Sunday 6th September 2020 – Romans 13:8-end, Matthew 18:15-20
It is a great joy for me to be preaching with people gathered here in Church this morning. Although you will all have seen more than enough of me on your computer screens for the last three months, and some of you have been able to attend on Wednesdays, this is the first Sunday I have been able to celebrate and preach in front of real live people since my last pre-sabbatical service at the end of February. An unprecedented and unexpected gap which I hope will not be repeated in my lifetime.
I mentioned the word ‘gathered’ just now, and it is a word which has been on my mind quite a lot for the last couple of months. When lockdown first began, and when churches first had to get to grips with what it meant to be church and to do church in a different way, there was a great deal of talk about whether ‘church’ was the building or the people. Whilst much of the debate was nonsensical, with people being accused of worshipping buildings, I think we have learned some important lessons which I hope we can continue to draw on as we go forward:
- For a traditional church I hope that we have learned that worship can still happen in non-traditional ways. Over the years I wonder how much time has been spent discussing which hymn books to use, which musical settings to use, how the church should be decorated, which bibles to use, who should process where and when even, dare I say it, which coffee to have after church. Suddenly, literally overnight, all that was swept away and our experience of church was stripped down to daily prayer and a weekly Eucharist celebrated remotely. And yet somehow, despite all the shortcomings and difficulties that has presented, especially for those without the internet, we have hung together as a church and worship has still happened week by week, in dozens of homes, including those who are on Zoom today.
I hope that we have learned from that the difference between the externals of worship and the eternals of worship. A great deal of what we do in church, and what we talk about and what we worry about, has to do with the externals and, as we return to church, it would be too easy to become fixated on them once again. However, I hope we remember that it was the eternals of prayer, God’s word and the Sacraments which kept us going.
I pray that going forward our identity as a church can be founded from the ground-up on those eternals. If we are solid in our relationship with God then the externals can come and go and change or be withdrawn entirely and we are still the church. Although we are all keen, in one sense, to get back to ‘normal’ I genuinely hope that this experience has given us permission to hold the externals lightly, to be more nimble in our approach to change and therefore to be more willing and able to share the eternals of who and what we are with the wider world.
2. There is another side to this coin, which I hope complements rather than contradicts what I have just said. Whilst we have continued to be the church whilst dispersed in the world and meeting only virtually I hope that it has made us appreciate the importance and the strength of what it means to be the physically gathered church. Being with other people makes a difference to the experience of worship. I have used the analogy before but watching a play on the television or on YouTube is an entirely different experience from being in the theatre and in the audience. There is something important about being in the same room not only where the action is taking place, but also with other people who are experiencing it with you. This is a limited analogy because worship is never meant to be about watching a performance but about a collective action but there is something fundamentally human about being gathered together for a shared purpose which cannot be replicated on a screen. So, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, I hope that the experience of being dispersed will help us to appreciate the privilege and the importance of what it means once again to be the gathered church. Being the gathered church means we need to meet in a building, and that building should be fit for purpose, but that does not mean that we worship the building any more than those who go to the Oast Theatre worship the Oast buildings.
And today’s reading, as a matter of sheer providence, talks about the importance and even the power of the gathered church.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
I hear so often people tell me that they can have a relationship with God, on their own and experience Him out in nature. There is a long tradition of people living as hermits which suggests that it is possible to be a lone Christian, but everything else I encounter about the relational nature of God himself in the Trinity to the communal nature of worship which exists throughout both the bible and the history of faith, tells me that the default practice of our faith was never meant to be a solo activity but was always meant to be a gathered, communal, community, church-family event.
“Where two or three gather in my name…”
People can obviously gather for any purpose but here we are told that there is something important about naming Jesus as the purpose, the instigator, the focus of our gathering. There is nothing accidental about the fact that our services always start by saying that we meet in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that for that time we are not random people gathered for a random purpose but that we have come together as the people of God and in the name of God.
When we do that Jesus says: “…there I am, with them.”
To gather in the name of Jesus is to make Jesus present. We hear Jesus speak today in the words of the bible, the people of God are themselves the body of Christ and bodies work better when they are assembled rather than disassembled, we encounter the presence of Jesus in the eucharist, as each of us becomes more Christlike we should make Jesus more present to one another and the church which is gathered makes Jesus present to the world.
The gathered church is the people of God, meeting in the name of God and assured of the presence of God.
That is why theatre analogies soon run short – a theatre audience of two or three is a pretty poor audience but two or three Christians gathered in Jesus name have the power to change heaven.
I beg your pardon, I hear you say, what was that little leap you just made?
A few weeks ago we heard the reading from Matthew 16 in which Jesus established Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built and told him that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever Peter loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. Roughly speaking, that the decisions and the actions Peter took on earth, whether it is healing, pronouncing the forgiveness of sin or whatever, would be honoured in heaven. As the representative of Jesus on earth that Peter could speak in his name and his words would have effect on earth and in heaven. As you might expect there is a great deal of theology in the Catholic church about the authority this bestows on Peter’s successor the Pope.
However, today, we hear those words again – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Only this time they are not directed at Peter individually, but at the church local and militant.
Two or three gathered Christians, meeting in the name of Jesus, make Jesus present and have the power to affect the life of heaven. Whilst our worship life here may be a pale reflection of the eternal worship in heaven, and whilst it may feel even more pale either wearing a mask or via a screen, we are reminded today that this is not nothing, this is not incidental and neither it is merely social or external.
We are truly the body of Christ, gathered around the word of God in the bible and encountering Jesus the living Word of God in his spirit, in his sacrament and in one another, and are reminded that what we say and do here matters, not only amongst ourselves but in heaven itself.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ. This matters, more than we may ever appreciate this side of heaven. Let’s not get hung up on the externals, but focus on the eternals in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.