At the time that Matthew wrote his Gospel, the early church was on its own, no longer a part of the Jewish community and therefore no longer observing the daily norms and customs of that religious tradition. The community needed guidelines for its life together and in chapter 18 Matthew portrays Jesus as a community builder, instructing his disciples on matters that emphasize and focus on the community of believers.
Since Jesus revealed a forgiving and compassionate God, the life of the community must do the same, if they are to witness to the risen Jesus living in their midst. Forgiveness and reconciliation must be the hallmarks of this new community of faith. The teaching in today's Gospel sets out a rather elaborate and specific process for how forgiveness and reconciliation are to happen. And the passage ends with the Lord reminding his followers that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them."
We most commonly apply this passage to two or more believers praying together - Jesus will be in their midst. This is indeed true. However, this verse is set in the context of reconciliation within the community; when "two or three" come together to settle an offense against a member, or bring about harmony. When a believing community works to bring about justice and unity, Christ is in our midst working to achieve the same goal. That is what makes this teaching more than just an "ideal" and keeps it from being dismissed as not practical in "the real world."
Where do we find the true presence of Christ? In today's example, He is in our midst when we work together to right wrongs. Forgiveness and justice should characterize the community; if it does, others will recognize something unique about the church and might even recognize Christ alive and active in our midst doing what others may believe impossible.
Christians are not simply to live as individuals, but as members of a witnessing and supportive community. When a member has been "sinned" against, others are there for support and to see that rights are wronged.
But the spirit of today’s Gospel goes much further. Is Jesus just talking about individual offenses and sins? Suppose a race is sinned against, what are we to do? Suppose the poor on the other side of town are being ignored or deprived of their needs and rights? Suppose a group in our parish is treated as second class members just because they are new arrivals? Suppose women's voices are ignored? Or, the elderly patronized? Suppose young people never hear their lives or issues mentioned in our preaching and worship?
Well... you get the idea.
In Matthew's Gospel, from the very beginning, Jesus is named "Emanuel," "God is with us." The Gospel ends with the same assurance of his on-going presence. When Jesus commissions his disciples to "make disciples of all the nations," he lives up to his name, Emanuel, as he promises to "be with you always until the end of the world." He clearly wanted us to be a community faithful to his memory. He didn't want us to be stay-at-home, individual believers, but a people worshiping together and then going out into the world living lives that proclaim his name to others.
And what better way for a community to be a beacon to Jesus than to practice forgiveness and concern for each other within the community? He wasn't suggesting such virtues just to hold the community together until he returned. But, since forgiveness is such a rare commodity among individuals, communities, religions, tribes, races and nations, a community that is characterized by forgiveness would certainly be a way of announcing Jesus Christ to the world. If forgiveness were the hallmark of our religious community we would certainly become what Jesus hoped for us - "a city built on a hilltop," a " light to the nations."
Our lives are not so different from those who lived and struggled during Christ’s lifetime. His message then is the same today. Unless we take ownership of the Gospel message and come together, if only two or three at a time, we will simply be left with a ideal that will never be realized.