For many churches, this coming Sunday is the start of the fall schedule, a return to the programming and activities that create the hum of the church which falls silent during the summer months. This is just the Sunday to preach that each and every time your congregation comes together, whether it’s two, twenty-two, or two-thousand-and-two, Jesus is there. This is just the Sunday to preach the promise of Jesus’ presence in our gatherings, even when it’s just a few of us, because it makes what we do more than what we do. Yes, there is indeed great comfort in believing Jesus when he promises, “I am there among you.”
Jesus’ words here in Matthew are every bit the truth of Immanuel we need to hear. And we need to hear these words often. In my context here in the United States, for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, these words simply must be repeated, over and over again, as the funerals begin for those lost to the storm; as they continue the clean up; as they look at months of working toward restoring the lives they once had. And Dear Working Preachers, you know those up close situations in your own contexts where the only thing left to say, the only thing possible to say, is “Jesus is here among us.”
Sometimes, all that is necessary to be church, to do church, is to call upon Matthew 18:20 and take Jesus at his word.
At the same time, Jesus showing up is not always good news, at least for some. The promise of Jesus’ presence, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is comfort only insofar as you are comfortable with Jesus being that close. And I suspect that some of us, if we are honest, don’t always want Jesus in such immediate proximity.
It appears that a lot of what happens in the church goes on without thinking about Jesus’ words at all — either intentionally ignoring them or choosing ambivalence. We assume them rather than rely on them. We take them for granted rather than ask ourselves, what difference does it make that Jesus is in the midst of everything we do as a community of faith? Everything we talk about? Every decision we make? Maybe our mantra should not just be, “What Would Jesus Do?” but, “What Would Jesus Hear?” “What Would Jesus Think?”
These days, there is ample evidence to suggest that many congregations, so-called coalitions, and church committees carry on with ecclesial business as if Jesus weren’t in the room. Either they’ve forgotten Matthew 18:20 or prefer not to listen to Jesus this time around. Because if they really thought that Jesus was telling the truth, that Jesus overhears their discussions and decisions, that Jesus is sitting at the table as they draft statements that call for the condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people, perhaps, just for a moment, there would be a minute of pause, a hint of hesitation. Perhaps they would think twice and ask themselves whether or not they actually believe Jesus. It seems that these days a good number of things said about God assume God can’t hear what is being said about God; that God is not in the room.
Immanuel is not always the God we want — this God who insists on staying close, persists in being in the middle of what we do and say, especially when it comes to those things we do and say in God’s name. There are many ways we can imagine who God is, but when who God is ends up also being where God is, well, that’s theology best left in our theology books, gathering dust in our libraries. Because a God whose primary identity is that God is? Well, that’s a God we won’t be able to pin down, systemize, and control. Immanuel is often far more difficult to confess than we are willing to admit. No wonder Jesus will then have to make this promise again, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Before you get caught up in what fall always brings, maybe write down Jesus’ words on a post-it note, make them your screen saver on your computer, set your phone alarm for the same time each day to remind yourself that more often than not, people will attempt to put Immanuel aside in favor of efficiency, ease, and the bottom line. Dear Working Preachers, remember Jesus’ promise.
When you are in your staff meeting, a session meeting, a hospital room, fellowship time, bible study, Jesus is there among you. When you are making decisions about where your benevolence will go or whom your church will welcome, Jesus is there among you. When your church questions if it will speak up or stay silent, Jesus is there among you. When you are discussing your vision, your mission statement, your future, Jesus is there among you.
Don’t forget. Others have, and as a result, we have churches and institutions and leaders claiming to be Christian as if they’ve never read Matthew 18:20. I wonder, what would Jesus think?