Sunday, February 9, 2014
How personal do you want to get?
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?