By John D. O’Brien, S.J.
|Friars’ visit, Wayside Academy, Peterborough, Ontario, 2004 (John O’Brien)|
Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst. – Matt 18:20
I must admit I chose this particular topic because I had never before given it adequate thought. It also seemed the least dramatic, and possibly for me the most hazily and haphazardly felt. The other manifestations of Christ were more clear to me, for I have experienced the power of the Word, the Logos leaping through a living text and speaking in the darkness. I have felt the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in its radiant and pulsing reality. I have met Christ in the poor, and had my heart burn within me in their (and his) company. But, what about that simple promise in Matthew 18: where two or three are gathered in my name...?
What does it mean? Is Christ more present in a prayer circle than to me praying in my room? And what kind of presence are we walking about?
There are some, like this Protestant writer, who feel strongly that the context of the verse indicates it was limited to a specific situation, namely, to when the church gives a judgment on a conflict. This is because our verse is preceded by those lines about speaking to an offending brother privately, then, if he does not listen, bringing one or two witnesses, and failing that, bringing it to the church (v. 15-17). Thus he believes Jesus was simply saying in verse 20 that we can be sure that God blesses the process of church arbitration, for he will truly be “in your midst” when two or three invoke his name at that time.
But he misses a crucial point: there are in-between verses (18-19), addressed to the disciples, that say “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v.18), which, as Raymond Brown notes in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, means that the apostolic leaders are given the same power as Peter to bind and loose (but not the power of the keys). Fair enough. Then, in verse 19, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Why are these verses (18-19), just prior to our great quote, significant? Because they are starting to break out of the particularity of the original legal scenario, and are becoming more general, spiritual statements.
But the promise of verse 20 is the broad-stroke: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst”. It is a fully generalized statement, concrete and intense, but universal in intent. As Brown says: “This gathering can be for prayer, study, or, as in context, decision-making.” It’s a classic case of “both-and”. It refers both to the scenario of community conflict resolution and also offers a general principle. It implies that Christ desires to be with those who have invoked his name.
St. John Chrysostom offered this beautiful prayer, which shows he interpreted Christ’s presence-promise as something for us all:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfil now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.So is Christ’s presence in a group more special than if I quietly close my door and pray as a bedroom hermit? We should probably resist the urge to measure such things. In other passages, the Lord recommends doing just that (Matt 6:6). When we pray in secret, Jesus promises that the Father who sees in secret will reward you. But, we note, he does not say “there am I in your midst”. Of course it can be assumed that in the general sense God is omnipresent, and Christ is in our hearts when we pray privately. But the more dramatic “being in your midst” is a promise Christ makes about corporate prayer alone. Thus we believe it is a privileged moment when Christ, through his Spirit, is manifested to his followers assembled together in unity of heart and mind.
I should pay more attention to these encounters. Pope Francis has written in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that "all the instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ." He goes on to quote his predecessor: "I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: 'Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.'"
Upon reflection, I realize I have experienced this Christ-event in group settings. At our weekly faith-sharing in my community, we invoke the name of Christ. Every class I teach begins with a prayer that has a “through Christ Our Lord.” Every time I have sat with someone for spiritual accompaniment, we pray together in Jesus' name. On all these occasions I feel the presence of Christ. Interiorly to be sure, but often more, as if he is seated right with us there in the living room, the classroom and the office, blessing us with his peace. And why shouldn't he? It was his promise, after all.