“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Jesus is saying many things here, but one we often miss is that He is referring to His family gathering ‘together’ in this passage. The Greek word for “gathered” here is synegmenoi, which comes from the word sunago, which means “to lead, to assemble, to gather together”, and in this instance it is referring to a gathering at a particular place. Where is that place? Jesus makes it clear to us when he says: “In my name.” The gathering together around, or in a name, is referring to a family gathering, where families would gather together according to their ‘name.’ A family reunion of sorts.
The beloved apostle John tells us in the prologue of his account of Jesus’ life, that “he came to his own [people], and [they] did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed ‘in his name’, he gave the right to become ‘children of God’,” (John 1:11-12, emphasis mine). To believe in Jesus’ name, his family tree, his divine heritage, is to become part of his family, to receive his name. The Church, at the core of it’s function, is a family gathering in Jesus’ name. Often times, in our pursuit to shape a certain form of church, we miss and lose the function.
Family, it’s the basic unit of society. It’s the place where we share our lives together; where we find belonging. It’s a place, in the case of a healthy family at least, where pretense is absent, where we don’t need our masks, where we run to for comfort and rest. In the family unit, everybody knows one another by name and “real presence” is lived out and practiced intimately, the way Jesus intended His family to relate.
If only two or three of the family members get together, it’s still considered a family get together. The same his true for the Church. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, he is there “in the midst of them”, honoring the family gathering. If Jesus is in the midst, if he is the center, the focus, the chief reason for the gathering, then those two or three, and others who are watching, are experiencing and witnessing the mystery of the Bride, the gathered Church, Emmanuel, God with us.
There is nowhere in all of Scripture where anyone stressed, directly or indirectly, the supposed importance of gathering in large numbers. The twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) Western (modern) Church has been trained and formed to do most things in a big way. “The larger the better”, we often say. Many Church gatherings of today have become incredible multimedia events, supposing that the numbers justify the means. Concerned with numerical growth, and the supposed need for the Church to appeal to the masses, this new program-driven machine, mass manufactures unique religious experiences, tailored to appeal to the interests and cater to the comfort of a specific demographic or a specific tribe or local church.
This form has been so pervasive, that even small churches have invested great amounts of money to compete with large church technology and programs. We desperately need new forms that affirm the smaller gatherings as beautiful in God’s sight if Christ is the center of the gathering, and not have the small church pastors feel like failures for not becoming the next famous pastor with 100’s or 1000’s of butts in their seats.
One of the great preachers of the twentieth century, A.W.Tozer, says this: ”One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization does not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team.”
We need to re-learn the basic math of Christ’s kingdom: 2 or 3 gathering in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God; in street terms, the Church. I like to call this the Mustard Seed Church; small intimate gatherings, patiently working together across the world to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, producing great fruit and large trees for many to come and find food, shelter, and shade over the centuries. This Mustard Seed Church is more of a new ethos than a new form. It can be experienced through larger gatherings as well, but it will take much intention and many challenges to leadership and congregants alike, to abandon the thinking that the big crowd and good feeling worship is somehow more church than the small street gathering around the corner.
But the catch to this basic family gathering is that formations come and go, and transformation is messy and slow. Picture change within your own family structure. If you’re family is anything like mine, we all love each other, but are radically different, and appreciating the beauty of diversity and arriving at a place of unity within our diversity, takes hard work, commitment to staying together, and patience over the long haul. This is what “church work” is supposed to look like; small family gatherings, patient brothers and sisters slowly maturing along with other family members, keeping their home and table open to sojourners and guests, all with a heart to be reconciled together in Christ. But as we know, families don’t always choose to live in truth and work through the pain and tension.
Jesus, in explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples, said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19) I don’t think Jesus is wanting us to take this literally, but rather wanted us to understand the nature of a mustard seed, the smallest known seed in his day, that very slowly, and slowly is the key word here, over the course of a season, would grow into a large, fruitful bush that offered much to it’s immediate environment. It’s an agricultural understanding of growth, which is slow and arduous.
The Church, like the kingdom, is organic, pliable, easily shaped into various forms, and in Jesus’ words, is like the mustard seed. By looking at a dead mustard seed, you cannot tell what the plant will look like when it’s full-grown. The pattern is in the seed and every seed is different and unique; it will bear fruit after its kind, but in different patterns and forms. In the same way, the Church has its own divine DNA and will grow accordingly as God sees fit, from era to era, and context to context.
Immediately after the mustard seed parable, Jesus shares another parable about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like on earth: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) For those concerned with Church growth, this passage ought to be on your radar! A very small amount of leaven is powerful enough to leaven a whole batch of bread.
Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, in a home, in the office place, a courtyard, a community center, or a church building, or a downtown park, are leaven. These small intimate, intentional gatherings, are like a mustard seed, or a little leaven, that makes all those around them, watching them, rise up and become who they were supposed to be, but this is a slow process. The witness of a family gathering’s visible love for each other, declaring the love of Christ next door, upstairs, or outside, that is the purpose of being the Church.
Jesus did not send us to entertain the world, but to go into it, underground like a seed, or smothered in the middle of it like leaven in flour, with the subtle and yet overwhelming dynamic of His love, in the context of being a family. This is the Mustard Seed Church, or the Leaven Church, where just a little bit goes a long way. It is a matter of keeping the right math, or the right ingredients: 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God, or as Lesslie Newbigin says, “The Household of God.” These ingredients will always change the world in huge ways. Do you believe that?
Often times our belief is hindered by layers of Church culture that has sold us many false notions of success. Pope Francis has been an outspoken proponent of the Church reforming not in form as much as a reform of our hearts, our ethos. In one of his many profound speeches he has made, he has said this about the Church: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.” We need to hear those words and let them sink into our ethos.
“Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 of the leavened dough and the mustard seed remind us that God’s transformation comes slowly, working outward from the place where the change begins. In an age when instant gratification reigns supreme, the lesson of these parables is provocative and surprisingly insistent—but this seems to be the way God usually works in the world.” Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith and Pattison, 24.