Text: Matthew 18:15-20 (gathered in Jesus’ name)
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” For me, this is one of the most encouraging sayings of Jesus. Hearing it again helps me feel less anxious about being “successful” as a church.
The Way of Jesus is not about worldly success. It is a path that leads to new life through pain or loss.
Sometimes huge numbers flock to this path. But even when there are only two or three of us, we know that God in Christ is with us.
On the other hand, to raise our voices in praise, to serve our neighbours in love, and to refine our values, we need each other — to practice anthems on Thursday evenings, to help with the Bread Run on Saturday mornings, to remember and give thanks on Sundays, and so on.
Today, in reflecting on church numbers and on what it means to gather in Jesus’ name, I begin with a simple question: just what is Jesus’ name?
The answer is not necessarily straightforward. In Jesus’ day, no one would have greeted him as “Jesus.” Jesus is a Greek name, but he spoke Aramaic.
Jesus’ friends would have called him “Yeshua,” which is an Aramaic name that is equivalent to Joshua in Hebrew and Jesus in Greek.
Jesus is the only name in the New Testament that is not translated from Greek. In English translations, Petros becomes Peter, Paulous becomes Paul, Miriam becomes Mary, and Yosef becomes Joseph. But for some reason, Jesus stays Jesus and is not translated into English as Joshua or Josh.
Perhaps translators don’t translate the name Jesus because it is the one under which we gather and in whose power we pray. Perhaps they worry about getting it wrong.
And indeed, Jesus is not just any old name. It is a contraction of the phrase “YHWH is salvation,” YHWH being the God of the Israelites.
The Bible also uses many metaphors to name Jesus: Living Water, the Bread of Life, the True Vine, the Narrow Gate, Lamb of God, Suffering Servant, Son of David . . .
Then there is the word “Christ.” An old joke says that Jesus’ parents are called Mary and Joseph Christ. But as you know, Christ is not a surname. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, which in English means “God’s Anointed.” It is the title given to the kings of Israel.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection change everything. After Easter, Jesus still bears the title Christ, but he is not the warrior his followers hoped for. Instead, he is a king who reigns in our hearts. After Easter, the meaning of Christ changes.
After Easter, Jesus is still a revelation of God, but he is no longer a revelation only of his namesake, YHWH, the tribal god of Israel. Jesus is now a symbol of the Divine for all people. The meaning of God changes.
How we choose to name the Divine can unite or divide us. If we insist that the divine name must be YHWH or Allah or Shiva or Jesus, many people will feel excluded.
But what if we use Love as the divine name? God is Love, which is why sometimes we refer to the Trinity as Source of Love, Love Incarnate, and Love’s Power.
Gathering under the name of Love can unite us, I believe. If we gather in the name of Love, it doesn’t matter so much to me whether it is also under a banner that says Catholic, Anglican, United or Pentecostal of whether the gathering is with people who first trusted the Eight-Fold Path of the Buddha or the Five Pillars of Islam.
This is not to argue that we should erase all distinctions between denominations and religions. The specifics of each path matters.
Ethel Ray brought a saying of Kahil Gibran’s to my attention this week that speaks to this issue. Gibran wrote: “Say not: ‘I have found the one true path of the Spirit!’ Say rather: ‘I have met the Spirit walking on my path.’ For Spirit walks on all paths.”
For those of us gathered today, our path is the Way of the Cross as it has been shaped over the last 90 years by the United Church of Canada.
But in this era of declining church numbers – something that has been evident in Canada for 50 years now — I wonder if denominations may become a thing of the past. If this were to happen, it would not be without pain.
In 2013, a consultation of United Church members revealed a strong attachment to the image of our denomination as open, welcoming, and justice- seeking. We may fear that working with people from other denominations will clash with values such as equal treatment for men and women. I agree that this is a challenge. But as Jesus says, with God everything is possible.
On the Christian path, the death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Among other things, the impact of Christ’s resurrection helps free me from anxiety about the precise meanings of the teachings and healings of Jesus. We take the pre-Easter details seriously and learn from them endlessly. But the Risen Christ casts them in a different light.
Something similar happens in the crucifixions and rebirths of our lives. When we survive a baptism by fire, our past looks different and we are liberated from old distractions. The trials of our lives refine our desires and priorities, and often they improve our ability to give and receive love.
Today, we have gathered again in Jesus’ name, and in numbers greater than two or three. And I give thanks for all the activities that occur at Mill Woods United and the networks of friendship and love that weave us into a colourful quilt.
I feel blessed by it all — by plans for Tuesday morning Bible study, a Wednesday evening sharing circle, Thursday evening choir practices, groups like Stitching Connection, and ongoing mission projects like the Bread Run, the clothing bank, and the food depot. I pray that you also feel blessed by them.
Joining in worship and mission projects at Mill Woods United allows us to reach out to our neighbours in solidarity and compassion. This work makes a difference, not just to the neighbourhood, but to ourselves. It nurtures our spirits and souls and keeps us awake to the beauty of joy of life in all its ups and downs.
Love makes the difference. And so we will continue to gather in response to Love’s call — in twos and threes, or in scores and hundreds.
Today we have gathered in the name of Jesus and under the banner of the United Church of Canada. Whether or not our denominational name will still be used 50 years from now, we know that all people are united at the deepest and most sacred level, the level we call Love.
And whenever people gather in the name of Love, God will be there.
Thanks be to God.