Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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We invoke it every time that we have a meeting and only a few people show up. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” At a barely-attended meeting, to say it can be a bit of a joke--a sort of gallows humor--an attempt to say that it is still worth doing what we set out to do, appearances to the contrary. But, really, whenever we speak these words we should realize that we are also giving expression to a deep faith and hope. At least, we should be. For in the context of dwindling numbers in the local or universal church, to quote these words is to express hope and joy. No matter what the numbers, Christ remains with us. We are no less the church.

            Realizing that should give us an important insight into our calling. Yes, we are called to speak the gospel to the world. Yes, we are to change the world, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to speak truth to power. But when the world doesn’t hear, as it so often doesn’t, well, that doesn’t make any difference. As long as there are two or three gathered in his name, Christ is with us. We are no less the Church for being small. We are no more the Church for being big and a cultural force. If we are gathered in his name, he is here and his presence is what makes the Church the heart of God’s kingdom, the place where there is the love and knowledge of God.

            That is important to know. It is also comforting and encouraging because it is not just a future promise for when times are hard; it has also been our reality at crucial times in the past. When the prophet Elijah had to flee from the wrath of a really mad and idolatrous queen, he thought nobody else of faith was left in Israel, that he was the only one, that it was all over. As it turned out, there weren’t many left. But there were some, and God assured Elijah that he would use all of them to restore the kingdom. And he did. When the prophet Isaiah preached years later, and the Word he was told to preach fell on deaf ears, God told him to bind up his prophecy and just tell it to the small community of the prophet’s disciples. That community, in due time, God promised, would be a branch that would sprout from the blackened stump of Israel, and that sprout would become a living tree, a living, fruitful tree. The future was in the small, not the big and it was there because God the Word was there among them, even when there were only two or three.

            Some thinkers have pushed the thought even further. For them, those times when there are just two or three gathered are actually the times when the Church is at its most authentic. Simone Weil, for example, once noted that Jesus said that he would be there whenever two or three were gathered in his name. He didn’t say, though, she noted, that he would be there when there were a thousand or more. What she intended by that remark was a biting critique of what is called the herd mentality. When we become too large, when being part of the herd is important, and individual thought is lost in the commonplace and in clichés, then those gathered in his name become an “us” or a “we” that is defined against a “them.” When that happens, surely Christ is not there. So, she is counseling, beware of numbers. They’re not what you might think they are.

            But that negative criticism is, I think, only a part of what she meant by her remark. There is also something far more positive that underlies it. What that is, is that Christ is present and in our midst whenever we form friendships and seek the truth together, something that rarely happens in large groups. We need to remember that and should never substitute the smugness of a group identity for the deep, common quest of genuine friendship.

            The medieval monk and saint, Aelred of Rielvaux, is known for a book he wrote that is simply titled Spiritual Friendship. It is, as the title suggests, an examination of friendship, but the investigation is undertaken as a dialogue between friends, as is appropriate.  It begins with Aelred saying to his friend, Ivo, these words: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.” In the beginning of a quest to understand one of the most important things in human life, Aelred gives voice to Christ’s promise. If there is friendship in a quest to know God, then God will be part of that friendship and will make it the important thing that it should be. If there is friendship questing to know the truth, then Christ is present because Christ is the Truth.

            Understand carefully what both Aelred and Weil are trying to get us to understand. They are not just saying that Christ blesses friendships or that Christianity, among other more important things, also values friendship. They are saying something far stronger, namely, that friendship is essential to understanding Christian truth. There is no understanding, no possession of Christian truth, which is to say, Christ himself, unless there are two or three gathered in his name, unless there is friendship. The understanding of Christ’s truth is friendship with Christ, and so it is friendship with all of Jesus’ friends, too. You can’t have it any other way. You can with mathematics. That you can do alone. You can’t, however, do it alone with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

            Why? Consider what Jesus himself says about friendship. Towards the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the disciples “friends.” He says that they have reached the point in their relationship with him that he will no longer call them servants. You tell servants what to do, and they are expected to do it. It doesn’t matter what they think of you, or you of them. They believe, too, at least outwardly, what they are told to believe. But friends stand to each other in a different way. There is a relationship of intimacy, one of sharing. A certain kind of truth that is knowable in no other way than by intimacy can then be revealed and known when there is friendship. Jesus says as much to his friends, for he tells them that he calls them friends “because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” What the Son has heard in intimate communication from the Father, he now shares with his friends, who are drawn into the circle.

            Now, that is pretty heady stuff and it may make our heads spin to think it out. But it is not really all that strange to our experience. I think we all recognize that there are certain truths that can be known only through intimacy. In friendships, we know something of another person that we would never know unless that person were our friend. She would never tell us otherwise for there are certain things we will only trust to friends. In marriages, we know what we do of the other person because of shared intimacy. That intimacy is not just feeling, it is a trusting relationship that has come about because of shared values, because of hard won trust, because of a common quest for what is good. On the other hand, if you don’t believe that the other person is looking for the same good things you are, you won’t trust him or her, and you won’t reveal yourself. I suspect that the question of whether to reveal yourself or not to another person is really the ongoing central dynamic of virtually all friendships and would-be friendships, and when either party comes to believe that there is no longer a common quest in intimacy then the relationship dies.

