When two or three are gathered...
(For Wednesday 10th August 2008)
Have you ever found yourself at a church meeting with only a couple of other people? You know what its like - you have organised a venue, booked the room, bought the coffee and biscuits, planned an agenda...and only two other people turn up.
At that point, in most churches I've ever known, someone will usually say "Oh well...when two are three are gathered....". The rest of the group will smile, weakly, and draw some comfort from the fact that Jesus did promise to be with even the smallest of gatherings!
But is that really the point? Did Jesus make that promise because he knew that there would be many times that small groups of Christians would gather in dimly lit, scruffy rooms on plastic chairs? Well perhaps he did. But I think there was something rather larger going on...
Jesus' statement raises a question. If it takes two or three of us to gather together in order for him to be present, does that mean that he is not present when we are on our own? It raises the question of 'where is God?'
There is a tendency among certain missionaries Christians to talk about 'taking God' to a certain place. They talk about 'taking God out into the community' or 'taking Jesus into Africa' - or India or wherever. In other words, there are some Christians who seem to believe that until God has been taken into a given situation, he is not there.
But isn't that a bit wrong-headed? After all, as the old saying goes, 'if Jesus isn't Lord of all, then Jesus isn't Lord at all'. Jesus, and therefore God, is present in all the Universe. There is no-where that God is not. There is a Psalm - an ancient Hebrew poem or song lyric - which sums this up rather beautifully:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. (from Psalm 139)
Our task, as people who have encountered God already, is simply - no more and no less - to help other people to encounter him too. Not by 'bringing God to them' but by helping them to recognise that God is already among them. We are the window-cleaners...the people who remove the accretions of the years, polishing the glass so that others too may glimpse the Infinite. It is our task to point out to people that the creative, life-giving God is already among them.
That is just what the Apostle Paul did - as we've been reading in our mid-week readings recently. He went to Athens, and there he saw that the Athenians had built many altars, to all sorts of Gods. But he spied one altar which was labelled simply 'to the Unknown God'. It was probably the Athenians way of making sure that if they had not yet learned about a certain God, he wouldn't get miffed at them! But Paul saw an opportunity here. He told the learned philosophers and teachers of Athens that he had come to tell them about this 'unknown God' - the God whom they already recognised was among them, but whom they didn't yet know.
Many people that I meet already have a clear sense that God is among them. They have recognised the hand of God in the beauty of nature, or the smile of a friend, or the laughter of a child. They are unable to concieve of a world of such complexity and beauty as ours which could simply exist by chance. In those circumstances, my task is often to simply act as a guide...
Have you ever been on a guided tour? My family and I were in Rome recently - and we rather reluctantly paid an awful lot of Euros for a guide to take us round the Collesium. We were jolly glad that we did. That guide was able to tell us all sorts of things that we would never have worked out for ourselves. They had learned all these facts and figures about the Collesium - just be living and working there day after day. And we were able to tap their knowledge...and begin to grasp something of the story of the place.
Christians are called to be a bit like that Collesium guide. We are people who have absorbed something about the reality of God. We've lived with God - through the good times and the bad. And we have gained some insights into what God is like, and how God operates; insights that some other people haven't yet got. It is our task, our duty, our joy and privilege, to share our knowledge with those others...to be their guides...to help them find their way along the paths of God.
But there's another dimmension to this statement of Jesus' as well - this idea that when two or three are gathered together he is in the midst of us. I think Jesus is pointing us to another vitally important principle...and that's the idea that Jesus, and therefore God, is most easily found in community.
It is when we discover God together that we discover God most fully. It is by listening to the stories of other people's encounters with God, that we begin to see where our own encounters have been. Whether we listen to those stories by reading the Bible (which is packed full of such encounters) or by listening to our brothers and sisters of today - it is vital that we do listen. We can only be guides, or indeed be guided, if we open ourselves to the possibility of encountering God through, and in, other people.
That, ultimately, is what the church is all about. Its the gathering of people who have all had experiences of God, and who want to deepen that experience by sharing it with others.
Have you ever thought what it might take to become a footballer (or a soccer player if you are an American!)? You could learn to play with a football in your backgarden. You could practice scoring goals against the garden wall. You could learn to do 1000 'keepy-uppies' without dropping the ball. But you will never, ever, be a footballer until one vital thing has happened. You will never be a footballer until you have played in a team with other players.
Christianity is a bit like that. You can read all the books you like. You could pray for 18 hours a day. But until you have shared in the experience of God with other people, you will have missed out on the central point of being a follower of God. God calls us to live in community with one another...as members of what Jesus called his 'body'. It is when two, or three, or 50,000 of his followers are together that Jesus can truly be encountered.
A final thought...
That's also what the service of Holy Communion is all about. Did you know that, according to the church's laws, I cannot celebrate communion on my own? The church believes that the transformation of the elements - the transformation of the bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Jesus - can only take place when there is more than one person present. Communion is all about coming together, in community - in communion with one another and with God.
So - let us never stop meeting together (as St Paul said). Let us never stop looking for the signs of God around us, and in us, and through us. Let us never stop acting as guides for one another - showing each other the places we have found God. And let us never stop coming together for this vitally important task of being in community - in communion - with one another and with God.