“Personal Relationship” or “Communal Relationship”?

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” (Matt. 18:20).

The continuing presence of Christ is something that is important to the writer of
Matthew’s Gospel.  In the very first chapter Jesus is named Emmanuel, “God with us”, and in the very last verse of the last chapter Jesus promises to be with us always.  It’s no surprise then that we hear an echo of this idea when Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus wasn’t saying anything really new by promising his abiding presence because an ancient rabbinical saying translates as follows: “If two sit together and words of the
Law are between them, the Divine Presence rests between them”.  In other words, when at least two people share the scriptures together, God is there. Jesus gives us a variation on the saying, but he is making it clear that we cannot experience that Presence and Power on our own.  Matthew wants us to know the importance of community, the absolute
necessity of at least two persons – a reminder that we are not “church” all by ourselves, and that the presence of Christ is not to be found in isolation.

We all know fundamentalist Christians who say that all they need is a “personal
relationship” with Jesus Christ and then no matter what they do for the rest of
their lives, even if they renounce Christ, they will still be “saved”.  These people have no idea what the Gospel is really about and have obviously overlooked the larger teachings of Jesus.  You and I also know people who argue that walking in the woods is their cathedral, or that sleeping in on a Sunday morning is their “ worship”.

There was a man much like that who stopped coming to church, and he was away so long that the priest decided to pay him a visit to see what was going on in the man’s life. The man reluctantly invited the pastor into his house, knowing why he had come.  Neither man spoke because they both knew the reason for the visit.  As they stood there in silence, the pastor went over to the fireplace, grabbed the tongs and removed an ember from the fire, which he placed on the hearth.  Within a few seconds, the ember began to fade and stopped producing any heat.

At that point the priest picked up the smoldering piece of wood and walked back to the
fireplace, placing it back onto the pile of burning logs within.  It immediately lit up.  Recognizing the simple truth of the unspoken sermon, the man thanked his pastor for the visit and assured him that he would be back in church on Sunday.

Being a Christian denotes needing to be part of a congregation, and even two people can
be that community.  Communities sometimes have conflicts, and that’s okay.  The
secret is to learn how to manage conflict so that people are not fighting against
each other, but with each other, for the community.

Conflict has been all too common in the history of the Church.  Denominations have conflicts and even individual parishes have conflicts.  I have known quite a few people in my 40 years of ministry who stopped going to church because of all the spiteful bickering they experienced in their churches.  For these people, it was safer for them to simply stay away than to continue to be part of a negative situation.

What we cannot allow is for conflict to defeat us in that way because conflict can,
rightly handled, help us mature and grow in our faith.  But this can only happen when we listen to each other, show respect for each other, and work together to resolve
issues.

Most of you already know how I feel about my morning coffee.  I need it to get myself up and alive in the morning and drinking that first delicious cup is often a spiritual experience. Coffee, to me, is my “morning sacrament” that reminds me that new life is
possible right here and now.  It occurred to me recently that maybe my goal should be to become more like the coffee I roast and consume.  You need water to make coffee, and you can’t always control what kind of water you use.  When coffee is feeling beaten down and
pulverized and ground to dust, what does it do? It changes the water.  The water doesn’t change the coffee, the coffee changes the water. In my spiritual life, I can’t control the “water”, but I can become more like coffee and transfigure my circumstances, finding in them an opportunity to live the Gospel.  This would work in my relationships with others
as well because, God knows, I cannot control what kind of mood other people are
going to be in when they encounter me.  Parishes who have “coffee people” in the them see opportunities for ministry all around and find ways to address needs rather than complain about things that can’t be manipulated or changed.

All of us have an introverted side to our personality: we draw strength and energy from
being alone. Being with people is great, it’s necessary, but we also need time
for ourselves, even if it’s just a short nap before Sunday Mass.  People like me like to take walks in the woods or go fishing on the banks of a quiet stream. We are always in search of
Walden Pond.  But even Thoreau knew that we can’t be fully human in isolation; we can’t be truly Christian in isolation either.

When Jesus talks about community, he is realistic about it.  He knows there will be conflict and he has a common sense approach, one that is similar to one psychologists and therapists use all the time.  It begins by speaking directly to the person with whom we have a disagreement – rather than telling someone else to talk to them for us, rather than recruiting people to “take sides” in the dispute, taking away any hope of having open and frank discussions.  This is critical, because if we are talking about someone to another party, we are “triangulating” and doing damage to the person, to our integrity, and to the relationships with the others involved.

The next step is to include others in the process – so that there is clarity when concerns
are expressed.  This is what we now refer to as an “intervention”, and it , too, has become a popular technique for helping someone to see the truth about themselves.  Throughout the  process, however, the priority is on reconciliation.  About making the relationships whole and holy.  It’s not about making people think the way we think and it’s not about coercing someone to do something she doesn’t want to do.  The purpose – the sole purpose – is to restore right relationship.

That’s why we need each other.  When two or three are gathered in community in the name of Jesus, he is here with us.  He comes to console, to challenge, to heal and to antagonize—but he is always here with us.  Reconciliation depends on our having sisters
and brothers with whom we share our journey.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I AM there among them.”

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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