After five months of being unable to meet in church, this is the first sermon which I have published on this blog that will actually be preached live with a congregation.
Where Two or Three are Gathered
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.
Powerfully over the last five months we have experienced what might be called a lack, or even a loss of church. During these last months we have not been able to gather. So our usual sense of church has been missing. We have not be able to do what Jesus here hints is characteristic of his church; gahtering. We haven’t been able to come together, in the place which we call church, and do what we want to do there, which we also call church. Of course even now, whilst some of us are back together, gathered in the one place, church may still seem to be lacking, since we still can’t “do” church. For the time being at least we still can’t sing any hymns. We still can’t receive Holy Communion. But we still can’t have a cup of tea together afterwards. Nor can we hug our friends. We might be left to wonder whether without these things there is much “church” at all. We could question why we should gather at all in these circumstances.
Of course “church” is an overworked word. As we have already seen we use it to mean the building. And we also use it for what we do in that building. Sometimes though we do remember and do remind ourselves that what the word “church” does and should mean is the people. We are the church. Of course not just any people. Not an undifferentiated, random selection, from among all human beings. When we say church is the people, we do mean a specific group of people, who are formed together in a church. Jesus doesn’t often use the word “church” when talking about his people. This passage in Matthew’s gospel is one of the few places where he speaks explicitly about what his followers will become. The word which is used to carry his meaning church is: εκκλησια (ekklesia). Which means literally “the called out.” When we say the “church” is people we mean a particular group of people who have been “called out” by God. We are a group of people who have been called out and called to be together. This too has been something that we have been missing over these last months. One of the critical, decisive things which coming to church week by week does is that it makes the church visible. We can see who the church is. Our gathering together, even if it is just part of our number, enables us, and everyone else to see that we are a distinctive group of people. And Jesus reminds us that when we do come together he is present to us.
Most often when we read the final verse of Jesus’ instructions on how to deal with conflict in the church, we read it as a reassurance:
When two or three are gathered in my name. . .
This phrase has become rather important to us. In an age when the church is declining, when fewer and fewer of us gather, it is reassuring to hear Jesus tell us that the church doesn’t have to be very big to be the church. When we say the church is people, we are reassured to know that two or three are enough. And certainly, this is true. The church can be as small as two or three, though we have to also note that does have to be more than one. Christianity is not a solitary activity. Which is why this period of isolation has been so very difficult for many among us.
But true as that sentiment is, taking a single verse of Jesus’ speech out of context is liable to distort its meaning. Jesus’ promise to be present when two or three of his followers come together also has a quite specific meaning. The two or three he has in mind are the two or three he was thinking of at the beginning of this passage:
If a member of the church sins against you go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
The situation he has in mind and the people Jesus is thinking of are the people involved in this process of reconciliation, with or without the third party as witness. Jesus promises to be present when members of his people are working to reconcile with each other. Jesus is explaining what we should do when there have been difficulties or falling out or offence given among his people. Jesus is realistic about what happens when people are gathered together. We all rub against each other, and sometimes the friction produces sparks. We all know that there is no row like a row you can have in church. We all know the hurt and upset that people’s actions can sometimes cause. We all know of people still within the church who no longer speak to each other. And we all know of people who have been so upset that they have never darkened the doors of our gathering ever again. Jesus knows this is inevitable. Jesus knows that we are human. But Jesus provides a mechanism to deal with this. He expects us, even in the face of our differences and disagreements to be reconciled to one another.
But Jesus’ words here are more than just a practical solution to the real experience of being a church. By pointing us to what to do when things go wrong, Jesus points us to what the church is really for and what it is like. He has a very specific way for dealing with conflict in the church:
First the offended party should approach the one who has sinned against them. The purpose of this meeting is to seek repentance and reconciliation. But the meeting is kept private so as not to spread the offence. If that encounter succeeds well and good, the community of the church is restored. If not there is a further step. This time a third part is involved, to provide a witness, and perhaps even to act as mediator. Again if reconciliation is affected good, the church is once more a unity. If not there is still another step. Only at this point is the whole church is involved, all those who are “called out” to be God’s people in a particular place. Once again if reconciliation is affected and the unity of the church restored, all is well. But if not the offender is cut off from the church. This sounds harsh. But this “excommunication” is not intended as a punishment. It is merely the recognition of the reality that the offender’s refusal to repent and be reconciled has already placed them outside of the gathering of the church. What shouldn’t be forgotten of course is that much of the mission of the church is intended to gather those who are not part of the community into its gathering. The thread which has run through this whole process has been telling the truth. At every step of that process it is the truth which is brought to light. Which is how Jesus points us to what the church is really about.
The church is the place where, and the people amongst whom, we will hear the truth. We will hear the truth about God. But more particularly we should be hearing the truth about ourselves, and be changed by it. What has been missing these last few months has not really been the hymn singing, or the Holy Communion or the cups of tea and hugs. Important as those things feel to us. In a way all of those things are surface detail. Or they are the means to a greater end. What we have been missing is hearing the truth about God and about ourselves from the people who have been gathered in Jesus’ name. What we have been missing has been the ongoing opportunity to be transformed by that truth. We say that church is not the building but the people. The reality is a little deeper even than that. The church is the relationships between those people, relationships of truth telling and reconciliation. As we come back together the mission of the church can become clear to us again: We are called out, gathered together two or three or more of us, to make God’s kingdom visible by the practice of truth telling towards reconciliation.
Where Two or Three are Gathered by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.