Christ is always with us, even if two are gathered, and that means God is at work in all the world’s suffering and pain, not just us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 A
Text: Matthew 18:15-20
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In the overwhelming crises of our time, on top of our own anxieties and problems, we may be forgetting something really important.
I’ve been in conversations with Christians for decades about all sorts of societal and church problems. Nearly always, the conversation centers on what God calls us to do as Christians, what actions we should take.
Do you know what’s almost always absent? Any talk of the Triune God’s actual presence in our work, God actually doing anything. When God is mentioned – I’ve seen this at all levels of this church – it’s nearly always in terms of what God wants of us.
In personal pastoral care, my job is to ask the God questions and help listen for God’s answer: where do you see God in this? What is God’s prayer for you? How might God be able to help or heal? But those questions are critical any time we’re considering suffering – including communal – and our call to be Christ in that suffering.
If we’re not considering what God is doing with and for us, we’re missing the key to everything. Jesus shows us this today.
Today’s verses are well known, usually to people who know how congregations do excommunication.
Jesus says when someone in your faith community sins against you, go to them individually, then, if needed, bring a couple others, then take it to the whole community. Many congregational constitutions make this the process to remove someone from membership.
Jesus means the absolute opposite. Listen to him: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” If there’s a breach in the community, the hurt person is to go to the hurter, and talk. But then two are together, aren’t they? Which means Christ is right there, among them. Do you see?
Reconciliation isn’t done by you or me following these steps. It’s done when you or I, alone or in larger groups, go to the person with Christ Jesus present among us. Only the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ in the midst of the two, or three, or community, makes reconciliation possible.
And Jesus wants more than reconciliation.
In our midst, the powerful grace of God will work on all we face. Jesus’ promise here is open-ended: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
So, in reconciliation – you are not trying to reconcile alone, I am there with you, Christ says. In problems with your life, when you walk with another person – you’re not facing your life crisis alone, I am with you, Christ says. In the massive problems of our society, whether systemic racism or poverty or oppression or destructive self-centeredness masked as governing, if even two of us gather in Christ’s name to consider what we can do personally, or as a congregation, or a nation, “I am there with you,” Christ says.
That means we should expect to be able to break the power of racism, even in our own hearts. We should expect to be able to end poverty and hunger. We should expect to be able to create a just society. We should expect to be able to cope with our own suffering and pain and find hope and healing, even in the face of death. Because none of this is something you and I face alone. The power and grace of Christ is in our midst and working to bring life.
And these aren’t just feel-good words.
The Scriptures are full of specific promises of what Christ brings when Christ is with us.
Christ brings insight and wisdom when you and I are stuck with an intractable problem. Christ brings peace and stillness of heart when you and I are in pain and struggle for hope. Christ brings forgiveness when you and I face our brokenness and sin together. Christ brings strength and courage when you and I are trying to work for God’s mercy and justice, or tempted to give it up. Christ brings guidance and direction when we’re lost. Christ brings resurrection life when death seems to have the final word.
God’s word is clear: in our midst, Christ’s presence changes everything, transforms minds, hearts, lives, the whole creation.
But when can we gather – even as two or three – in a pandemic?
Oh, some of us can be with one or two people from time to time. But many live alone. And even if there is some contact, it’s distanced, and we still spend lots of hours isolated. No worship in the same space. Fewer times to gather and talk, eat, laugh, cry together, have someone be a listening ear or comforting hug.
But we are baptized into Christ, so there is never a time we are not gathered together. The Body of Christ spans the planet, spans time, so even those who have died and live in Christ’s resurrection are with us. This was true 1,500 years ago, true 500 years ago. It is true now.
As with the ancients, even while physically apart, we are always together in the Spirit. But with modern technology, we can actually experience this more easily. We can talk to or see each other even at a distance, through phones and computers. COVID-19 can’t prevent the Body of Christ gathering.
And if we are together in the Spirit even when apart, that means Christ is always among us.
Whether it’s the work Mount Olive is called to in these troubled times or just your path of life that sometimes winds through dark woods and treacherous ground, know this: you are not alone. Nor do you and I do our discipleship alone.
Because Jesus, the Christ, the face of God, promises: when you are with others in my name (and you are always with others in the Spirit), I am with you. I give you wisdom, guidance, strength, courage, forgiveness, hope, and you will see healing. You will be able to deal with whatever you’re facing, because my grace and power are there with you, too. Always.
And that will make all the difference.
In the name of Jesus. Amen