I don’t know if I have ever told you this before, but whenever I travel to a new place, be it a city or town or region, if I at all can I like to visit the local church. I particularly like to walk into the church if it is open on a weekday and the place is more or less empty. I like to walk in and experience how the presence of God feels in that particular Holy space. I have been to grand cathedrals in New York City and a small open air, dirt floor and palm thatched roof church in Yellalpa Mexico. I have sat all alone in shorts and a T-shirt in the pews of a Hawaiian church and in a parka and snow boots in a chapel in Yellowknife. What draws me to do this is the remarkable presence of God in these places, as I mentioned, but also the feeling of the people, the congregation that worships there. When I walk into an empty church I feel the presence of the spirit of the people both past and present. It is as though I can sense the love of the congregation all around me and the souls of those who have
departed are in the rafters and they, with God, speak to me through the silent voices of the light coming through the windows.
I love these moments of peaceful solitude in these blessed and sanctified places. But what I also find very interesting is that I can only stay there for a relatively short period of time. I feel God’s love, I feel the spirit of the people who share communion there with each other and depth of history of the place, I say some prayers and then I feel restless; I feel that I should leave. It is as if though the church I am in is saying to me, yes God is here – be at peace, be joyful, be prayerful, feel the love of God, but now you need to go because this place, while sacred and serene, is not fully alive. It is saying to me, you need to come back on Sunday at ten o’clock when we congregate and worship together; that’s when this place really sings.
I remember early on in my conversion process I was quite content reading about God and praying to God and being with God and doing all of that quite alone. It felt like I had found a new and very special friend. My Sunday worship would be to watch a worship service on television and then settle quite nicely into a NFL football double header for the rest of the morning and afternoon. I was content and happy. Then one Sunday I heard a sermon that challenged what I was doing. The preacher said that your spiritual journey should not be done alone. He said that a true spiritual journey should be done with a community of believers. He gave many compelling reasons why this was the case. He said you grow as a person when you are with others. He said a community can be and is there to help you, as you are there to help others and that also aids in spiritual growth. He said Jesus formed a community because the message of God’s love for us needs to be shared, it needs to be a part of a larger conversation and that in and of itself moves the whole community closer to God. He made sense and I didn’t like it; I didn’t like hearing that. I felt God and I had a very good thing going and why did I need to involve other people in the mix. So for the next few Sundays I stuck to my television worship and NFL double-header routine.
But God’s message had entered into me and I felt pulled to join a Christian community even though I did not really want to. I said to God, “Look this is good what we have here, I like being with you alone and I know I would not feel comfortable in a church full of people”. God’s response was as clear as any I have ever received. God was calling me to join a gongregation. I think I have mentioned this before, but it took me four Sundays of driving up to a church and sitting in my car and then deciding I cannot do this and driving away again before I finally walked through the door of a local church. I joined a worshiping community and my life was changed for the better and forever.
The teaching of Jesus can be very broadly divided into two categories: one being parables and the other being directives. An example of a parable would of course be The Good Samaritan. An example of a directive would be, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. The parable is a story told to illuminate a way of being so that we can learn to behave and act in a certain way under certain conditions. Parables can and in fact should be open to interpretation given the contexts of how and when we read them. The other, as the definition of the word itself would suggest, is far more direct. When Jesus says we must love our enemy, we may debate about how and when and where we might best do that, and we can discuss how well we are ready and equipped to do that, but it remains a directive – we are called to love our enemies, period.
Having said all this let me get directly to the point I would like to make. At the very end of the Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us one of my favourite directives. He says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." I know as Anglicans this quote is used many times in jest. We are expecting a big church turn out at a certain event and at the start of it only two or three are there and we say to ourselves, “Well at least according to Jesus we have achieved a quorum”. However, in reality this statement, this directive is hugely important. Jesus is saying as we gather together in a worshiping community the spirit of God becomes a part of us all. Jesus is saying the distance between God and God’s gathered community is no distance at all. Jesus is saying we are quite literally in communion with our creator and our creator abides with us in this place as we gather together. When we as Christians are gathered in the name of Jesus, even just two or three of us, we sit and worship and pray at the banquet table of God.
Let me try to explain this further by way of an example. Imagine you are sitting down at a table at one of those great holiday dinners. It might be Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, but imagine yourself sitting at some well laid out table and the smell of the food, and the light of the candles and the whole atmosphere is stunning and beautiful to all your senses. Now imagine yourself looking around that table. Who you see are your family and friends who matter to you most. They are the people you love most in the world and they are with you sharing this moment. Imagine looking at them as they eat and laugh and smile and enjoy the meal and the companionship. As you look at them you think to yourself there is so much love here, there is so much joy and peace at this moment that you kind of wish it could last forever.
Now if I may extend this example a little further let me introduce this image. Imagine Jesus sitting and looking around the table at the Last Supper. Imagine him feeling the same feelings and thoughts I just talked about as you visualized your own celebration with your own loved ones. Jesus looks around the table and says to himself these are the people I love; these are the people I have shared with so much. Jesus if filled with love and joy and peace and he dearly wished this moment could last forever. Then Jesus says to himself, “I will be with these people forever and ever”. Even though he will go through much suffering he knows God has a plan. He knows that the next few days will be difficult to endure and tragic for the people he loves sitting around that table. He knows that even though he will rise again, the road ahead for his disciples will not always be easy, in fact at times it will be exceptionally onerous and complex and most will die for their faith. As well, Jesus knows that all people from then until now and forevermore will go through challenging times as individuals and even congregations gathered in his name will on occasion have troubled waters to navigate.
But Jesus knew as he was sitting around that table God had a plan. His disciples were not to be left alone, his followers would not be left alone, and all people from then until now and forevermore would not be left alone. Jesus knew through the Holy Spirit he would be with us always. And when we worship here together, even just two or three of us, he knew that the love of God would be with us as it was around that last supper, as it is around our own banquets and feasts and as it will be as we continue to praise God with our voices, our laughter, our songs and our joy and peace. As we come up for communion together we once again join Jesus at that table and he looks at all of us and says, “These are the people I love, these are the people I have shared so much with and these are the people I will be with forever and ever”.
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." For almost one hundred and fifteen years we have been gathering together as a community here at St John’s and for all of that time in all of those worship services Jesus has been among us. Jesus is among us right now – I can feel it. God wants us to worship together in community because the message of God’s love for us needs to be shared, it needs to be a part of a larger conversation and that in and of itself moves the whole community closer to God. This is a very special Sunday as we will literally and symbolically burn our mortgage, retire our debt and in a very real way celebrate a brand new beginning. The love of God and the help and strength and commitment of this community has seen this church through some troubled waters. We now celebrate a new course and as we come up for communion as a community let us all feel the love Jesus feels for us as we feast at the banquet of God. As I sat in the pews of this very church all alone this past week I clearly heard t say to me, “you need to come back on Sunday at ten o’clock when we congregate and worship together; that’s when this place really sings, that’s when this place is fully alive”. Thanks be to God we have a quorum. Let us celebrate together. Amen.