Good morning, Friends!
Every time I ask people what their favorite verse of the Bible is, I tend to get similar answers. Everyone likes the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, maybe John 3:16. Some people mention the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Quakers often mention John 15:15, where Jesus says, “I don’t call you servants any more – I call you Friends.” That’s where we get our name from.
But one of the all-time favorite verses many people mention, is the one in today’s Scripture. It’s from Matthew chapter 18, and this is what it says.
Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.Matthew 18:19-20
This morning, if you look on the cover of your bulletin, there’s a copy of a famous picture. It’s called “The Presence in the Midst,” by the Irish Quaker artist, Doyle Penrose. You see it hanging in a lot of Quaker meetinghouses. We’ve got a copy of it, hanging up in our office area, and there’s another copy in one of the classrooms. Just about every Quaker meetinghouse in the country has a copy or two around.
It’s a very touching picture. It’s a small congregation. They’ve been gradually going downhill. There’s just a handful left. But, by golly, Quaker faith and Quaker purity make up for lack of numbers, because, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of you. . .” And very faintly, just in outline, you can really see Jesus, standing there with them.
In the picture, the people are all wearing old-fashioned clothing. That’s because, for a couple of hundred years, Quakers all wore the same style. We were kind of like our cousins, the Amish – we all wore clothing that looked back to an earlier, simpler time. You could spot a Quaker half a mile away by the clothing they wore.
They had an incredibly strong sense of community back then, because Quakers were persecuted. It was illegal to be a Quaker. You were required by law to go to the Church of England. Thousands of Quakers were sent to jail and prison in those days.
But they supported each other. There were even cases where Quakers on the outside heard about Friends in prison who were sick and dying. They offered to go to prison and take their friends’ place, so that their friends could go home and recover. They offered to exchange “body for body” as they put it, enduring the terrible suffering for the sake of their friends.
That’s community. I don’t know many people who would do that today. Their sense of community was grounded in their worship together. In the long hours of quiet prayer and heart-led, spoken ministry, they felt the presence of Christ in their midst, as something totally real.
One of the early Friends, Francis Howgill, said, “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and [God’s] heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. . .and the Lord appeared daily to us. . .insomuch that we often said to one another with great joy of heart, ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with [us]?’. . .'”
I believe that Lord still is here, in our midst. I don’t think that “two or three” means that we’re just a small group that’s going down, or that we’re just a handful of lonely and discouraged people. It means that Jesus is with us, even if we don’t see Him.
Whenever I’m studying Scripture, I always look at the context of a verse. What comes in front of it, and what comes after it? The context of this verse suggests that it has absolutely nothing to do with small numbers, in themselves.
Instead, if we look at the material surrounding this verse – which is one of everybody’s favorites – we see it really has to do with something else. It has to do with forgiveness and making peace between people.
At many points throughout the gospels, Jesus promises to be with us. After the Resurrection, he didn’t just say, “Bye now, you’re on your own!” He didn’t say, “Well, you can go ahead and do this, or do that, and it’s almost as if I’m there.”
There’s no “almost as if” about it. Jesus promised to be present. He promised to be among us, as truly and certainly as when he walked the hills of Galilee.
He said, “Go to the people of all nations, and teach them to walk with Me. Share with them the same experience of being made clean which you have found with Me. Teach them to do everything that I have told you. And I will be with you, always, till the world comes to an end. . .” That’s the Great Commission in Matthew chapter 28. He promised to be here.
Or take another example. Jesus said, “When you’re in trouble, on my account, when you’re brought in front of rulers and authorities, don’t be anxious about what you are to answer, or what you are going to say. For I will be with your mouth; and the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. . .”That’s actually in three gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. (Matthew 10:19, Mark 13:11, Luke 12:11-12)
Or take another example. Jesus said, “At the Last Judgment, people will come before Me, and I will say, `Come, you who are blessed! Come and receive the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world was created. For when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. And when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me; I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear. I was sick, and you took care of Me. I was in prison, and you visited Me. . .'”
And Jesus said that everybody would be puzzled, and that we’d ask, “Lord, when on earth were You around? When did we see You, or help You?”
And Jesus is going to say, “As you did all these things to the least, to the lowliest, to the poorest and most forgotten of my brothers and my sisters, I was there. I was present. You did it to Me. . .” (Matthew 25:31-45)
See, we all tend to think that Jesus has gone away, that he died a couple of thousand years ago, and we’ve been struggling along without him ever since. But according to the gospel, and according to our own experience, Jesus is present on all these occasions.
When we share God’s kingdom, when we visit the sick and care for the poor, when we feed the hungry and care for prisoners, then Christ is present. Christ is right beside us. Christ is in our midst.
In today’s reading, another special time when Christ is present is revealed to us. Christ is present, when we forgive each other, and reconcile, and make peace.
If you look for just a minute, at the context, at some of the stories which come just before today’s reading and just after it, this gets really clear.
