Sunday, February 9, 2014

How personal do you want to get?

I will admit something probably uncharacteristic of a typical Lutheran -- I cringe just about every time I hear somebody speak of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  It is one of those key words used within the evangelical and fundamentalist community and it has surely crept into the Lutheran conversation as well.  I heard one Lutheran Pastor suggest that the purpose of catechism was not to teach doctrine but to build a personal relationship with Jesus in each of the catechumens.  I thought I was going to explode.

Those who generally speak of a personal relationship with Jesus are speaking of a personal relationship which is anything but personal in the Biblical sense.  They have in mind the feelings of the heart but the Scriptures nowhere encourage the idea of an emotional connection to Jesus.  Don't get me wrong here -- I am all for passion for Christ, the Gospel, and the holy life of the baptized.  However, our lives as Christians are based not on fire of an emotion or even the strength of our personal commitment.  They are built upon the means of grace wherein Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, comes to us in the most personal of ways -- through the Sacraments!

Those who seem to use the term personal relationship most are those who refuse the most personal of means through which Christ comes to us, makes His home with us, delivers to us the fruits of His saving death and resurrection, and imparts to us His Spirit.  In other words, the voices typically calling us to have a personal relationship with Jesus leave us empty of the very means by which Christ has made Himself most personally accessible to us.

I wish Lutherans would stop using that phrase.  We have adopted the evangelical vocabulary and with it we have unwittingly (or perhaps deliberately by some) turned our people form the most personal of means by which Christ comes to us to abide with us and we in Him and substitutes instead the uncertain foundation of feeling, desire, and commitment.  Our relationship with Christ is with an incarnate Christ and not with the idea of Jesus.  Our relationship with Christ is built not by our will and desire (though the Spirit is certainly at work transforming the mind and teaching us to love, delight in, and follow Christ's good and gracious will).  It seems to me the most unrealistic and fragile relationship if it is based merely upon the feeling of the moment or the strength of the will in that moment to live up to the feeling.  Marriage involves a public commitment which holds husband and wife accountable precisely for those moments when the feelings are fragile and we are most apt to ditch the relationship.  Our lives in Christ require the same objective and concrete source and means to sustain us when our hearts are empty and our lives a mess.

In addition, this personal relationship with Jesus often gives the impression that the Church is optional or at least secondary to this primary personal relationship.  In other words, it is me and Jesus first and me and other people with Jesus second.  The Church becomes an optional and voluntary association of those who desire it but not essential to me and my faith relationship with Jesus.  This bears no resemblance at all to the Church of the New Testament in which the means of grace are the source and summit of our Christian lives, flowing from and back to the Divine Service.  Why would Hebrews scold those who have neglected the ekklesia (gathering around the Word and Sacrament) to live out their Christian lives on their own if such communion in the community were optional?

How personal do you want your relationship with Jesus to be?  It can get no more personal than to be marked with the cross and join the ranks of the old Israel and the new, those baptized in the Red Sea and those baptized in the water commanded by Christ.  It can get no more personal than the water with the Word that kills the old life of sin in you and raises you up to the new life in Christ.  It can get no more personal than connecting you to the suffering and death of Christ so that His righteousness becomes the new clothing of your new life.  It can get no more personal than the Word which delivers upon His promise so that the sinner hears in the absolution the very voice of Christ removing the stains of sin and restoring the fallen to their place as God's holy child.  It can get no more personal than to be given a place at the Table of Christ -- a place we do not deserve and of which we are always unworthy.  It can get no more personal than to eat the flesh of Christ in the bread of His promise and to drink the blood of Christ in the cup of His promise (not some symbol or sign but the very and true flesh and blood of Jesus).  It can get no more personal than to be adopted into a family by baptism and to live in that family in the bonds of love, forgiving as we have been forgiven and serving as we have served.  It can get no more personal than to be set apart as the holy ones of Christ who bear His Word and mercy to the world in love for neighbor and stranger.

