“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.”
Sermon for Sunday, September 7, 2014 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20
“For when two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” I’ve always heard these famous words of Jesus as an astonishing promise, as a steadfast assurance that Christ is present in our midst no matter what. If you’ve ever been to a church gathering where only a few people showed up, I bet someone said, rather wistfully, “Well, when two or three are gathered…” I’ve said the same many times as a way to remind myself that what we’re doing when we gather as the church, as the body of those whose faith and action is motivated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is important, no matter the size of the group.
This is all well and good, but I think our wonderful verse of scripture suffers from the same ailment as the most famous verse ever, John 3:16. I call it the “fun-sized candy bar” problem. Now bear with me: At Halloween, all the candy in the supermarket starts showing up in big bags filled with little individually wrapped units. They call them “fun-sized,” but I don’t understand what’s fun about getting a smaller candy bar than normal. In the same way, we wade into dangerous biblical territory when we individually wrap single verses of scripture, isolating them from their neighbors and from the larger interpretive ecosystem as a whole. It’s easy to get the Bible to say exactly what you want it to say when you pinch a verse from here and snipe a verse from there.
So this week, I went back and read the Gospel surrounding our famous, fun-sized verse: “For when two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” Right before these words, Jesus counsels his disciples in the proper way to deal with broken relationships amongst members of the church. Right after these words, Peter tries to nail down the number of times he’s obligated to forgive someone. He pegs the number at seven, but Jesus multiplies that by eleven, essentially saying, “Forgiveness should be limitless.” Thus the interpretive ecosystem, within which our fun-sized verse lives, seems to be about how difficult it can be to live together in community. Community can be messy, especially church, because church is for broken people. It would be for perfect people too, but there aren’t any of those.
So while I still see the beautiful promise embedded in Jesus’ words about being among us when we gather, I now also see something else. I see a challenge – a challenge to share the Spirit of Christ residing in us with others and to recognize and honor the Spirit of Christ residing in them. Jesus promises to be with us whenever we gather in his name. This is Gospel truth if I’ve ever heard any. Our challenge comes when we strive to make this truth evident in our lives.
I invite you, as we begin another program year here at St. Mark’s, to join me in this challenge. After being with you these past seven months, I’ve seen so much evidence of Christ’s presence in our midst, but from here on out I invite each and every one of you to name that presence when you see it flourishing in one another. Name it aloud. Celebrate it. Thank each other for making the Spirit of Christ more present in our midst. When visitors or guests pass through St. Mark’s, I want them to depart knowing Christ better than when they entered. I want them to meet Christ when they meet you. And I want you to meet Christ when you meet them.
I’m conscious of the fact that we enter rather ephemeral territory when we speak of being and seeing the Spirit of Christ. It can all be a bit theoretical or metaphorical. But we need something we can sink our teeth into, that we can really engage in. Therefore, in full awareness that what follows is only a tiny portion of the ways we can be and see the Spirit of Christ, I’d like to name three specific actions that each and every one of us can do – today, even – to live into the challenge of Jesus’ presence in our midst.
The first is inviting. One of my favorite stories of Jesus comes from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. A pair of John the Baptist’s disciples hears their teacher call Jesus “the lamb of God,” and so they follow him. Jesus asks them what they’re looking for and they in turn ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he replies. Come and see. He doesn’t tell them where he’s staying; instead, he invites them to join him. This is the first of many invitations Jesus offers throughout the Gospel. Each subsequent invitation involves Jesus expanding his followers’ comfort zones and moving them to embrace the abundant life he offers to all.
When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of invitation. We open ourselves up to the vulnerable nature of the new. We reach out our hands to those we don’t know, those whom we consider “other.” And in so doing, we discover one of the secrets of life: there’s no such thing as a stranger.
When we reflect Jesus’ priority of invitation, our group gathered in Christ’s name becomes permeable. We draw others towards us with the charisma of the Spirit of Christ: with our welcome, our hospitality, our utter delight in saying, “Come and see,” to those hungering for spiritual connection. Jesus drew people to him, and when we accept the challenge of living with him in our midst, we will draw people to us, as well.
Along with inviting, our next action is serving. One of the holy invitations Jesus offers to all is to serve in his name. His was a life of service to those who were poor and marginalized. He healed people not just by curing ailments, but by seeing a person standing before him when society saw only a problem or a disease or a demon.
When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of service. We actively seek out ways to step outside of our comfortable bubbles and rub shoulders with those on the margins. I spent an hour at the WARM shelter in Westerly last Wednesday, and the opportunities for us to serve their population are myriad. I can’t wait to imagine with you how to expand our work with them.
With inviting and serving, we come to our third action, which is sharing. On the night before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. We participate in this same meal each week as we share his Body and Blood with each other. In this sharing, we become Christ’s Body, a group gathered in his name, strengthened and unified by his Spirit.
