In the Middle of Them

Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2020 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus says this amazing promise at the end of our Gospel reading this morning. We’ve heard this promise every week since we began worshiping together online at the start of the pandemic. At the end of the service of Morning Prayer, we say a prayer written in the early centuries of the Church by St. John Chrysostom: 

“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…”

I am so thankful that our Gospel reading inspired John Chrysostom to write this prayer, especially in these days when we cannot be in close physical proximity with each other. The prayer reminds us of the singular truth that Christ connects us one to another. But “I am there among them” is a rather anemic translation. I “am in the midst of them” is better. The original language translates most directly to, “I am there in the middle of them.”

Like I said, what an amazing promise, especially for days like these. I am there in the middle of them. Right now, we are connected in two ways – the technological and the spiritual, and both are pretty miraculous. I’m not an expert in the specific mechanics of how the internet works, but here’s a snapshot as near as I can describe our technological connection.

I’m talking into a camera and a microphone that are both connected to my computer. A program in my computer called OBS sends the data to YouTube – the data jumps from the computer to the WIFI access point, down a CAT-5 ethernet cable, into a switch, then a security gateway, then a router, then out another cable all the way to the Internet Service Provider. From there the data bounces around a bit before finding its way to YouTube, where YouTube hosts the streamed video. At the same time, you connect to the internet in whatever way you do, and the video travels back down all those pathways to your computer, TV, or tablet. By the time I’ve finished speaking this paragraph, you’ll be halfway through listening to it.

Just think: at the beginning of my life, the first widespread internet connections were still a decade away (and those could barely handle email). And now here we are, connecting with one another in real time with equipment I can get at Best Buy. And it wasn’t even that expensive. Pretty miraculous, huh?

And yet, the technological miracle is only the “how” we are together this morning. And this miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of “why” we are together. We are together because of Jesus Christ. In some way, the Holy Spirit of God in Christ has spoken the words of life into each of our hearts, and we have discovered that the best way to make those words come alive is by sharing them with one another and this world. Wires and signals connect us technologically. And the love of God in Christ connects us spiritually. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the middle of them.

Try to remember the last time you stood in a circle of people holding hands. (I know, I know, it was a long time ago.) The vestry did this very thing at the end of our in-person meetings. We held hands and prayed, squeezing the next person’s hand when it was their turn. Try to remember whose hands you were holding. Who was on their other side, holding their other hands? Now imagine that the person in between you was Jesus. I am there in the middle of them. Better yet, you were standing between two people, so believe the presence of Christ was dwelling within you, as well.

Jesus is the connective tissue of our relationships: the one whose relationship with God was so close that he lived in the very bosom of the Father; the one who was with God and was God, as we believe in the Oneness of the Holy Trinity. Indeed, the Holy Trinity is the perfect relationship of the parent and the child with the love of the Spirit flowing ever between them. So when we believe that Jesus is in the middle of our relationships, we participate in our limited, imperfect way in the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. I am there in the middle of them.

How differently would we approach our relationships if we lived this promise all the time? We can’t hug or shake hands right now, but we can look at the space between us and see Jesus filling it, connecting us in a far deeper way than a handshake ever could. This connection does not mean we have to agree about everything or desire the exact same things out of life or support all the same causes. But this connection does mean that we must treat the space between us as holy ground. The connective tissue of Christ compels us to respect the essential human dignity of everyone, to thwart systems that do violence to the vulnerable, and to stay engaged in the building up of our local and global communities.

Practicing this approach to relationships is tough, especially at times when personal and societal relationships are fracturing all around. How could the connective tissue of Christ’s love possibly save us from the brokenness of our society? When this thought enters my mind, I take a deep breath and remember that I believe in the God of love, peace, and justice, who is bending the arc of an imperfect Creation towards the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. I let the breath out and say, “How could the connective tissue of Christ’s love not save us?”

The words that sparked this sermon Jesus spoke in the middle of a discussion about conflict between members of the church. Jesus asserted that he would be in the middle of those who gather in his name precisely because he foresaw the conflicts that naturally break out when imperfect people live in imperfect community. The most unfaithful thing we could do is throw up our hands and stop looking for the presence of Christ in the middle of all of this. Yes, brokenness abounds. And yes, the connective tissue of Christ’s love is still present, reattaching the ligaments of our love that are strained and sprained and hyper-extended.

Here’s an exercise to work on seeing the physical space between things. It might help us imagine our way into prayerfully seeing Christ filling the spiritual space between us. The next time it rains, stand outside and look at the house across the street. Now let your eyes unfocus for a moment and try to see the rain falling. All of a sudden you can see the space between. You have to focus on the rain to see it at all, even though you know you’re getting wet. The same is true for our spiritual connections. The connective tissue of Christ’s love links us to one another and to every being in Creation. This I believe: whatever we find ourselves in the middle of, Jesus Christ will be in the middle of us.

Photo by Thomas Jensen on Unsplash.

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