When Two or Three Are Gathered: A Commentary on the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

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Introduction

Few preachers in the Patristic Church are as admired and enduring as John Chrysostom.[1] Born in A.D. 349, John developed a love for the written word that his mentor, Diodore, heavily influenced. In response to the rising trend of allegorical interpretation, Diodore and his apprentice emphasized that the Bible should be taken in its straightforward, historical-grammatical sense. Basil of Caesarea, another early Father, summarized this method by saying, “When I hear the word ‘grass,’ I understand that it means grass! Plants, fish, wild beasts, domestic animals—I take them all in a literal sense.”

John’s devotion to the Bible eventually led to his consecration as a bishop, becoming the patriarch of Constantinople, a position he held until he died in A.D. 407. The Reformers loved his sermons for their clear exposition and aversion to allegory. The Anglican tradition, with its commitment to the written word and the early Church, has likewise loved him, which explains the inclusion of one of his prayers in the Daily Office.[2]

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The prayer initially found a home in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which still use it today. It entered the Anglican tradition when Archbishop Cranmer included it in his litany. It was ultimately moved to Morning and Evening Prayer for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This placement has carried into subsequent editions, including the ACNA’s 2019 Prayer Book. It ends these Daily Office services whenever “two or three are gathered”—that is, whenever more than one person says them. Let’s journey through it here and reflect on the key phrases.

The Prayer

Phrase 1

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time, with one accord to make our common supplications to you;

The prayer begins where all true devotion begins: God. We start by acknowledging our Father as the one in whom all power resides. We confess that, for him, there is nothing too hard (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27). The prayer then reminds us that we are not to pray alone. The constant use of the plural pronoun “us” indicates how communal prayer was viewed in the past: we are not praying for ourselves alone but as a community with and for one another.

Prayer of this kind is a blessing from God (Ps. 133). The prayer itself recognizes this and confesses that God has given us this grace and that through his sanctifying Spirit, he has enabled us to come together as a body and present common prayers.

Phrases 2-3

and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will grant their requests: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us;

These two phrases form the heart of the prayer and beautifully balance one another. First, the prayer lays hold on one of God’s precious promises (2 Pet. 1:4). Specifically, Jesus’ words from Matthew are called to mind. During his discussion of Church discipline and to encourage those who must undertake such a difficult task, our Lord gives this umbrella promise: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20).

A first reading may cause us to limit this promise to just the enaction of church discipline: where two or three are gathered to discipline another believer, Christ is there. While this is true, it is not what our Lord says. He states, “where two or three are gathered in my name” (emphasis mine). The logical question is, what does it mean to be gathered in Christ’s name? Of course, gathering together to perform discipline is one such activity. Can it actually be argued that gathering to pray is not the same thing? In whose name do believers gather but the risen Christ’s when they gather to pray? This promise is for them: whenever Christians gather to pray, they can trust that Christ is present.

Chrysostom’s prayer, however, guards against a blind, uninformed faith. Christ’s presence is not the blank check for us to cash that some branches of the Church imply. We ask that God fulfill our requests “as may be best for us.” As the Hebrew boys before the fiery furnace confessed, God may not grant our requests, even if our faith is strong (Dan. 3:16-18). All of God’s promises rest in their ultimate fulfillment on achieving “God’s glory and our own good,” as a famous Anglican catechism states. Christ is present with us, yes, and God may cause us to face the fire as may be best for us.

Phrase 4

granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting.

Finally, the concluding phrase of this prayer reminds us of what our proper focus should be. In this life, our goal is to increase in our knowledge of God’s truth. This is not mental activity at the expense of emotional expression and devotion. The Old Testament does not sanction such a division: to know is to love, and to love is to know. We know and love God as we aim for the heavenly city, the age to come. Every answer to our prayer, every deliverance and trial, brings us one step closer to life everlasting.

[1] The term “patristic” comes from the Latin word pater, which means father. The Patristic Church is the period of the early Church Fathers, generally dated from the 1st to the 6th centuries.

[2] A helpful summary of Chrysostom’s life can be found in 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Chapter 9.

Photo by diodam, courtesy of Canva.

Author

James Hodges

James Hodges, of Ridgeway, VA, is a Kindergarten Teacher in the local public school system and teaches the Junior Church in his local congregation. He is husband to Anna and father to Lilabet.

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