If you've been a church-going Christian for a while, perhaps you've attended Sunday gatherings and prayer meetings and midweek groups where someone says something along the lines of: "We know that where two or more are gathered that you, God, are there, and so we know that you're present here in this gathering..."
If we're really honest, sometimes it's used in scenarios where fewer people have pitched up than hoped and so, feeling a little awkward, someone pulls out this useful "where two or more are gathered" phrase as a way of declaring: "We might not have as many people here as we'd like, but we only need two or more, so we're good to go!"
To be honest, I'm fairly sure I've done this before!
Now, I'm not trying to write a blog to throw a wet blanket on anyone's excitement, hope and expectation. In fact, I think even a cursory exploration into the biblical context of the quoted phrase could yield even greater excitement, hope and expectation!
The phrase is [mis]quoting Matthew 18:20 where Matthew has Jesus saying this:
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
One of the big problematic tendencies many of us have inherited from Modernism and the Enlightenment is to focus on abstract, propositional ideas plucked out of their original context. And as we move from truth embedded in stories and narratives to contextless notions and abstract frameworks, we almost aways distort the original meaning.
What we read in scripture is always always always contextual. Always.
As soon as we strip a verse, idea or argument from its context sooner or later we start to 'misuse and abuse' it. Sometimes a verse stripped of its context neuters it of its subversive potency. Sometimes it starts to 'mean' something altogether different. And very often it loses the nitty gritty feel of real people in real life working out what it means to know, love and follow the God of scripture.
So, what's going on in Matthew?
In Matt 18:15-20, Jesus is talking about conflict. He's talking about situations where people in the church have had some sort of significant disagreement and are falling out because of something that's happened or some disagreement they've had.
I love that Jesus is talking here about how his followers can learn to argue and disagree well. That following this Jesus shapes how we are to act when we're angry or frustrated or feel misunderstood or offended. I love that Jesus is aware of how easy it can be for misunderstandings, or different perspectives, or arrogance or pride or a million other things to damage and infect our relationships. Even within the church. Maybe especially within the church...
In this text, Jesus gives his wise counsel for such situations and explains various steps and stages to walk through. It appears to me that Jesus' hope for us is always reconciliation. If reconciliation can't be found through just one-to-one conversations, Jesus instructs people to include "one or two" other people from your church community as a form of mediation (Matt 18:16). Much could be said about this in terms of conflict resolution. All that I want to point out is that that taking 'one or two' people with you means there's 'two or three' of you, which relates to the Old Testament's requirement of having at least two or three witnesses in serious matters of justice (See Deut 19:15).
In this context, when Jesus says he is present where two or three gather in his name, he is not saying that when a Christian is alone, God is not present, but when a Christian meets with one or more other Christians, that God suddenly pops like a genie out of nowhere.
Rather, Jesus is affirming the omni-presence of God. Ie, that God is always, fully everywhere. In Psalm 139, David declares that God hem's him in, behind and before. David cries out: "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?"
I believe that in some sense, not fully conceivable to the human brain or observable to the human senses, all of creation is soaked in the present reality of the Creator God of the bible. Reality pulsates with the presence of its loving Founder.
So, in the context of Matt 18:15-20, Jesus is reminding us all that even as we work out our disagreements and offences with one another, even there and then, God is with us and present.
If we restrict conceiving of God's presence only to certain moments and times and places we surely will miss out on so much. The Christian who thinks God is present with him/her in the Sunday gathering only because of the "two or more gathered", is likely to completely undermine and undervalue the full and undiminished presence of God in every nook and cranny of life. In arguments, in queues at the grocery store, when your football team wins, or loses, when your boss loses their temper with you, when you're learning to paint, when you're watering the garden, picking kids up from school, or sipping on your morning brew.
Moses had that incredible moment where God made his presence known through a burning bush. This weird, surprising situation was of course a way that God used to get Moses' attention and make him aware of the 'holy ground' he was on. I was deeply challenged, and excited, when I heard someone say recently that the point of this was not for us to seek out burning bushes, but rather to discover that "the bush is always burning".
God's presence is not some illusive experience, but a present reality to be accepted, believed in and embraced. I think we're invited to discover every moment drenched in the presence of the God of love, mercy, grace and reconciliation; to awaken to the truth that now, you and I are on holy ground.