“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” said our Lord Jesus, “there am I among them.”
The words of Matthew 18 are simple and plain but their meaning is not. Over the course of time these words have come to mean that we who invoke the name of Jesus invite and even compel His presence. In this respect, the name of Jesus has become almost magical, as if it were a spell or incantation recited to draw a reluctant spirit into the material world. The truth is so far from this impression as to make our mistake laughable.
Where two or three are gathered in My Name has little to do with the intention or will of the people and everything to do with where Christ has placed His name -- the Word and the Sacraments. The promise of our Lord is not that if bidden He will come but that He will always be present in the means of grace. He cannot but keep His pledge and promise of His Word and He wills to do nothing but fulfill that pledge and promise for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is not the Lord who comes to us when we ask Him but we who gather where the Lord always is.
The invocation is not even a sentence. In the Name of. . . It is an implicit acknowledgement that we are gathered because He has promised and where He has promised and not to make Him present. This is one of the underlying keys to the liturgy and to the sacramental life of worship that our Lord has given as gift to His Church. How sad it is, then, that we who use the liturgy every Sunday and whose confessional identity is thoroughly sacramental fall into the trap of turning our Lord's words into a formula or recipe instead the promise of the Word, of water and the Word, and of bread and wine and the Word.
We do not ascend into the heavenly heights but God has brought low the heavenly glory and hidden it in the ordinary of material things where He makes known to us and bestows upon us the riches of His gifts and grace. Sacramental theology is incarnational. God comes to us. God does not compel us to come to Him but comes to us in the flesh of the Word Incarnate, in the voice of the Word proclaimed, in the words of the Word written, in the address of the Word absolving, in the Word in and with the water, and in the Word in and with the bread and wine.
The name of Christ is not some ritual formula to be said to make the Lord do what we want but the name that delivers to us His mercy and accomplishes His purpose in the places where He has promised. The name of Christ is shorthand for the Word and Sacraments. It is this aspect of Lutheran piety which the liturgical movement has sought to recover, to distinguish us from those for whom the Lord is an idea to be thought, a rule to be obeyed, or a truth to be believed. Christ is present among us not because we want Him to be or because we have acted piously or because we the truth is accepted as fact. Christ is present because He has willed to be present, attached Himself to His Word and Sacraments, and works through these means to accomplish His saving purpose.
As Luther said in the Smalcald Articles, everything else is just enthusiasm and everyone merely Schwamerei. When we detach Christ from the means of grace and we make Him and His presence subject to our ministrations or dependent upon our feelings, we are left with nothing certain at all. Our worship life is then the shifting sand of hopes, dreams, wishes, and feelings absent any real promise at all. Feelings do not legitimize Christ's presence nor do they give authority and weight to our faith. That is not to say they are bad but simply that feelings do not establish Christ or His presence among us. They flow from the means of grace and are transformed (as our the minds of God's people) as the fruit of Christ's presence and the consequence of His grace among us and for us.
The name of Christ is not like a wizard's words that suddenly shake the wand and zap us with magic. The name of Christ is the Word of Christ, His water, His bread and wine and His voice to absolve. When we begin to get this, we also find the joy and freedom that is the true and living fruit of the Gospel. We do not begin with the invocation because God is hidden and must be summoned but because, bidden or not, God is present. We have come to the very means of grace wherein He has attached Himself so that by the power of the Spirit we may receive what He has promised to give for the joy and edification of His people and for the equipment of His people for their vocation both toward God and neighbor.