“A personal relationship with Jesus.”
It’s the elephant in the room.
It’s a piece of theology requiring an explanation. It is seen as central to a whole arm of modern Christianity. It is, perhaps, the most single most important chunk of theology that the evangelicals have got.
It’s an elephant because it does not appear in the bible. Worse than that, the phrase is only something like 100 years old.
It’s easy to hear the “elephant in the room” thing as a cliché. But before over use robbed the words of their sting, it was quite a powerful statement. Perhaps this goes with out saying. But a person who pretends that an elephant isn’t in the room with them, that person would have to be pretty stupid. Or at least, deep, deep, deep in denial.
So if we’re going to assert the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, we owe an explanation to the skeptics, to the curious, to anybody who might not see this as valuable. There are a smattering of challenges that will have to be met when answering that question. Specifically:
1) How did the first 95% Christianity miss this important doctrine?
2) Why would God allow the first 95% of Christianity to miss this doctrine?
3) What makes us so special, that we would be among the few people who got it right?
I think that a satisfactory answer to these questions can be given. I think we can admit that there is an elephant in the room. I think we can explain why he is there. And then we can… I don’t know. Pretend it is a zoo and invite people to come see the elephant. (There’s no real metaphorical meaning there. I just wanted to say that we can explain this thing and then it will be better.)
I don’t think it’s helpful to address those 3 questions separately. I think they can all be addressed together.
I don’t actually think our ancestors, our mothers and fathers in the faith, needed this piece of doctrine. In many cases, it wasn’t necessary for them to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Did I get your attention yet? I’m trying to be a little provacotive here. But bear with me for a minute.
It is all about that word, “personal.” The idea that we need to be engaged in a relationship with Jesus is thoroughly biblical. I don’t know if Jesus specifically said, “You need to have a relationship with me.” explicitly but I do know that he said we were his mother, brother, sisters, friends; he said that he was the vine and we were the branches, he said he was the way (i.e. path) and we are the journeyers.
I want to spend a little bit of time on that last one. Jesus said he was the way.
Usually, we quote Jesus on this one to people who aren’t following him. Usually, we make great importance of the implication that Jesus is the only way.
I am not interested, today, in debating whether or not their are other ways to salvation.
I am very interested in debating what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the light.”
He had just mentioned that he was leaving. His followers were worried that they would not find him. Jesus said these words to them, his closest friends: I am the way. He didn’t say it to practioners of some other religion. He didn’t use it as a fear-tactic to scare people into converting to Christianity.
He offered it as an encouragement to those who already followed him. He was, in effect, saying, the very act of trying to find him, the very path which lead to him, was also a part of him.
It might seem that I have wandered away from my original thought, but here is where it all comes back together:
There are certain places I know intimately. I have visited them over the years and across the seasons. I have the joy of watching the ways they change, and of marveling at the ways they do not. In short, there are places that I have a relationship with.
It isn’t really a personal relationship. Because these places aren’t persons. But this does not make the relationship less valid or less valuable than my personal relationships.
In the modern era, I suspect we have narrowed down the list of things we might engage in relationship with. We have engaged in a kind of chauvinism, where our relationships with other people are assumed to be more important, to run deeper, to have more value.
The idea that we would qualify our relationship with Jesus as one which might be personal has some value. It is valuable because we are products of our age. It would be hard for us to value this relationship if it were not personal. It embraces the humanity of Jesus.
But I think that something is lost. Because the idea that Jesus was wholly and fully human is utterly true. And yet, at the same time, it is only half the story.
Jesus is so much more than a person. It follows that our relationship with him would be much more than merely a personal relationship.
At best, this idea that we must have a personal relationship with Jesus is a concession to our times. We moderns/post moderns can grab a hold of the idea of the importance of personal relationship. At worst, it is an act of heresy and idolatry. It limits The Unlimited and it attempts to tame That Which Can Not be Tamed. (Apologies to Ms. Rowling for any rhymes with her creations.)