If you look at verse 15, Jesus talks about what to do when somebody has hurt us. It’s a very simple, concrete list of directions. First, he says, go and talk to the person privately, and explain what happened. Tell them that you’ve been hurt. A lot of the time, that’s all it takes.
And so many times, we never get that far. We never take that first step. Only God knows how many hurts we carry around, because we don’t do what Jesus told us to do.
If you go to somebody in private, one-on-one, and get them to listen to you, then you’ve won. Actually, it’s even better than that. You both won! The relationship is restored. And Jesus is there with you.
If the person doesn’t listen, Jesus said, take one or two other people along with you, and try again. Sometimes, just having a couple of people present, just as neutral listeners, just as witnesses, can help.
And if that doesn’t work, Jesus said, maybe a larger group can help listen. For some people, knowing that the whole group is praying for a better resolution, can affect the outcome.
What Jesus is describing here is actually very similar to modern methods of counseling and conflict resolution. Get people talking to each other. Get people listening. And Jesus is there with us.
Then there’s kind of an interesting or problematic section. In verse 18, right before we started reading today, Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. . .”
I think that Jesus is saying that the responsibility for making things better is up to us.
It’s up to us to free each other, to loose each other, to set each other free to live and love, by forgiving each other from our very hearts. God can forgive us, but we need to forgive each other. That’s what Jesus means.
Then I want you to look on the other side of today’s Scripture. Remember, my point today is that context is important. Our Scripture today says, “Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I am among you. . .”
But then, on the other side, Peter asks a question. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times do I have to go through all this rigmarole? When can I say, `Enough!’? How many times do I have to go through all this business of trying, and trying again? What’s the limit?”
I think that’s a fair question. I think that there ought to be some kind of a practical limit, some kind of a “Statute of Limitations” on forgiveness.
How many times do I have to feel insulted? How many times do I have to turn the other cheek? How many times do I have to pick up the other person’s trash, or listen to them sound off? How many times to I have to put up with some other person’s stupidity, or laziness, or cluelessness?
The trouble is, if we have that kind of a limitation, then we start to count. We say, “OK, once, I’ve forgiven them. Twice, I’ve forgiven them. Three times, I’ve gone the extra mile. Now, by golly, buster, I’m going to give it to you, right between the eyes! Wham!”
Do you see what I mean? Forgiveness just doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a list. It isn’t a check-off sheet. It’s a deep-down hunger for healing, for things to be right, for things to get better to or to get back to the way they were meant to be. The only limitation which Jesus placed on forgiveness was to say, “As many times, and as long as it takes. . .”
Didn’t Jesus do that with us? Doesn’t Jesus put up with our mess, time and time again? If Jesus is willing to forgive us, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same?
I know I make mistakes! I make them every day! Sometimes it’s the same mistake. Sometimes I get creative. I can make six mistakes before breakfast. Just ask my family – they’ll tell you! I lose count of how many mistakes I make during the day. I don’t intend to hurt the other person, but somehow I do it anyway.
And Jesus says, the only thing to do is to forgive. Go to them in private, go with a couple of friends, ask the group to listen, but forgive. It’s the only way, the only way to be free.
And then the final story that comes after today’s Scripture is the story Jesus told about the Unforgiving Servant. You know, the one where the king says, “Come on in, folks, it’s time to square things up, and settle accounts. . .”
Servant #1 comes in, and this person owes an incredible debt. It’s like the U.S. national debt, it’s so big. Nobody could possibly, ever in a thousand years, manage to pay it off.
And the first servant says, “Lord, I’m so sorry. Please be patient with me. I’ll do my best.” The first servant falls to the floor, on his knees, pleading for just a little time to pay it back. I mean, this first servant really puts on a big act!
And the king says, “OK. You’re off the hook. It’s all right.”
But then, Servant #1 goes outside and runs into Servant #2, who has borrowed a much smaller amount of money from Servant #1. And Servant #1 decides to put the screws to the next person, and takes him by the throat, and shakes him, and gives him nougies, and screams in his face, “Pay me back! Give me my money!”
And everybody else, who sees what’s going on, runs and tells the king. And the king hauls Servant #1 back in and says, “I forgave you, because you pleaded with me. You begged me. And I did. The least that you could have done, was to have forgiven one of your own fellow-servants.”
And then the king says, “Take this guy out of here, and lock him up, and throw away the key, till he pays every penny that he owes.”
And then Jesus said, “This story is about every one of you. You are that first servant, unless you forgive one another from your hearts. . .”
That is the context of everybody’s favorite little verse in the Bible. Those are the things that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Where two or three of you are gathered together, there I am in the midst of you. . .”
Jesus is present, Jesus is really and truly and completely present, when our purpose for being together is forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus is right there by our side.
Jesus can do miracles, he can move mountains, if we can take that first, small step back towards a restored relationship with each other.
The thing to remember, in all of our efforts, is that we’re not alone. Where only two or three are gathered, in the name of Jesus, for the purpose of forgiveness, and reconciliation, with sincere hearts, then Christ is present among them, in person.
And the miracle of healing and peace can happen again, and Christ is present with us — today.