The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s056g05 Sunday 23 4/11/05
"gathered in my name" Matthew 18:20
This seems a very comfortable verse of scripture. We have only to get two or three to agree with us and we will get our own way! Sadly this doesn't help run a parish when two or three want something and two or three others don't want that something. If it is difficult enough to run a parish this way, what about the whole of creation!
I was recently pondering the use of the phrase "we are called by your name". This occurs in Isaiah 63 (v19) and Jeremiah 14 (v9) and 15 (v16). In Isaiah, the prophet complains that they were being treated the same as the other nations, Jeremiah suggests that the Lord is perhaps confused who were the called people. He himself did not find being called by "your name" comfortable -- for it meant that he didn't "sit in the company of the merrymakers".
We may take comfort that we are different, that we call ourselves Christians -- but "calling" implies an invitation to move from where we are at the moment. So the two or three people who are gathered in the name of Jesus are actually likely to be moving somewhere else -- to different perceptions, to greater realizations, to wider love.
The scriptural witness is that those God uses often have their names changed. So Abram was renamed Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Cephas to Peter, Saul to Paul. Again this tells us that being called by God involves moving from old ways into new ways. Abraham was called from Iraq to Canaan, Peter was called to recognise that God does not have favourites and Paul was called to stop persecuting others who worshipped God differently.
On a personal note, I was thinking about my own name, Christopher, demoted from sainthood -- was it in the 70's? I suppose it is one of the few "Christian" names. I can't imagine anyone before the legendary Christopher being called by this name. Other Christians are named after the disciples, apostles, the mothers and fathers of the Christian faith, but their names were in current use in ordinary society. But "Christopher" stems from this legendary person performing this legendary act of carrying the Christ-child across the raging river. Perhaps I'm wrong.
Some time back I was reading the passage from Acts where Paul and his companions are travelling through what is modern day Turkey -- familiar territory for Paul, for this is where he was born. As they travelled, it seemed that they were inexorably led to enter Europe -- to entirely unfamiliar territory -- and to find the risen Christ there. This inexorable leading is attributed to the Holy Spirit. (16.6-10)
We here this morning are gathered in the name of Jesus, each and every one of us. In the words of Article 10 (of the 39), which says (in part) "... we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God preventing us ..." I think that there is no argument that coming to Church is a work pleasant and acceptable to God, even if we personally find it a less than pleasant and acceptable experience -- so it is the grace of God that has prevented us. "Prevent" is an old word, from the Latin, "pre" meaning before and "venio" to go. It has almost completely taken the opposite meaning of what it used to. It is the basis of our Collect for today. We are not here because we have chosen to come. We, each and every one of us, are here because God has called us to be here. It is quite heretical to suggest that anyone else is here for any other reason. No one therefore has any more right to be here, and no one any less right to be here. All of us are called by God to be here.
At the end of the service we will be called to go out, out into the real world. This is most important, for we can get "stuck" here. The Pharisees of Jesus' day separated themselves off from the mass of ordinary humanity, whereas Jesus embraced the common man, woman and child. So we too can get stuck in our religious duties as if this is what God wants. No, God calls us in the name of Jesus out of where we are, to embrace others, the common men, women and children around us.
In saying these things, I am not at all implying that this is anything new. It is, by and large, what each and every one of us do, already -- unless of course we leave here and act to discriminate against all who do not call themselves Christians like us.
We are called by the name of Jesus, who is already in the place to which we are called to go. We only follow. Jesus doesn't ask us to go to places he is too afraid to visit already.
The common lives we lead are the places where we will find Jesus, as well as in here, in word, sacrament, fellowship, praise and prayer. We will find Jesus in the vast mass of people masquerading as "ordinary", yet if truth be told are, one and all, really quite extraordinary.
So even my text implies movement. We are "gathered in (the) name" of Jesus. So communion, one with another, is of the essence of being called by the name of Jesus. But this communion, one with another, is not to stop here -- this was the failure of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, as well as countless Christians since. Our communion, one with another is meant to be a foretaste of this communion with all people, and this can only be achieved as we leave this place.
When one thinks about it -- how frequently people use the name of God, from a multitude of languages and religions to assert that they are called by their god to be where they are, and therefore where they'll fight to the death to stay for all eternity, and everyone else has to put up with it. As I have indicated at the beginning of this sermon, the consistent witness of the scriptures, Old Testament and New, is that people are called by the name of God to go somewhere else.
The ancient people of God were called to the promised land and of course they were going to displace those there before them. But they were to be in the land as a blessing to others, not to take over the practices of these others, and specifically that they could pretend to manipulate the Almighty to their own purposes. Of course the religion of Israel was not meant to be a personal thing. God wants not just individuals to follow the precepts, but that the nations will also act as a blessing to the people in their midst.
If we are gathered in the name of Jesus, then I suppose that we are going to be "in Christ", and those words that end the Easter Anthems must hold true: "In Adam all die; even so in Christ shall all be made alive". So our gathering in the name of Jesus brings us into the community of all people, indeed all people who have ever been, who are and who will ever be. Far from being in a place were we have everything, no matter how this is at the expense of others, our destination is the community of all people and we all have some way to go in our travelling to this place. We begin and continue to be gathered in the name of Jesus, when the two or three we are gathered to, actually have different perceptions to ourselves and we learn from one another rather than fight with each other.
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