You’ve probably been there. Maybe it’s a prayer group, and either you are a very small group to begin with or it’s time to start, you’ve only got 30 minutes before folks need to leave, and several are still missing, so you go ahead and start the meeting, perhaps saying that Christ has promised if even two or three are gathered together, he will be with you.
Or maybe you are a small group away from the church on Sunday morning, and you’ll have your own worship service, which you begin with the same reference to the same “promise.”
It may be comforting or encouraging to say such words in such settings.
But did Jesus really promise that? Did he really say he’d be with us in prayer or worship even if there were only two or three of us? What if it’s just you? And was he even talking about prayer or worship in the first place?
The biblical text which speaks of Jesus promising his presence with two or three gathered together is Matthew 18:20. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (NRSV).
But the context of that text has nothing to do with prayer or worship.
It is instead about the process of resolving conflict.
The passage begins in Matthew 18:15, and the larger theme of reconciliation and forgiveness continues through the end of the chapter (verse 35). Jesus instructs his disciples that if one believes another has sinned against them, the first step is to talk it out between themselves, privately (verse 15). If face to face conversation does not produce genuine listening on both sides, one or two others are to be called in to help them listen better (verse 16). This follows the biblical command that in disputes the witness of two or three is sufficient to establish a given fact or situation in a case brought for adjudication (see Deuteronomy 19:15).
These, then, are the two or three Jesus refers to just three verses later in verse 20. It’s not a gathering for prayer or worship. It’s a gathering to help people in conflict reconcile.
The promise of Jesus means that when we’ve done all we can do personally to resolve a conflict with someone else, and we’ve had to admit we need help, right then, Jesus is there in the middle of the whole situation. In our time of deepest tension and possibly doubt about what may happen next, Jesus says, “I’m here. I’m with you. We’ve got this.”
So how did we get from a teaching about conflict resolution to a teaching about the size of a prayer or worship gathering?
In English usage at least, that pathway was created via a mistranslation beginning with the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Thomas Cranmer wanted to include a prayer from the Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy attributed to the 4th century Syrian bishop, John Chrysostom, as a regular part of morning prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. (For my fellow liturgy geeks out there, the original is actually the priest’s inaudible prayer while the deacon leads the choir and congregation in the Little Litany between the second and third Antiphons at the beginning of the Mass).
The text Cranmer had available to work with was a Latin translation of the Divine Liturgy, not the Greek original. In the Greek original, the reference being used is a promise to answer prayers for those who agreed together, and so refers to verse 19 (where the verb agree appears), not to two or three being gathered together, as in verse 20, where the two or three refers to verse 16. In verse 19, the agreement of two happens in the context of the church being given the authority to bind and loose in verse 18. And that authority to bind and loose refers to the church’s Christ-given ability to determine what will be done about the situation before them for the sake of the good of the whole community. The “asking” in verse 19 is not about prayer or worship in general. It is rather about a very specific context of prayer in which the church has discerned how to respond (what to bind and loose) to the conflict they’re dealing with and then asks God for help to make things right. Jesus promises that his Father in heaven will give them what they ask (verse 19).
The original Orthodox prayer in Greek got the verbs right (from verse 19), but the context wrong. The Latin translation, or perhaps Cranmer’s translation of the Latin translation got the first verb wrong, substituting “gathered together” (from verse 20) for “agree” (as the Greek of the ritual has it). Cranmer’s version got the rest of verse 19 and the Greek original right (grant the requests). Then the 1979 Book of Common Prayer compounded the problem by replicating the contextual error of the Greek ritual with more consistent reference to verse 20 instead of verse 19. It reads, “you have promised through your well-beloved son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 126). But in the process, it confuses the persons of the Trinity relative to the actual promises in Matthew 18. The prayer is addressed to Almighty God (First Person), but it is Jesus (Second Person) who promises his own presence in this Matthew 18:20.
In short, Matthew is clear Jesus was speaking about conflict resolution. Liturgical tradition, both Orthodox and Anglican (and others in between and since), has made a bit of a mess of the biblical witness to the words of Jesus in order to make a claim about the numbers in prayer or worship and the presence or action of Jesus or the Father the Bible does not make.
So, what do we do now that we know Jesus ‘s promise to “be among” “two or three gathered” did not and does not refer to prayer or worship, much less group size?
Let me suggest “two or three” things!
1. Quit citing these texts in such settings. The Bible does not claim Jesus promised this. Nor should we use this misreading of the Bible, aided by other misreadings and mistranslations, to make excuses for or cover over poor or low attendance.
2. Take seriously the work of conflict resolution Jesus was actually addressing in Matthew 18, and even more seriously the promises of Jesus. He does promise to be with us when we need to call in one or two others to help us listen better. And he does promise the Father will do what we ask him to do when even the best efforts of the two or three are not enough and we have to escalate the resolution process to a higher level.
3. Trust that our Triune God hears us when we pray and attends to our worship. We don’t have to wonder whether God will “show up,” or whether our worship or our numbers in worship are good enough to merit that result. We already have that promise as part of the conclusion to the Great Commission: “I am with at all times, to the completion of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
May the peace of Christ, which he does promise to give us, be with us all, and bring more and more of us to peace in his name.