where two or three are gathered

I just sent this in to Jesus Radicals...

"'When two or three are gathered together in my name.'
Not just one. But not a hundred either. Two or three." —Simone Weil

Among community-minded Christians, one of the most cherished and repeated sayings of Jesus is his promise, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” These few simple words emphasize Jesus’ presence among his followers when they come together. This promise comes right after Jesus’ specific instructions about handling conflict and wrongdoing among his followers, another teaching close to the hearts of many Christians living in community:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does no listen, take one or two others with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt 18.15-17)
But do we follow these practical and important instructions? And could Jesus’ words here (along with the example of his life) be offering us a model for addressing other challenges in community as well, in other areas besides sin and reconciliation?

When it comes to interpersonal conflict and wrongdoing, I’ve found that Christians in community often respond very much like people in any other organization. The first step is often an appeal to authority. Either a complaint to someone in a leadership position or an appeal to an established community rule, or maybe an attempt to establish a new rule for the group to prevent such conflicts in the future. I’ve heard leaders often express frustration about how many people come to them with their problems, especially problems between community members. And I’ve sat through countless meetings where rules and structures are proposed to provide a way for challenges (such as interpersonal conflict in the community) to be addressed fairly and decisively.

But what did Jesus tell us about this? He said that when we feel we have been wronged, we are supposed to act personally first, person to person. And only bring in one or two others if our personal attempt fails, and as a last resort bring it before the whole community. It seems that, in Jesus’ opinion, the authority of community leaders is not required, even in a difficult situation like unresolved conflict between members. And Jesus’ approach always focuses on restoring the personal relationships, and restoring the wrongdoer to unity with God and God’s people, something that can not be accomplished by community rules or laws. What I find most appealing, though, in Jesus’ approach to a challenge like this is that it starts so small and allows us to act right away. We don’t need an authority or a community meeting to begin. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about this in areas of community life beyond personal reconciliation. There are many other challenges for Christian communities, whether churches or shared households or intentional communities, that often are handled much the same way as in any other human organization. Like when there is a financial crisis, or the need for maintenance or repairs, the desire to improve the property or start a new ministry, or personal problems within a family. Again, the approach is often to appeal to the leaders first or make a proposal at a community meeting. Which can tie up a perfectly good idea in long discussions or second guessing by leaders who feel responsible for the actions of the group. Because it’s hard to convince a large number of people of anything, even a good idea, without the idea being whittled away by multiple compromises. And a leader can feel burdened by the responsibility of their office so that they become very hesitant about taking risks. Coming up against this in community can leave us feeling frustrated and hesitant to act when we are inspired by ways to improve our life together.

But how did Jesus approach such challenges? I see his response to be very similar to his teaching about handling sin and reconciliation among his followers. As he taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when we see a need, we should respond immediately and personally. That’s how we love our neighbor. And if we are unable to meet the need or make the improvement ourselves, we should ask a few others to help. We see this when Jesus was inspired to begin his ministry. He didn’t appeal to the leaders of the synagogue or try to convince his community that it should happen. He just gathered a few other people that were inspired with him. Jesus didn’t have to convince his whole community that it was a good idea before he could begin, he just had to find a few others to step forward beside him. Later many others supported what Jesus and his disciples were doing. But to begin he just needed a few.

My wife and I have been using a similar approach in starting a retreat ministry for the poor. We now have the support of our families and others on the communal farm we live on, but to get to that point we had to begin with God’s leading that only we and a few others heard. Only when we got to the point of needing the support of a whole community did we bring the issue before the gathered assembly. Some close friends of ours took a similar step when they felt pulled towards a life shared closely with the very poor. They couldn’t convince their whole community to move in that direction, but they found each other and that was enough to begin. Now they live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, still members and with the support of their original community, but also expanding their community as God provides new friends and family. My most recent experiments in starting small have to do with the pressing maintenance needs on the property of the aging community here. By responding personally I began to see how much help I could offer, what a good way this was to show love for my neighbors, and I quickly learned new skills and discovered a few teachers and supporters to come alongside. And needs are being met, by God’s grace. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Often the interpersonal and organizational needs of a community can seem overwhelming and hopelessly tangled because of the complexity of human lives and the history of many overlapping relationships. There’s the tendency to try to find an overarching solution, a structure or plan that will reorder the community and point the way forward. But the complexity of community life, the push and pull of many unique individuals, resists such overarching solutions, and attempts to impose them can leave us endlessly frustrated. Jesus tells us instead to stay small and personal. Don’t try to handle fifty relationships or organize fifty people, when there are important practical ways we can improve two or three relationships in our community, or when the need could be met with the love of two or three people, or even one. Jesus’ teaching focuses almost completely on how to love our neighbor, how to interact with the person in front of us. And that’s where his teachings are most easily and effectively applied.

When we act as Jesus’ taught us, with faith in his presence among us “where two or three are gathered in my name,” then it doesn’t matter that our efforts are small. It doesn’t matter that our strength is too small to meet the whole need or our knowledge too small to untangle the persistent and complex challenge. Because Jesus is with us. And, with God, nothing is impossible.

(This essay can be downloaded as a RTF file here.)