Saturday, 19 January 2013

Relating to Jesus

Is Jesus My Personal Lord and Saviour? I've been thinking a good deal lately about this question: what it means to be a Christian and to be in some kind of relationship with its founder, whom we believe rose from the dead and is ever-present through the Spirit. This reflection has come as a result of several distinct and disparate conversations with friends and colleagues, mostly of an Anglican bent.

This is hardly a new thought, but we in the Anglican Church are not actually united in our opinion of what the connection to Jesus Christ means for our lives. On the one hand are those who insist that a personal relationship with Jesus - 'my personal Lord and Saviour' - lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and ministry. Candidates in our diocese are often asked about that relationship with Jesus. On the other hand are those who find such language a little strange and even off-putting. They understand the Christ-connection rather differently, perhaps in a more sacramental or ecclesial way.

It's too tempting, of course, to identify the former expression with evangelical Anglicans and the latter with catholic Anglicans. But that would be simplistic and therefore distorting of something that is more complex in terms of both theology and spirituality.

 I must confess that, having been through selection processes in two denominations, I've never once been asked directly about my personal relationship with Jesus. I think, if I had, I might have been somewhat at a loss. I had a Puritan upbringing, grounded in Reformed faith, which didn't have a lot of pietism about it. The first time I heard Billy Graham in one of his campaigns (on tv) I felt a bit embarrassed by the explicitness of his language. 'Arminianism' was what the true Calvinist called it: the manipulation of people's emotions to make them come forward and express publicly and all-too-personally their faith.

As a consequence of this upbringing, I would have found the question puzzling. What does it mean to have a 'personal relationship' with Jesus? And I might have found it intrusive, perhaps embarrassing, like asking about my sex life or my innermost feelings.

Some time ago I was talking to a (Roman) Catholic friend of mine, who has a good grasp of theology, and he said he found the whole notion of a 'personal relationship with Jesus' troublesome. He said he thought the language irrelevant: that, for him, he was in Christ and that that was what mattered to him. 

Other catholics I know (small 'c' or large) speak of meeting Christ rather in the sacraments, especially the eucharist, or in other Christians. But others of the same persuasion do want to emphasise the personal aspects of a direct relationship with Christ - for the Jesuits, for example, following Jesus and meditating on the Gospel stories lies at the core of their spirituality.

 For myself, I'm happier to be undogmatic about the whole thing. Theologically, in any case, I'd rather speak about the blessed Trinity. I'm also much more comfortable with the notion that it's not my relationship with Christ that matters, but Christ's with me - and, actually, Christ's with us, with the church, with the whole of creation. I don't and can't make Christ my personal Lord and Saviour. He already is the Lord; he already is the Saviour of the world, whether I know it, or half-know it, or long for it, or not know it at all.

 For me, too, the eucharist is central, because that's where the Word becomes flesh, in bread and wine, and where I'm embraced by the Son's epiphany and his self-giving death. Whether I fully appreciate that each time I come to the Lord's Table is another question entirely - sometimes I believe it, sometimes doubt, sometimes don't care: but that too is secondary. It's the sheer, bare, flesh-ness of the divine self-revelation that stands, for me, however I may or may not respond to it.

 I'm glad of that. There are days when I sit in the presence of the Trinity with nothing or everything on my mind. Do I have a personal relationship with this God? Well, I guess I do, but not so you'd always know it; not always palpable, personal, prayerful. Sometimes the sheer silence is enough for me, and all I'm given.

 I believe that God's relationship with the church, with creation, is personal, intimate, transforming. But it's vaster and deeper and more mysterious for me than what is implied in the phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus'. It's trinitarian and sacramental, thus embracing all the world and all reality, known and unknown.

And I'm happy to creep within those borders, day by day - sometimes barely inside the gates, sometimes radiantly at the centre. Just being there is enough: to stand in the glow of that divinely human fire, whether close or distant. It's God's faithfulness, God's personhood, God's grace, God's mystery, that matters to me in the end: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not how I might respond in my all-too-earthly variance.


  1. Thank you Dorothy. I have often thought about the same question, and your exploration has shed light on it for me.
    Your article helped me to think that the emphasis on the 'personal relationship with Jesus' might relate to two, very different, trajectories. One is the mystical tradition of Christianity where union with the Ultimate is often described as experiential and affective. The other, in sharp contrast, is the Modern era's myth of the rugged, free, self-reliant individual. It seems likely that the first has influenced the Charismatic movement, especially perhaps in its Catholic manifestations. And the second seems to have rather strongly influenced some strands of Protestantism.
    The Modern era has seen a rather strong decline in the influence of traditional sources of religious authority (text and tradition) with increased authority being given to personal experience. As we move into the Postmodern era I wonder if the emphasis on the individual will decline, perhaps in favour of a stronger turn to the sacramental and the communal?

  2. Thank-you for this blog post, Dorothy.
    I liked most particularly your comments about your relationship to the Trinity. It helped me to realise that I don't have a relationship with God the Son that is over and above God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Hildegard of Bingen, our new favourite lady doctor of the Church, in Anne Hunt's lovely book on the Trinity in the Mystical Tradition describes this as a 'dance': that the Father dances with the Son, that the Son dances with the Father, and the Spirit. This is such a helpful image for me.

    I find it so painful that somehow I am a second-class Christian because I don't articulate my spirituality in terms that reveal a personal relationship with Jesus. Your comments about Jesus' relationship with us being more important was quite enlightening too, this reminded me of an article I am reading by Paul Fiddes at the moment on the subject of 'sacrifice'. Fiddes articulates that the expiation of our sin through the gift-offering (sacrifice - playing with modern slippage), we receive the gift. A gift both offered to God, and to us. The divine relationship and gift-offering is surely more than I can reciprocate? The grace received is more than I can possibly offer back.

    These are just a few 6AM musings which have helped me to think through some of my reading and writing at the moment, so thank-you Mthr Dean!

    Best, M.