There’s a famous saying of Jesus that we often misunderstand. He said “where two or three are gathered I am with you,” often quoted at the start of poorly attended home groups to reassure us that even if the rest of them couldn’t get themselves in gear to turn up, Jesus is with us anyway. Sucks to be you, person who didn’t attend.
I used to pedantically tell people that this passage from Matthew 18 was actually about church discipline. Perhaps that’s where you thought I’d go to. I think that’s missing the point a little too. Certainly, the context is about how to handle sin and repentance between followers of Jesus, but suggesting that only means a formal church discipline procedure is a little myopic.
I’m amused by what I thought pointing that out was going to achieve. “Sure, only three of us came to the Bible Study, but I’m afraid Jesus will only turn up if one of you fails morally and refuses to repent until we have to treat you as an apostate. Who’s it going to be?”
Anyway, that isn’t the misunderstanding I wanted to point out, and I don’t think it’s a misapplied sentence as often as some might suggest. Even if the context was church discipline in its strictest sense, Jesus’ reassurance that he would be with them in difficult conversations must be more widely applicable.
I want to focus in on the sentence a little. It reads, in a very literal reading of the Greek: for where two or three are assembled in my name there I am in the middle of them.
Some of the words are obscured in our English translations for readability that mean we miss some of the richness of what Jesus is saying.
In the middle
Jesus is not just with them, he’s in the middle, the midst of them. Why is that important?
What else is in the middle in the Bible? Especially considering we’ve got the context of talking about the assembled people of God and the Church a few sentences previously?
I think we’re supposed to be thinking of the Temple, with the Holy of Holies in the middle. The presence of God is in the middle of the gathered people.
I think we’re also supposed to be thinking of the Garden in Eden, because the Garden was the first Temple, which had two trees in the middle (Genesis 2), and the presence of God was in the middle with the trees (Genesis 3). So, we’re thinking presence of God, Tree of Life, Tree of Wisdom.
Jesus is giving them a miniature Biblical Theology lesson: I will be the holy presence of God with you, the giver of life and wisdom. He’s telling them he’s the fulfilment of the Temple and he will be wherever his people are.
Which is pretty much what you thought it meant.
So, did we actually misunderstand it before? Not really, but “here’s a fascinating little detail” is a bad opening for a piece of writing. These sorts of Biblical echoes rarely change the meaning, but they always enhance it adding new layers of understanding.
It’s not simply “Jesus is with you”, but here and now is the holy Temple, heaven is meeting earth, the High Priest is ministering (that’s Jesus) and all the other priests are worshipping (that’s you and me).
Which should change the way we feel about a small home group or a low Sunday. Especially on a Sunday, it doesn’t matter how many people are there, this place and this moment are the centre of the cosmos. Heaven is touching earth, even if we’re all sleepy and can’t sense it at all.
I’m a charismatic who believes that Sundays should be ecstatic moments of the gathered people entering the presence, but even on the days it all seems flat, this is the Temple, this is the place and moment on which the world turns. You’re in the middle of the Universe. And so are all the other churches.
If you happened to have laid the table for communion? All the better, you can eat God while you’re here.