“For where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst”
After the Ascension of Christ, one of the big questions that presses the Church is, “Where is Christ?” Those from a more reformed perspective might immediately state “seated at the hand of the Father.” If you grew up in more Baptist or Wesleyan/Arminian circles, your answer might be “in my heart.”
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the reformed perspective, despite much of my theology leaning in the Arminian direction. When I started my PhD, the movement that was beginning at the King’s College London Theology department was known as “Transformative Theology.” It began, at least for some, with that same question: where is Christ? I never joined the project, really, in large part because of my disagreement over the response to this question. Christ rose as a bodily human, albeit one with a transformed body. He ascended still in that body. Whatever else you might say about heaven or paradise, whatever your view of life after death, there is at least one human in the presence of the father, Jesus Christ. The incarnation, and even moreso the resurrection, represented a change in God.
Not a change in the nature of God, the language of Philippians 2 (μορφη) makes it clear that the change was in the appearance and representation of the Son, not his fundamental nature. But this change, as I understand the scripture, was a lasting one that continues on today. So if Jesus is physically embodied as a particular human, and as that human seated at God’s right hand, or standing before the throne, he remains in heaven. So when posed with the question of “Where is Christ?” I want to turn the question to also state that “His Spirit is with us.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is an interesting doctrine. On the one hand, the early Church Fathers were very clear to note that the Son is not the Father is not the Spirit. On the other hand, they also want to affirm the doctrine of circumincession, the idea that each person of the Trinity is interpenetrated by each other person of the Trinity while also remaining distinct.
The way this distinction is usually maintained is by saying only the Father begets, only the Son is begotten, and only the Spirit proceeds (whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son or from the Father and the Son was one of many of the precipitating factors behind the split of Easter Orthodox Churches and the Western Churches). To that distinction I might only add that only the Son is incarnate. True there is some discussion of God taking on a temporary human form, such as when YHWH visits Abraham a year prior to the birth of his son with Sarah or when Jacob wrestles with Elohim by the Jabbok river at night, but the kind of full embodiment and lasting incarnation seems unique to the Son.
Regardless, the connection between the three persons of the Trinity is somewhat fluid. Augustine, among many others probably first by Gregory of Nazianzus, referred to it as a kind of circle dance (περιχωρησις). Each member of the Trinity inhabits the space of each other member of the Trinity without assuming the identity of that person of the Trinity. The fundamental entity (ουσια) exists as three fundamental realities (υποστασις) turning and spilling one into the other. So when Christ declares at his departure that the disciples will receive the Holy Spirit, in a very real sense, the Spirit is also a real presence of Christ. So while it is certainly correct to say that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father,” it is also as correct to declare that Jesus is “within my heart” by the power and presence of the Spirit.
Where is Christ?
This brings us back to the quote above. I have long considered the above passage a reason to gather together as a Church. Of course the Bible presents us with many reasons to gather, but one of them, I thought, was that there needs to be at least two people together in order for Christ to be there two. Indeed, Matthew 18 seems to speak at length about the Church and its power. But I think to narrowly focus on physical proximity misses something. And, in an age of social distancing and the (understandable) censure of large gatherings, where the location of Christ matters.
Surely physical presence is important. If it were not so, God would not need to become incarnate in the the person of Christ. When this is over, I will enjoy being physically present with so many others, there are many whom I look forward to hugging (and I am not a hugger). But the physical presence is not what this passage is about. By the Spirit, God is always with the Christian. So much so that the Spirit often prayers and intercedes on our behalf when we are unaware (Romans 8:26). So we have the presence of the Spirit even when we are alone.
Instead, the more narrow passage where this is located is discussing the work of the Church, not the gathering of the Church (that’s important, but addressed elsewhere). Instead, as the Church comes together and meets in one Spirit about some work, so does Christ also join them in the same Spirit. Whatever we bind, he will bind, whatever we loose, he will loose. God in Christ is in the midst of our work, of our worship, or our prayer. So, as you pray alone, feeling isolated from others, know that as the Church prays with you, so also there is Christ, in your midst. In the midst of your loneliness, join the prayers of the Saints (among whom you are now counted) and feel their presence along with the presence of Christ.
The gathering together, then, is not restricted by either time or space. If you are gathering individually in your homes, but around the same worship, you are not alone and Christ is in your midst. If you are reading through the Book of Common Prayer, or through a passage of the Bible, you are joining with saints throughout the ages. Where two or three are gathered, even across distances of time and space, there is Christ, in the midst of them.