For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. —Matthew 18:20
My purpose today is simple. I want to celebrate something with you. Let’s celebrate something that deserves to be celebrated but rarely is. Let’s celebrate the Church. Celebrate the Church? It might seem like bragging about a car that looked great in design, on paper, but it turned out to be a lemon. But let’s remember this. The Church is more than the voice of the gospel; the Church is a part of the gospel. The Bible says, “Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The gospel is not about Jesus only; the gospel is about Jesus and his Bride. Every romance includes the girl. What happens in the gospel romance? The holy Son of God comes across the tracks, he comes to the wrong side of town, he comes to the red light district, and that’s where he finds his Bride. So if she misbehaves, it isn’t surprising. The surprising thing is the love of the Groom. Martin Luther put the gospel in this very biblical way:
Faith… unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom. From such a marriage, it follows that Christ and the soul become one, so that they hold all things in common, whether for better or worse. This means that what Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul, and what the soul possesses belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. The soul possesses lots of vices and sin; these now belong to Christ…. Now is not this a happy business? Christ, the rich, noble and holy bridegroom, takes in marriage this poor, contemptible and sinful little prostitute, takes away all her evil and bestows all his goodness upon her! It is no longer possible for sin to overwhelm her, for she is now found in Christ.
The Church is a mess. But Jesus has said to us, “You’re the mess I will love into beauty.” He is with us right here, right now, with all his loving heart.
We’re launching care groups here at Immanuel. Everybody needs to be in a care group. I do, and so do you. It’s where we experience the love of Christ at a very personal level. It’s how we walk together in an honest relationship with him and one another. That really deserves to be celebrated. What a privilege it is just to be a church in the presence of the living Christ. Today I want to show you what he promises when we gather in his name, even in small groups.
Here’s how it works at Immanuel. We worship him all together at 10:30. We love being all together before the Lord. Then we get into age-specific community groups at 9:00, where new people can check out Immanuel more closely and be loved. Then we also gather in care groups in homes, where we can walk in the light at a deeper level. Care groups can take their time, the way we can’t here on a Sunday morning. And what I want you to see is how Jesus moves among us. It doesn’t take a big event down at the Ryman to get him to come. It only takes a few of us, and he’s all in, and so are we. That’s worthy of celebration, isn’t it? So let’s take this verse in two steps and see what the Lord has for us here.
For where two or three are gathered in my name
Look at the Lord’s humility. He is ready to be with us, he is eager to be with us, if only two or three are involved. He is not a social climber – except to climb down where we are. He is not ambitious. He doesn’t need to be seen at only the cool parties. Big crowds of people are a great joy to him, and to us, of course. The Bible says that heaven will be “a great multitude that no one can number” (Revelation 7:9). That is, the crowd in heaven will defeat the United States Census Bureau. And we are thrilled as God grows Immanuel Church, and more and more people come and love Jesus with us here. We should pray for that and work to grow our church as our stewardship from the Lord himself. The Bible is clear that he expects us to work hard to accomplish more for him, and he rewards our diligence (Matthew 25:14-30). He’s the best Boss in the universe. All of that is true. But the great thing about this verse is that the risen Jesus is happy to join with you and me in any setting, however modest. It’s his name, not our numbers, that brings him in.
The word “where” includes anywhere. We can gather in a kitchen, in a bedroom, at a street corner, on the playground at school, anywhere. Two men gathered on a street in Oxford, England, in 1555. Hugh Latimer and Nicolas Ridley were their names. They gathered back-to-back – chained to a stake and burned to death for the gospel. And Latimer said to Ridley that day, just before they died, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” Today, two or three can gather, in his name, in a hijacked airliner. Little groups of two or three can gather all over this room right after our worship service, for prayer and counsel and comfort and praise. Place doesn’t matter to the Lord. Size doesn’t matter to the Lord. Rank doesn’t matter to the Lord. He doesn’t say “two or three important people” or “two or three mature people” or “two or three superior people.” Jesus promises to come among us with all his grace, as we come to him with all our need. We feel his presence here at Immanuel, don’t we? I say that reverently and gratefully. May we never send him away by our own self-importance! Our Lord is attracted to need and openness and honesty, when we bring it to him. He puts his presence there.
Jesus does say that we are “gathered.” That word implies purpose. What is our purpose in gathering? It’s summed up in the words “in my name.” So if we just happen to bump into each other around town or if we get together to hang out, we can make it into something he will visit. Any meeting anywhere can become a sacred event, if we put Jesus at the center. It’s an evidence of true revival. Jesus is no longer categorized and limited to certain formal meetings, but his people joyfully bring him into everything. His presence spreads everywhere in our lives. Here’s how it can happen. Two of us run into each other around town somewhere and start talking about whatever is on our hearts. Then one person says, “Why don’t we pray about this right now and give it to the Lord together?” A coincidence can become a purpose, a gathering, when we bring it under his name. What wouldn’t we want to bring under his gracious name?
But this verse makes it obvious that he does expect us to gather, on purpose, in his name. He is our only purpose. No selfish agendas! Jesus visits us when we revere him alone – hearing his Word, inhaling his gospel, loving him in return, singing to him, praying to him, taking communion from him, getting charged up to live for him in the new week. That’s a gathering “in his name.” He is why we make gathering for him the priority in our weekly schedules. The early church gathered and gathered and gathered. They couldn’t stay away. They gathered in large groups. They gathered in small groups. They were creative. They were faithful. They were expectant, because when they gathered, so did Jesus. When God intends to bless us, he first gathers us. The Bible says, “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people” (Joel 2:15-16).
