For me it is interesting to note the different emphases of the various gospel writers. For instance, Mark is the shortest gospel, but when it tells stories about Jesus they are usually the longest and most lively. Matthew and Luke are longer gospels, but have shorter stories and then use that space to record more of the teaching of Jesus.
And then there is the contrast between the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Luke compared to that of the Gospel of Matthew. Luke has quite a bit more material on the Spirit. Yet, having said that we have in Matthew two statements about the presence of Jesus with us that do not show up in Luke or anywhere else and have to do with what we understand to be the work of the Spirit, that is, making Jesus present to us.
I want us to look at these –
Promises of Jesus’ presence
– from the Gospel of Matthew this morning because I believe they have a word to speak to us today.
The first one is found in 1. Matthew 18:20. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The broader context of this verse is found in vs. 15-19, talking about faithfulness and unfaithfulness among believers and forgiveness or discipline. “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 not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
And then comes the promise, our focus, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
And then exactly ten chapters later, from the very last words of the gospel comes the second example. 2. Matthew 28:20. Jesus says, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”
This comes after his resurrection and as he commissions his disciples to carry out his task to preach the gospel to all nations vs. 18-19 – “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’”
And then comes the promise, our focus, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Let me share first of all –
Four quick notes on both of these promises
1. Both are given to the community of believers
- In Matthew 18:20 the “two or three,” are gathered in his name and are thus functioning as a church body; a gathering of believers.
- In Matthew 28:20 the context is the commission Jesus has just given to his church as a whole.
Jesus promises his presence in our midst as we gather as his people. This isn’t to say that Jesus isn’t present with us as individuals. It just means that there is a special promise here of Jesus’ presence for us as a community of believers.
2. Both have to do with us doing the work of Jesus
- In Matthew 18:20 the work is internal to the church community; church discipline as vs. 15-19 talk about. We are carrying on his work of shepherding the flock.
- In Matthew 28:20 the work is external to the church; connecting with and bringing new people into the community. We are completing his work of preaching, discipling and baptizing.
Jesus promises to be with us as we gather to do his work. Now, this doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t present with us as we gather for other things, like hanging out as friends and so forth. But the focus of these promises has to do with doing his kingdom work.
3. The work in both has to do with faithfulness to Jesus
- Matthew 18:20 is about dealing with issues of faithfulness in our midst. Working with believers who struggle and fail. Working with those who want to move forward in faith and forgiveness and those who don’t. And accountability to their baptismal commitments when they don’t.
- Matthew 28:20 is about discipling new Christians. Teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded. Making their baptismal commitments in the first place and committing to be accountable to this.
Both have to do with one’s place in the community. Matthew 28:20 with entrance into the community through baptism and the commitment to faithfulness that this is. And Matthew 18:20 has to do with possible exit from the church around issues of unfaithfulness.
Jesus promises to be with us as we call each other and all people to faithfulness to Jesus.
Finally, I would say that 4. Both have to do with very difficult situations
- Matthew 18:20 is about calling people to change. Calling them to move from failure, broken relationships, hurt and pain to restoration. These situations usually test relationships within the church – our ability to accept leadership, our willingness to hold each other accountable and our ability to forgive. I’ve been involved in these settings both in private contexts and also public ones. They can be both complicated and painful.
- Matthew 28:20 is about calling people to change as well. We all those coming to Christ to confess failures and sins and to deal with them in preparation for baptism. I remember one woman who was in a baptism class who said, after hearing Scriptural teaching on sexual purity, that she was not ready to give up her practices. The honesty was refreshing, but it did eventually lead to her leaving the congregation.
So, why these promises?
Why do these unique promises of Jesus’ presence show up in these contexts? Why does he promise to be with us:
- as we gather as a church
- as we do his work
- as we work at core issues of faithfulness
- as we work in what can be difficult situations?
Why? He promises to be with us to help us. It is his work after all. And he knows our frailties and weaknesses. He promises to be with us to guide us and empower us to do the work of the kingdom.
These promises are just like so many that are found in the Old Testament:
- For instance, to Moses in Exodus 3:12. After Moses tells God why he shouldn’t be the one to go to Pharaoh – all his weaknesses, God says, “but I will be with you.” His presence is with Moses to help him do what God called him to do.
- Another example comes from the story of Joshua in Joshua 1:5. The task God gave Joshua, to conquer the promised land was surely difficult. And so God says, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.” His presence is with Jeremiah to help him do what God had called him to do.
- And then finally we have the example of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:8. He thought himself too young, that he couldn’t talk well, that there would be opposition. And so God says, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” His presence is with Jeremiah to help him do what God called him to do.
In the same way Jesus promises he is present with us so that he can help us:
- as we gather as his people
- to do his work
- to call people to faithfulness
- even when it is really hard.
Having said all this, I think we can say with confidence that Jesus’ promises apply to what we are doing here today; both now in our worship and next in our congregational meeting. Jesus is present with us to help us – to lead and empower us.
- As we gather as his people
- As we seek to do his work – and ask – ‘What is God’s will for the work in this place?’
- As we work at faithfulness and ask, ‘What does it mean to be faithful in our situation?’
- He is with us, even though it is hard to ask these questions.
Let us give thanks for his presence, and let us tune in to him, so that we may receive his help.