(Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2011 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20 )
Near the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, the crowds who have just witnessed the first performance of Romeo and Juliet sit stunned into silence. Then one person begins clapping and soon the playhouse is shaking to thunderous applause. But in the midst of the cast’s curtain call, a group of soldiers storms into the theatre led by Mr. Tilney, the Queen’s Master of the Revels. “I arrest you in the name of Queen Elizabeth,” shouts Tilney.
When asked why he is attempting to arrest everyone present, he says that they all “stand in contempt of the authority vested” in him by Her Majesty because they just participated in a display of public lewdness – because (and here he points to Gwyneth Paltrow who is playing Lady Viola who, in turn, is playing Juliet) “that woman is a woman!” Then he employs the Queen’s authority a third time: “I’ll see you all in the clink in the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”
“Mr. Tilney,” thunders a voice from the audience. Then the Queen reveals herself and says, “Have a care with my name or you will wear it out.” And stepping regally to the stage (as only Dame Judi Dench can), she takes charge of the situation.
Now the monarch happened to be at the play, but neither Mr. Tilney nor anyone else knew that. Mr. Tilney was doing what was expected of him as the person in charge of public performances in the Queen’s realm. The Queen, of course, could not possibly attend to all matters of governance alone, and so she appointed all sorts of people to handle affairs in her name. These people, like Mr. Tilney, used the Queen’s name to generate the authority they needed to do their jobs, which in the big picture always meant looking after the Queen’s affairs. Apparently, in Mr. Tilney’s case, he has traded on her name one too many times.
This is the model that first comes to my mind when the Gospel references doing something in Jesus’ name, as so happens in today’s reading from Matthew. I think of the absent monarch delegating to an underling some portion of her authority so that some minor affair of state runs smoothly. In this model, the name of the monarch functions as a badge or a seal, some sort of official statement that the underling is speaking for the monarch because the monarch is elsewhere.
Now I want you to time travel with me back about three minutes. I climbed into this pulpit, crossed myself, and said, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” You said, “Amen,” and then you sat down while I took a sip of water. And then I started talking about Shakespeare in Love. Okay, back to the present.
How is my invocation of God’s name any different than Mr. Tilney wearing out Queen Elizabeth’s? If Mr. Tilney invokes the Queen’s name primarily because she is absent, what am I saying about God’s presence here with us at St. Stephen’s? Could I possibly be implying that God is an absent sovereign, and I am speaking on God’s authority because God couldn’t quite get here this morning?
I surely hope not. And here is where we disciples of Jesus Christ diverge from the underlings of Queen Elizabeth. Notice what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” Whenever we invoke the name of Jesus, we do not do so in order to stand in for an absent savior; rather, we invoke Jesus’ name to awaken ourselves to the ultimate reality of Christ’s very presence in our midst.
Jesus expresses this ultimate reality when he says, “I am there among them.” In Greek, this phrase literally means, “I am there in the middle of them.” In other words, the presence of Christ forms the invisible connective tissue in our relationships. We make this connection visible when we love one another, when we serve one another, when we respect the dignity of one another, and when we reach out to those who we might not think are all that connected to us.
And we make this connection visible when we gather intentionally in Christ’s name to share Christ’s presence with each other. Later in this service, we will turn our attention to the table. And the very first words out of our mouths will demonstrate that a gathering of at least two is necessary to celebrate God’s connection to us and to each other. I will say, “The Lord be with you.” And you will respond, “And also with you.” We will engage in this short conversation in order to notice that we are gathered together in God’s presence.
During the ensuing prayer, we will thank God for all the gifts God has given us. And because this thanksgiving comes attached to the sharing of something, namely bread and wine, we will be reminded that the best way to thank God for our gifts is to share them with others. At the end of the prayer, I will break the bread so we all can partake in this act of sharing. And through the praying, thanking, breaking, and sharing, we will participate in the presence of God among us. We will celebrate the connective tissue of Christ in each of our relationships.
But this is not the end of our awareness of the connecting power of God. This is the training, the exercise for the real work of disciples of Jesus Christ. When we walk out through those doors, we will bring with us the desire and the ability to make visible the connective tissue of Christ’s presence in all of our relationships. The final dialogue of this service will be, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ,” to which you will respond, “Thanks be to God” (plus a few “Alleluias”).
We go forth in the name of Christ, not to divide, but to gather. We go forth in the name of Christ, not rejecting the chance to form a bond, but rejoicing that the connective tissue of God’s presence stretches forth from us, seeking the lost and the lonely. We go forth in the name of Christ, not as delegates of an absent savior, but as beacons of the light of Christ, which fills the space between people and pulls them closer together.