Where 2 or 3 Gather – Covidtide Prayers 2/3 “House or Home?” – Brad Jersak
“Yes: where two or three come together in my name,
I’ll be there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20 NTE).
Can we conceive of a Christ-centered faith in which
two or three are gathered as his household?
Context Matters (but application counts)
After reading my previous installment in the Covidtide Prayers series, titled “Is Church Canceled? I received a wonderful tidbit of research from my friend, Boyd Barrett, diving more deeply into the immediately and canonical context of our Matthew 18 theme. Here he is:
I read your article about Matthew 18:20. I definitely agree with your practical conclusions for the church in this time. It just so happens that I’ve been working on that scene in COME AND SEE, and I wanted to ask your opinion before I get too far into it.
I had never noticed the context of that statement before. When I put the verses leading up to it (15-19) together with Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, it seems pretty clear that Jesus is not talking about just any gathering of two or three – but rather, the agreement of two or three witnesses in a dispute between two parties. It even changes the idea behind Matthew 18:19.
Could Jesus be saying that when two agree about the truth in a disputed matter, the Father stands with those witnesses? And could verse 20 be following that up with the promise of Jesus that where two or three gather together in His name, he’ll be there to back up their decisions regarding problem situations? And if you go back to verse 18, could the binding and loosing there be talking about those same kinds of decisions regarding disputes? And I find it interesting that in verse 21 Peter asks Jesus about how many times you have to forgive a brother. That would be a natural followup if these verses say what I’m thinking.
This is brilliant and I think exactly right when read in context. And context matters. I feel that Boyd nailed both the immediate story context and the longer canonical context. Compared to that direct interpretation, I want to reiterate that all I am really doing is transposing and applying the word of Christ to our particular crisis. And application counts, even though I’m broadening it from matters of discipline to meeting in general–to “church” reimagined.
“CHURCH” (in scare quotes)
“Church” has become such a weary and heavy-laden term that one can hardly utter it without a sigh and or a debate about what it means. And then another sigh. “Church” may be pronounced with joy, with sorrow, with bitterness or with glazed eyes. “Church,” whatever that word means, nearly demands scare quotes because how we use it is attached (or entangled) to each “churcher’s” personal story.
When defined by English usage, “church” ranges in meaning from a nebulous idea to a local congregation, from the buildings with steeples to a covenant community. It can refer to something we are or to something we do. “Church” may indicate a people, an activity, a service or a building.
Returning to the Greek roots of the term ekklesia only helps a little. In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), ekklesia speaks of those who actually assemble to participate in God’s covenants together. In the New Testament, ekklesia may include the network of people who gather in homes to celebrate Christ together or it can refer to all those, living or departed, old covenant or new, human or angelic, who come to Christ’s throne on Mount Zion (Hebrews 12).
In other words, “church” or ekklesia can mean just about anything you want it to. So, in my experience, that word has become less and less helpful as we plod through the 21st century—especially in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. With public “church” meetings canceled, “church” services streaming online and the “church” people quarantined in their homes, we’re invited to reconsider the meaning of “church”–what it is, who we are, how we meet and what’s at stake. To think fresh thoughts, I propose we start with a fresh (and ancient) alternative to the word “church.”
Aside from being a delicious yogurt brand (thanks, Calvin Keys), the word oikos is used 106 times in the New Testament, nearly as often as ekklesia (115x). Just over half these occurrences appear in Luke-Acts.
Oikos is translated into English with words such as:
- house: an actual building or dwelling place, including nests, stalls, tents or temples, and especially the houses where families live.
- household: those who dwell in the house, whether birds and animals, unrelated tenants or actual families. When the house is a temple, the household is the family of God.
- home: the home signifies family and all that relationship includes.
Oikos can be used literally (actual houses or families) but it is also a metaphor for the people of God. And while there is a real sense in which all humans are part of God’s extended family (Ephesian 3:15, Acts 17:29, Luke 3:38), it is also true that those who willingly participate in the Good News of Jesus Christ are now “living stones” of a new dwelling place (temple) for God and they are family members of his household. Here’s Paul in Ephesians 2:
17 So the Messiah came and gave the good news. Peace had come! Peace, that is, for those of you who were a long way away, and peace, too, for those who were close at hand. 18 Through him, you see, we both have access to the father in the one spirit.
19 This is the result. You are no longer foreigners or strangers. No: you are fellow-citizens with God’s holy people. You are members of God’s household (οἰκεῖοι). 20 You are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with King Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him, the whole building (οἰκοδομὴ) is fitted together, and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 You, too, are being built up together, in him, into a place where God will live by the spirit.
HOUSE or HOME
When we privileged the term “church” over “household,” it’s worth asking what was lost in the latter term’s gradual disuse. The exception is my Pentecostal friends, who frequently like to say, “God is in the house,” usually combining the building and the meeting. But other than them…
I asked my friend Paul E. Ralph to reflect on this idea with me—the possibility that oikos can help us think more clearly about what it means to “gather in his name,” especially as we’re quarantined in our homes.
Paul asked me to consider the emotional difference between a house and a home—and how that difference suggests renewed ways of being “church.” He began by asking how I might respond if he told me, “I’ve built an addition on my house.” I suppose I’d say, “That’s great, Paul. Another room for you to use, to fill, to clean. Good for you.” But then feel the difference of discovering that his household had just increased. “A new addition to the family! Wahoo! I can’t wait to meet her!”
Or consider the difference between saying, “We’ve bought a new house” and “We’ve finally found our home.” What is it that transforms a house into a home? What happens when we encounter a group of people who, through our shared faith in Christ, feel like family to us? What do we mean when we reflect, “I feel like I’ve come home”? What are we offering when we say, “Make yourself at home”? Who must we be and how must we live to create that sense of welcome and belonging?
I won’t do all the work for you. Why not spend time thinking about the questions in the previous paragraph—why not pray through them, brainstorm them in your home, and journal what you come to. The ideas that come may even be intimations from the Holy Spirit.
And what if we were to apply these insights now, during lockdown … could “two or three gathered” be a house for God? Could a quarantined family be the household of God? AND what if we seriously implemented them thereafter?
How’s this for a prayer of invocation:
Abba, mi casa es su casa!
Our house is your house. And Christ is our Cornerstone.
Our household is your household. May the Spirit of Grace fill every room.
Our home is your home. Loving Trinity, make yourself at home.
Our family is your family. We are your children.
I close with this story, circulating on Instagram:
THE CHURCH IS NOT STONES: In the 11th century, the Muslim Caliph Al-Hakim decreed the closure of all churches in Egypt for nine years. It was a time of great distress for all Christians. One day, the Caliph was walking through the streets where Christians resided and he heard their voices praising and praying in each house. Then he said, “Open their churches again and let them pray as they please. I wished to close a church in every street. But today I discovered that when I made this decree, a church was opened in every home.
Stay tuned for our 3rd installment of “Where 2 or 3 Gather,” where we will play with the phrase, “In his name.” It’s more than singing, announcements and a sermon. See you then.