“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” Matthew 18:15
The writer Stuart Murray tells numerous stories about the about the world we are moving into. He begins his book, ‘Post-Christendom’ with two anecdotes:
‘In a London school a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and he is fascinated by this amazing story. Risking his friends’ mockery, after the lesson he thanks her for the story. One thing had disturbed him, so he asks: ‘Why did they give the baby a swear word for his name?’
‘One Sunday in Oxford a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative-arts project the church runs. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks: ‘What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!’
Stuart Murray would suggest that we have a lot of work to do, that we can no longer assume things anymore. We have to ask ourselves what it is that we believe, what it is that we are trying to tell to other people, how we are going to persuade people that coming to church is important to their lives.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, says Jesus. Isn’t this what coming to church is about? Isn’t this the very heart of what we believe, that he is here with us? We join together in worship Sunday by Sunday because we believe that this life is not the end. We believe that through Jesus from Nazareth, we have a hope of a life beyond this one. We believe that through believing we will be reunited with our loved ones in a life beyond all our imagination. Isn’t that why we come here? If we do not believe he is here, then why do we come?
‘I am there among them’, says Jesus. But how will people recognize his presence in the new Ireland we live in? Things have changed beyond recognition—the old values, the old beliefs, the old ways have been thrown out. ‘How will anyone have a chance to believe unless someone tells them, and who is there to tell them, except us? Stuart Murray would challenge us, what are you doing to tell people about Jesus?
The story is being forgotten, not just in England. Fewer and fewer people here in Ireland know anything about their faith. Taking Fifth and Sixth Classes weekly in the National School in Dublin, with young people who would have had seven or eight years of Church of Ireland education, most of them had very scant idea of the Christian story.
Where do we start? One thing’s for sure, in twenty years’ time the scenery will have changed completely. The church will have disappeared in many places. How will people have a chance to be aware of Jesus’ presence, if there is no church to tell them?
We have to be creative, we have to use our imagination, we have to be able to care for our own people and to reach out to the people around. I like Australians and my favourite Stuart Murray story, one I have told repeatedly, is about ‘The Water-Ski Church’.
There was a man who belonged to an Australian church, but he suffered ADHD, so trying to read words on paper, or trying to sit and listen to someone speaking was very difficult. Sunday by Sunday he went to church, but it got to the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore. He ran a water ski school and decided one Sunday morning to go water skiing instead.
He met up with a group of guys down on the beach, but was feeling bad about not being in church. As he was providing the equipment he decided it was right that he should suggest they have a prayer. ‘Hey guys’, he said, ‘it’s Sunday. Is it OK if we have a prayer before we begin?’. But what were they going to pray about? He asked for suggestions. One man said he was unemployed and needed a job, another said his grandmother wasn’t well—so they prayed.
The following Sunday they met down on the beach. The unemployed guy had got a job and the other guy’s grandmother had improved. They decided that praying was an OK thing to do.
The Sunday water ski-ing group has grew to sixty Australian men. They met for prayer and bible study at the beginning of the day. They broke bread at a barbecue at lunchtime and spent the rest of the day as a community water skiing.
They were people who hadn’t gone near traditional churches, but someone had used their imagination to reach out to them. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ . Jesus doesn’t say that church has to be done in a certain way, nor does Jesus say that the church must be an institution.
The church can exist without denominational organizations, it can exist without hierarchies, it can exist even without bishops. Jesus does not say that the two or three who meet to together must have all the things that we would associate with being a church; even if there were nothing left of the Church of Ireland except ourselves meeting together, Jesus would still be here and we would still be part of his church.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is here, present with us now. When we have that confidence, it makes us different people and it makes us a different church.