            Now, those sorts of truths I have just cited are personal truths, that is, truths about ourselves. But friendship can also be a crucial factor in understanding other kinds of truth as well. There are other kinds of truth that also demand the intimacy of friendship to be known. Let me give a personal example. For me, as for many who have been in a similar position, graduate school was an important, exciting time. Every week there were new ideas, earth-shaking ideas to which we were introduced. The experience could, at times, be that of the mind on fire, and that was exciting. But where I found that most to be the case was not in the classroom, where we listened to lectures. For a couple of years, it came on Fridays during lunch, where a friend and I met for lunch with our mentor at his house. Together we read philosophical and theological works of common interest. It was not a matter of our mentor teaching us what we didn’t know, although he certainly knew more about philosophy and theology than we did. What we read and talked about actually was not his expertise. We talked about books that all of us, including him, wanted to know more about. So, what we were all doing was really a matter of a common quest. It was a wonderful experience. But what was most important about it was that it taught all of us, mentor included, something about the nature of philosophy and theology. For those are knowledges that, if we really get what they are about, affect how we understand ourselves and how we understand where we are in the world. That is the sort of knowledge that you can’t just read about, or ever put down in lecture notes. It isn’t a matter of information, even very detailed information. Rather, it is the sort of knowledge that can only be known, really known, by people who have friends, who have known friendship, and who have worked with friends to get that knowledge.

            I do not think that the sort of knowledge that is gained through the common quest of friends is limited to philosophy and theology, so you don’t have to just take my word for it that there is this kind of knowledge. I think there are a number of fields where something like this can come into play. They probably include most of the professions. I think it certainly includes medicine and teaching. But, in any case, it is certainly how it is with the knowledge of God that is available to all God’s children. The knowledge of God is not something that can just be told; what is important about it cannot be condensed into a lecture or even many lectures. It is not a commandment to a servant. It isn’t even a set of values, at least as most people talk about having values. It is the sort of knowledge that only comes from a common quest with friends. The concern, the trust, the putting of oneself into the quest, all go into that knowledge, and without those things, there is no real knowledge of God.

            Now, to put it that way may say something about the sad state of affairs with respect to the knowledge of God in our time. There is little of it, because there is little spiritual friendship or community in our time. Both, of course, do occur in the church, including our church. Don’t ever doubt it. I have delighted in session meetings where there is a common quest that is born of respect and trust and a common goal. The same is true, I am sure, of deacon meetings, and it is true in our various Bible studies. People do learn together in all these activities. But there are plenty of places where it isn’t happening, and where it isn’t happening is where we have become weak. Whenever we assume that Christianity is just a set of commands, or a matter of just believing certain things, or of civilized values, or even of private experience, we may have a shadowy image of Christianity, but we don’t have Christ the Truth present.

            Christian faith certainly faces a lot of challenges in our time, so much so that when we gather these days there may be only two or three. Too often, though, as we worry about the numbers, we focus on the external challenges – the vacuous, lonely culture of individualism and personal achievement. They certainly are problems and they should be met head on. But, too often, we don’t realize that the greatest challenge is internal. The greatest challenge is that we don’t come together as friends engaged in a common quest that is completed by Christ’s presence in our friendship very often. I suspect that, above all, is what young people aren’t getting, it is what they aren’t seeing, and that is why they can remain as indifferent as they do to the great depths and heights of religious life. They just haven’t seen it, and there have been few, if any, who have been willing to engage them in a common quest with Christ as their companion or even to show them how it is done by being good examples of spiritual friendship. To those of you have done that or been that example, well, I say “congratulations” and “thanks.” You have done a great thing.

            It is reassuring to know that whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, that Christ will be there, too. It is reassuring to know that when Christ is present, the whole church is there, and the fullness of God’s presence completes it and crowns it. Numbers don’t matter. But we ought also to be disquieted by the fact that Christ’s presence is not something we can take for granted, that numbers, great or small, don’t guarantee his presence, and don’t make for a church. Yes, when two or three are gathered in his name, he will always be there. But the two or three have to gather together in his name; there has to be the common quest of friends, for them to be able to say that Christ is there. In our times, far too often, we don’t get even two or three engaged in the quest of friendship. For that reason, engaging each other as friends may well be more important than anything else we do. The effectiveness of anything we do here depends absolutely on the friendship of gathering together in a common quest. So, as we begin a new program year, let me simply ask that you seek each other out, that together you may seek God. If you do, Christ will surely be here, just as he promises.