we make Jesus’ presence real to one another.
And of course we can be aware of Jesus’ presence with us when we are alone, but most of us find it a lot easier when there are others around us to remind us, to be a tangible, visual, relational representation of the body of Christ.
Which is why I think that this phrase “in my name” is such an important part of the saying. Because the fact is that we can gather together in such a way that we make one another of Christ’s presence with us, in a way that helps each of us to recognise the presence of our God in one another, in ourselves, in our environment, in everything; or we can gather together in a way that does no such thing.
And perhaps crucially in these days of COVID, that sort of gathering, gathering in the name of Jesus, gathering with the deliberate purpose of remembering and reminding one another of who and whose we are, gathering to see the work of God in one another, doesn’t depend on where we are physically. We can gather in the name of Jesus just as truly like this, in dozens of different places; for at the heart of Jesus’ promise is not a question of physical location, but of intent.
The promise of Christ’s presence is made for when we gather in his name. When we gather intentionally focussed on the name of Jesus; on his character, his mission, his will, we make one another aware – we remind one another of what we all know; that he is here with us.
The theme that we’ve taken for this series is, of course, lifted from the Lord’s Prayer: Your Kingdom Come. And we know from Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom this strange reality; that like Schrödinger’s cat the Kingdom is both here and not here, both now and not yet, both a present reality to be lived and a future hope to be striven for.
And living in a broken world, especially, perhaps, in times like these, its easy to lose sight of the reality of the presence of God’s Kingdom, the reality of God at work in the world, of God’s people at work in the world, the reality of the presence of Jesus in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
Which is why we continue to gather, even if it is only via Zoom; why we come together to remind ourselves and to remind one another that we are the people of Jesus Christ, gathering in his name; to remind one another that God is at work; to show one another the reality of the Kingdom.
To make Jesus’ presence real to one another. And together to make Jesus’ presence real to the world.