It is a false and unScriptural dichotomy to pit personal against sacramental.  In fact, the only personal that there can be in our relationship with Jesus is because our Lord lives in His Word and Sacraments to do what He has promised, to deliver what He has won, to nourish what He has given life...  Really, we Lutherans have got to stop borrowing terminology from others and direct our lives and our outreach to the present Jesus, the Emmanuel who keeps His promise still, and to the place Christ makes Himself known so that we might know Him by faith and walk in His ways to His glory forevermore.

Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable with the term personal relationship with Jesus in the way it is used by nearly everyone using it?


Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you – but coming from me that may be the kiss of death.
My guess is that the “personal relationship” idea came about as a result of the change from community thinking to individual thinking. It’s about “me”.
Our Lord, even when he taught us to ask for forgiveness of our sins, did not say “and forgive me my sins …” but “forgive us our sins”, not to speak of daily bread and temptation. Also, He said “where two or three are gathered together, I will be there”. That’s a significant reduction from the Old Testament minyan, but still not “just me.”
I suspect also that partly the fault lies in the fact that, as Sasse writes, “the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has lost its citizenship in the Lutheran Church.” The Holy Spirit is mentioned very rarely from our pulpits, and when He is, what is said about Him is often wrong. We ignore those priceless words our Lord spoke to His Disciples just before He left them to complete His suffering, beginning in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John.
We do remember Him on Pentecost, with the famous Introit, “Fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit and set them on fire with Your love.” We don’t know that according to Scripture, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts from Baptism, and neither needs refilling or can be refilled. As to setting our hearts on fire with His love, we don’t know what we are asking. If the Lord were to answer this prayer, we would all sell everything we have, give it to the poor and wander around proclaiming the Gospel. But then, Pentecost only comes about once a year.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ... Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians... Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world."

- Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, Sept. 3, 2008

Truth Unites... and Divides said...


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Hence the way of belonging to God is explained: it comes about through a unique and personal relationship with Jesus, which Baptism confers on us from the beginning of our rebirth to new life. It is Christ, therefore, who continually summons us by his word to place our trust in him, loving him “with all the heart, with all the understanding, and with all the strength” (Mk 12:33). "

Pope Francis - Day of Prayer for Vocations. Jan. 15, 2014

Anonymous said...

Was Francis speaking ex cathedra in these statements?

Janis Williams said...

I get where you're all coming from. Maybe it's a both/and thing. We do have Christ as our (individual) Savior. We do have Christ as our (community) Savior. The slogans and catch phrases that have become embedded in Christian-speak are like the proverbial burr under the saddle.

The "me-ness" of it all is what's wrong. Yes, there is such a thing as personal relationship, but it's our incessant speaking of MY personal relationship that irritates. Once we are individually in Christ's kingdom, we become part of that community.

There is an old Christian symbol of the Church: the Cattail. It rises from the mud. It has individual leaves and flower heads (cattails). However, cattails have common roots. If anyone has ever tried to rid a pond of them, you know how the rhizomes are basically one huge mass. This is what I'm getting at by the both/and.

So maybe what Fr. Peters is saying is we need to get back to our roots?

Pastor Peters said...

The personal that God intends is not divorced from or in opposition to the sacramental relationship through which we know the Lord and through which the Spirit does the work of God in bringing us to faith, sustaining us in this faith, equipping us for the good works that glorify God, and delivering us to God holy and blameless in Christ for the day of judgement. That is the personal I know and affirm from Scripture and a personal which eschews the sacramental is not personal nor is it Biblical. That is my point and I am fairly certain that Francis would agree.

Anonymous said...


Coming from an evangelical background, and now attending a Lutheran church I appreciate the hymns and the kind of orderliness that evangelicalism does not seem to have. In fact, I am thinking about getting confirmed in the church (as I received Trinitarian baptism anyway).

However, during one of those Sundays that I attend the church, our pastor discussed with us (visitors) our religious backgrounds and to my surprise, mentioned (non verbatim) that "It's not religion that will get you to heaven but your relationship with Jesus.".

How should I respond to this situation? Should I move to another church?

Thanks in advance.