What we’re doing here at Immanuel has authority. After all, what we are doing here is either our own brainstorm or it is of God. Remember when the Pharisees confronted Jesus in Mark chapter 12? “Who gave you the right, to do what you do?” they were asking him. They wanted to embarrass him. But he said, “I’ll ask you a question. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” Do you see how Jesus reasoned? A ministry is either from heaven, from God, and it therefore matters, or it is from man, from below, and it doesn’t matter, it’s all guesswork and mere style and preference. But these two categories – from heaven or from man – that’s how we can think whenever anything comes to us and claims something from us, every ad on TV and whatever else wants access to us. We should always ask, Is it from heaven, or is it from man? Those are the only options. If it’s from man, we may or may not get involved. But if it’s from heaven, then we open up with joy and expectancy. If it’s from heaven, then we’re all in. If it’s of God, then we defend it, we promote it, we pray for it, we celebrate it. Jesus is saying, “When you gather in my name, even a few of you, I am there.” That’s from heaven. That has authority. It’s one reason I love our church’s name: Immanuel, God with us. There is nothing greater in all this life. That takes us to the rest of the verse.
…there am I among them
We’ve already seen the Lord’s humility, in his gathering with small groups. Now we see his deity, in his gathering with all faithful groups everywhere. Only a divine being can promise to be with all of us under all conditions. Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He is able to draw near to a million gatherings all over the world at once. And he will never fail any of us, whatever our need. We don’t gather in our own righteousness, our own power. We gather in his completeness for us. Do you realize who this Friend is, who shows up among his people? Martin Luther again:
Sin cannot make us afraid or make us doubt God’s mercy. For Christ, that most mighty giant, has abolished the law, condemned sin, and vanquished all evils.
That’s the real Jesus here with us. And dear old John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace,” reminded us that this Jesus moving among us today “is just such a Savior as your circumstances require, as you yourself could wish for.” In other words, if you could have dreamed up a Savior to be everything you need, your own designer Savior would look a lot like Jesus, except your concept Savior would still be inferior to the real Jesus because you don’t know your own needs as well as he does – not that he was made for you, but you were made for him. That’s why, when you find him, you finally come home. And your soul’s homecoming isn’t far away. He is near.
Do you see what he says here: “there am I”? He doesn’t say, “There will I be,” future tense, but “there am I,” present tense. See the difference? He isn’t saying, “If you show up, so will I.” No, he’s saying, “If you show up to be with me, I’m already there, waiting for you.” Earlier in Matthew’s gospel the Lord said, “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28). Now we know how. Gather together in his name.
And he doesn’t say, “There am I above them.” He says, “There am I among them, right where they need me and want me, right where they feel their guilt and their sadness and their joys.” In the Old Testament, it was wonderful for the people of God to see the cloud of God’s glory hovering over them. But it is far more wonderful now for us to be enveloped in the felt presence of the glorious Jesus. He isn’t standing aloof at the edges, the way we do. He comes in among us, with us, close to us. What else do we need? What else could we want? The greatest blessing he gives is just himself. I love the way Spurgeon said it:
Oh, blessed be his name for what he gives, and blessed be his name for what he does, and blessed be his name for what he says; but still more blessed be his name because he himself loved us, and gave himself for us, and now comes himself into the midst of his people.
Do you remember what he said when he came to his disciples and the doors were locked because they were so afraid? He came in among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). You might be fearful of many things today, but if your heart is open to him, that is his word to you today as well: “Peace be with you,” because he is with you. Is there anything further you need, to go out into this world and do the right thing?
Jesus is no passive onlooker. He is active among us. But how? How is the Lord with us? In several ways. He is present among us because he lives within us. If you have given yourself to Jesus, he indwells you, never to leave. You feel him, when you trust him. And when your faith is weak, you can feel him in the faith of your brother or sister next to you, and your faith is strengthened by Christ in them. Gathering is so important!
He is present with us in his Word. The Bible is not like any other book. The Bible itself says that the Word is God’s way to experientialize Jesus to us. “And we all, beholding the glory of the Lord [in the gospel], are being transformed from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
He is present with us by his Spirit. In our gatherings we sense him speaking to us, convicting us of sin, humbling us, comforting us, guiding us, correcting us, cheering us. He puts heart and courage back into us, and we walk out ready to face anything. It’s why we love to gather again and again, and we feel the loss when we can’t be here.
But ultimately, we don’t understand how he can be with us so wonderfully. But he says to us, “Seek my face.” And so, we say to him by faith, “Your face, Lord, do we seek” (Psalm 27:8). He is so real.
Now, what does all this have to do with care groups at Immanuel? Everything. Everything in this verse applies especially to our care groups. A care group is where we press the good news into our hearts in personal ways. It’s where every one of us can drill down into the problems that really trouble us and wear us down and make us doubt the Lord. We can bring it out into the light, where Jesus is waiting for us with his cleansing (1 John 1:7). Care groups are where true revival begins. Then we can bring that power and life out into our families and our dorm rooms and our worship gatherings, and the nuclear reactor reaches critical mass. Walking together in care groups, the fellowship and cleansing intensify for the whole church.
Here are three things every one of us can do. One, sign up for a care group right after this service. Two, pray for your group. Ask the Lord to meet with you there. Three, come with expectancy. Come with honesty. Come with openness. The Lord will be among you.