When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of sharing. We take an interest in each other’s lives. When we ask how you’re doing, we really want to know. When we embrace, we feel the kinship of Christ holding tight even after we let go. We share our talents and our resources with the group because we are stronger together.
Our sharing strengthens us for service. Our serving broadens our understanding of invitation. And our inviting expands our circle of sharing. Each of these actions responds to the challenge of Christ’s presence in our midst. When we gather together in Christ’s name, he is here among us. This is Gospel truth. This is the reality that makes our lives what they are. This is Jesus’ promise to us. Embedded in that promise is our challenge to make visible, to make tangible the gift of his presence. So this year at St. Mark’s, we will invite any and all to come and see what God is up to. We will serve those on the margins. We will share our lives with each other. We will gather in Christ’s name. And Christ will be among us.
Episcopalians are often accused of being too brainy, too intellectual. We think too much. We get caught up in the space between our ears and forget about that throbbing muscle in our chests. These accusers are correct up to a point: we do not check our brains at the door. Jesus asks us to love the Lord with all our mind, as well as our heart and strength. But our intellectual engagement with faith is only half the story.
You see, worship in the Episcopal Church is quite sensuous. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the Harlequin romance definition of the word. Our worship is sensuous in that we employ all our senses to encounter the presence of God. We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. We see the stained glass and changing seasonal color palates. We smell the incense puffing from the thurible.* We taste the bread and wine. We touch one another in the handshake or embrace of the peace of the Lord.
To engage all of our senses, we use things in our worship. We use candles, books, and bowls. We use bread, wine, and water. These things are all incredibly – laughably – ordinary. Nothing about a loaf of bread is inherently special. Hand me a loaf of bread, and I might feed the birds or save it and make French toast tomorrow morning. (Actually, if you know me, the most likely scenario is that I’ll eat the loaf right then and there.)
So, how does the loaf of bread, which was one of a hundred bar coded loaves at the grocery store, transform from a laughably ordinary carbohydrate delivery system to a holy vessel of Christ’s presence? The bread moves from its ordinary location on the shelf in the store to its new, strange location on a linen-draped table in a church. The bread behaves quite normally, sitting there waiting to be eaten.
But the table and the action done to the bread and the people watching the action are not normal. The table is abnormal because it has several tablecloths covering it, some ornate, some plain. The action is abnormal – whoever talks about a loaf of bread before they start slicing it? And the watching is abnormal – unless you’re in the studio audience for Iron Chef, who joins dozens of others in watching someone prepare a meal?
So the bread is laughably ordinary. But the situation is not. The juxtaposition between the normal loaf of bread and the strange way it is being treated invest the ordinary with new meaning. This new meaning turns the bread into a symbol. Now, before we go any further, I want to dispel from your mind any notion of the phrases “it’s only a symbol” or “it’s merely symbolic.” Symbols are woefully misunderstood things in American culture – like soccer and irony. A symbol is an object that points beyond itself to a deeper truth. Too often, “sign” and “symbol” are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. A stop sign lets you know you are supposed to brake at an intersection, but that’s all it tells you. The red octagon doesn’t compel you to ruminate on why you should stop. But a symbol – the cross, for instance – stirs within us all of the historical and theological and emotional resonances of the truth to which it points.
Okay, so the bread is a symbol. It connotes the bounty of harvest, the fruits of the earth, the goodness of creation, the nourishment of our bodies. And when we put it on that table, and a priest (in the presence of God’s people) asks God to indwell that bread with the Spirit of Christ, the bread becomes a special sort of symbol called sacrament.
God moves within us, spurring us to love, praise, act, pray, serve. Outward connections with our inward spiritual lives are called sacraments. These special symbols take the ordinary things we’ve been discussing – bread, water, even our own actions and personhoods – and set them ablaze with physical and emotive evidence of the presence of God.
When we participate in the sacraments, we ourselves become sacramental symbols of God’s movement. Our service to God points to the deeper truth of God’s creation of and love for the world. Worship nourishes us for our role as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of the light of Christ. We enter church as normal, ordinary people, like the loaves of bread on the grocery store shelves. We leave church transformed by our sharing in the presence of Christ with one another. Over time – months, years, lifetimes – the transformation helps us to realize that what we mistook as “normal” was really quite miraculous and extraordinary.
All of the normal, everyday things we use in church gather new meaning when we employ them to worship God. The candle becomes the light of Christ. The bowl becomes the vessel for the waters of baptism. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Likewise, we – as sacramental beings – discover new meaning for our lives when we come together to worship the Lord.
*The metal censer on the chain that you swing to disperse the perfumed smoke; sort of like a liturgical yo-yo.