“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” said Jesus.
I read a wonderful post on an Christian blog this week, and I’d like to read you the first part of it. It might make you scratch your heads a bit, but don’t worry, because when I read you the second part of it later on, it will fall into place.
There is no doubt that going to Church is a waste of time.
After all, you could be on Twitter. You could be in B&Q or digging the garden or in bed. Or watching Great British Bake-Off on BBC iPlayer. Or checking the emails on the work Blackberry so you can respond to your boss's responses, and make it look like you're dedicated before the boss checks again. Or you could be replaying the highlights of the latest England game.
[If you go to church] You will have to share your time with at least one, and possibly hundreds, of people who often don't have much in common with you…
You will be asked - though not forced - to donate money - partly to fund a building, partly to pay the person whose talks you don’t like. And then you will frequently be asked to donate money to help people who have never heard of you and may not thank you. You may well be asked to give your time to help people whose position in society means they are unlikely ever to return the honour in this life.
You will spend an hour or more in singing and expressing the praises of what you cannot see, and cannot prove exists…. You will often then drink poor quality coffee.
As I said, I’ll read you the rest of it later. It’s a provocative piece, but it asks a good question.
What are we doing here? Why do we bother to turn up? Is it a waste of time? Many people would say it is – that’s why they’re not here. If you think that time is money, that everything you do should make you a profit or buy you some influence, then maybe they are right, because there’s nothing very obvious to be gained by giving up your Sunday mornings to worship.
Church can be a hard sell. Why should you want to confess your sins, listen to baffling bits of ancient writing which you might not understand or agree with, and end up on your knees at the altar rail next to people who you don’t know - or perhaps know all too well! - and be expected to give up your hard-earned cash to fund it. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people, given the choice, opt for a long lie-in and a lazy breakfast instead.
And yet, here we are, and for many of us this is a regular habit. We know what it’s like, but we still come back for more.
From what people tell me, there are all sorts of reasons for that. Some of you come for a moment of quiet reflection in a busy week. Some come to see friends and be part of the local community. Some come for the music and the shared rituals. Some come for the nourishment of communion, or the nourishment of the Bible. Whatever the reason, though, being here clearly matters to you, because here you are.
People often say that you can be a Christian without coming to church, and in a way they’re right. It’s quite true that you can pray wherever you are, and live a good life too. But in a way they are also wrong, because it’s clear that if we follow Jesus – and that is what being a Christian is about – then we are following someone who was profoundly committed to being with others, exploring faith with others, creating communities that were marked with love and where all were valued. He had no great marketing scheme for doing this, no slick publicity. His entire method was to gather a bunch of people together, talk about God a bit and see what happened next.
Of course there was nothing new or unusual about people coming together as communities. People were used to being part of a group. It was hard to survive on your own in the ancient world. You needed the support of your family, household, tribe or village. But these communities were usually strictly hierarchical, rigidly structured and fundamentally unequal. Husbands, wives, children, slaves, clients and patrons; as long as everyone knew their place in the pecking order and stuck to it everything was fine. But if you didn’t fit the space allotted to you, you’d be in for a hard time.
The community Jesus built was very different. He started off by choosing a few people to form its nucleus, but they were strange choices, fishermen and tax-collectors among others, people with no real qualifications for being leaders – or even followers. But then more people started to show up, and they were even stranger; women and children and foreigners, sick and disabled people, prostitutes and other outsiders, as well as those who just plain curious, or even up to no good, like Judas. But that seemed to be fine. The only qualification for being part of Jesus’ community was that you wanted to be. There were no interviews, no entrance exams, no security checks, no CVs required. And, stranger still, according to Jesus, everyone in this community was of equal value, with a voice that needed to be heard. He put a child in the midst of his disciples when they squabbled about who was the greatest among them. “This little one is”, he said. “This is the one you need to be like.” And when the members of his community got things wrong he didn’t chuck them out, or relegate them to some outer circle of belonging. He forgave them, loved them and helped them to grow. Being together with others mattered to him. That’s why it should matter to us too. That’s why I am so glad that a couple of members of the congregation have decided to start a Home Group – details on the pew leaflet.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Something holy happens when we come together; that was his message. And it doesn’t happen despite our failings and fallings out. In an odd kind of way, it happens because of them. We learn to forgive, to listen to one another, to discover gifts in each other. We stop thinking we know it all, but we also stop thinking that we know nothing and have nothing to contribute. We are given the chance to find out what needs changing in our lives, because we get to know ourselves in relationship to others in ways we never could on our own. Holy things happen, things that make us grow, things that lift our eyes and widen our horizons. Whether there are two or three of us, or forty or fifty, Jesus shows up in our midst when we come together, healing us, setting us straight, sending us off in new directions.
Being together can be challenging, though, and as that piece I began with pointed out, there are plenty of other things we could do on a Sunday morning which might seem like more fun. It was no easier for the early Christians either, as our readings today remind us. Alongside Paul’s warnings about “revelling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness,” he also warns the Christians in Rome against “quarrelling and jealousy”. It’s a sure sign that this was exactly what they were getting up to – he wouldn’t mention it otherwise.
He reminds them, too, that they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another”. It seems they were lapsing back into those old hierarchical ways of relating that they were used to, treating their relationships as a series of favours and debts, rather than being open and generous with each other.
In the Gospel reading Jesus’ words give a very practical way of dealing with times when things are going wrong like this. The “church” he refers to didn’t exist until after his resurrection, of course, so we can assume that Matthew was putting words into his mouth, but they are in line with the way he worked. He talks about responding to problems in a proportionate way, rather than leaping straight to the nuclear option. The aim is reconciliation, not simply coming out on top or shaming the one who has offended against you. There‘s a delightful irony too, when Jesus says that, if all else fails you should treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax-collector” . After all, Jesus counted Gentiles and tax-collectors as friends. He consistently loved and welcomed them, so even when all attempts at reconciliation are spent, it seems that all is not lost.
Come together, be together, is the message of these passages, even when you don’t agree or don’t see the point or feel bored or frustrated. Come together, because when we do, Jesus shows up in the midst of us, whether we are at peace or at war with each other. Whatever’s going on, whatever’s going wrong, Jesus shows up and holy things happen if we are prepared to let them, things which set us off in new directions, bringing us freedom and peace and changing us for ever.
Let me finish with the end of that blog post I started with, and its provocative question, “Is going to church a waste of time?”
[When you come to church, it says] You will be expressing for this short period of time - even if it's the only time this week - that the world does not revolve around you. That you are, if rich, obliged to help those less privileged. If you are on the floor, you can pretend [or maybe believe] for one hour that you are able to be raised up. You will be saying, even if the echoes of the working week have rung around your head from time to time, that making money and climbing career ladders [are] not all that matters. You will be showing that it is possible for a varied group of people, with different lives, political views and priorities, to come together with a common purpose. You will have had the chance - in a limited way - to express love to other people. And you will have the chance to dream the impossible dream that, although this world is [awe-filled] and beautiful, there is a future that will be more [awe-filled] and infinitely beautiful.