24 August 2005

personal jesus

personal jesus

Common Grounds Online (CGO) points to a thought- provoking post by the Jollyblogger (David Wayne, pastor of Glen Burnie PCA) regarding the evangelical notion of "a personal relationship with Jesus," criticizing it for its often individualistic and gnosticizing tendencies. David's thoughts prodded me to post a comment on CGO, which I repost here in a slightly revised form:

My own inclination is to work with the language with which people are already familiar. So I'm not eager to ditch the language of a "personal relationship with Jesus." It does capture something important about the Christian faith and the hope of the Gospel, through which we have peace with God and experience his love, all of this "in Christ Jesus."

While I don't wish to jettison the language, I do like to point out to people how their other relationships in fact work. Relationships involve mutuality, trust, reciprocity, and communication. And all these things normally and effectively occur within the context of shared stories, common traditions, larger bonds of family and friendship, as well as through the exchange of words, signs, and tokens of our love and affection.

It would be an odd thing to say that I have a close personal relationship with someone who doesn't reciprocate, with whom there is no shared history, or when there is no listening, no receiving of hugs or handshakes, no sitting together in contentment. That's not a personal relationship, at least not in the sense intended here, and to insist that it is, turns it into a kind of unrequited infatuation, a pathetic shadow of what a relationship can be.

If, however, all of these means of reciprocity, communication, and so on are part and parcel of what it means to have a personal relationship, then that must also be true of our relationship with God in Christ. We probably all recognize that the Spirit brings the words of Jesus to us through the Scriptures, but, at least in the Reformed tradition, the emphasis has always been on the reading and preaching of the Word as the means by which the Spirit makes Jesus present to us in an encounter with our living Lord. That is to say, Jesus is personally present through the Word as that is taken up by the Spirit upon the lips of those fellow-Christians he sends to minister to us.

This perspective can be extended by analogy to all the other biblically-rooted words and stories that together constitute the texture and fabric of our relation with Christ: the encouragement and rebuke of our brothers and sisters, the pastor's word of absolution, the common prayers of the saints, the tangible words of baptism and eucharist spoken to us in water and bread and wine. From here we can add the fellowship of believers as those who embody the love of Jesus in their deeds, words made flesh: making a dinner for the family with a newborn, sitting beside the sleeping person in hospital, visiting those who are shut-in, providing library books to children, rocking toddlers to sleep in the nursery, and so on, all in the name of Christ.

So, if the Gospel offers "a personal relationship with Jesus" unto our faith, then, it seems to me, this relationship must be grounded in all the ways by which we relate to one another as God's church--a church gathered and united by his Spirit around his word and sacraments as Christ's very own Body. Moreover, it is a relationship that includes all the love, service, and solidarity that overflows from the identity of the church in Christ.

If I want to hear Jesus, I receive his word to me from the mouth of his ministers and on the lips of other believers. If I want to be part of Jesus' story, I trust what he's done for me and enter into his story through the baptism I share with him among his baptized people. If I want to eat with Jesus, I sit with others and partake at his eucharistic table and the table of those who are poor in body and spirit. If I want to touch and be touched by Jesus, I reach out to the least of his brothers who are in need and I humbly receive the service of others he sends to me. Jesus is immediately available to us in all these ways the Spirit has appointed.

At any rate, I think that rightly understood "a personal relationship with Jesus" is the opposite of gnostic. Instead it is something tangibly manifest in the Body of Christ, but only known as such to the eyes of faith.

That being said, I do think David's point is sound with regard to what such a "personal relationship" has actually become for many Christians, under the shaping influences of modern individualism, pragmatism, subjectivism, and the like. In many respects, such an evangelical spirituality of existential interiority, tinged with moralism, when taken to an extreme, has a lot in common not only with gnosticism, but also with liberalism. I'm all for the cultivation of the interior life and spirituality, but only when grounded in a faith that trusts the externum verbum of the Gospel, made present to us in the ecclesial Body.

I do hope, however, that a renewed sense of the church as Christ's visible Body would do a lot to correct the imbalance. As such, God's people are marked out by shared stories and practices, both of which ground its missional role, empowered by the Spirit through the Gospel to serve one another and minister to the wider world. And it is in this that a personal Jesus is found.