We Christians like to speak of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” We often like to think of Jesus as our friend, our buddy, our confidant. Modern evangelism tends to avoid bringing up the awfulness of hell anymore as a motivator to become a Christian (we make fun of fire-and-brimstone preachers), rather the emphasis is placed squarely on the positive relationship aspects of salvation. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” “Come to Jesus!” There must be many ways to think about this, but I believe in general we tend to produce an image in our heads of Jesus as our friend. Jesus loves us, he even died for us, but is friendship the best way to think about our relationship with him? Is he our friend or is he our lord?
Are Jesus and you on a roadtrip together, or are you doing his will? Is my relationship with Jesus more like having coffee with a friend or more like coming before the throne of a king?
A great many Protestant/Evangelical church services revolve around creating the feelings of having a personal relationship with Jesus; a kind of emotional high that evokes heartfelt emotions and supposedly “recharges one’s spiritual batteries” for Monday. That seems to be the job function of what is often called the “worship team.” Churches that are most successful at creating those feelings tend to grow big and become financially rich. Apart from the fact that, though Jesus does truly exist, the “Jesus” we claim to know is largely one of our imaginations; and apart from the clearly manufactured and manipulated emotional elements of many of these church services, a question still remains: Do we have the right kind of relationship in mind when we claim a personal relationship with Jesus?
I cannot imagine anyone having a more clear understanding of a “personal relationship with Jesus” than his apostles, except, of course, his mother. If this is true, then I am struck by these two verses:
One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; (John 13:23)
And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. (Revelation 1:17a)
The first takes place during the upper room discourse prior to Christ’s crucifixion. John the apostle leans back against Jesus. There is a closeness, an intimacy, a personal relationship going on there. Of course all the apostles had a personal relationship with Jesus, for they walked with him, ate with him, boarded with him, and were taught directly by him. But the intimacy with John wonderfully contrasts with John’s response at seeing the risen Christ in his vision of Heaven. Here John turns and sees Jesus in his glory. What is John’s response? He falls at Christ’s feet as dead. John is an apostle, one with a close and intimate relationship with Jesus, but now he is falling down in profound reverence at the feet of his lord—as though his very life depended on it.
Is it better to approach the throne of Christ standing up because one is confident in one’s “standing” before him, or to fall down before him as though dead, only to have him then raise one up to standing saying, “be not afraid”?
We know that God loves us. We know that Jesus gave his life for us. We know that the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, works intimately on our hearts. But can we say that we have a personal relationship with Jesus as though he is our friend, our buddy, our warm fuzzy? Perhaps John saw Jesus as a kind of “big brother” buddy when they were walking around Galilee, but that obviously changed once Christ rose in glory. If John fell down at Christ’s feet as though dead, what should be our response to Christ? Are we willing to accept a Christianity that, perhaps, gives us not so much a friend as a lord? I know I have rarely exhibited the kind of reverence and service due to Christ.
What if we discover that Jesus doesn’t care all that much if we have warm fuzzy feelings toward him, rather that he wants us to keep his commands: to feed the hungry, help the poor, the orphans , the widows, to be a unified church, to submit to the authority of the apostles (and their successors), and to participate in the corporeal and tangible activities that God gave us to sanctify us, that is, those gifts known as the sacraments? Is not this the right kind of relationship? Can we live with that?
If so, what would this then look like? How would this affect our lives, our relationships, our sanity? And how would this affect our worship, or perhaps, how should this affect the way we “do church”? Might “church” then look less like a Protestant/Evangelical/emotional worship service and more like a solemn Catholic (or perhaps Orthodox) mass? (This is not to say that Catholics shouldn’t get a bit more evangelical in spirit as well.) Does the Eucharist (with Christ being really present) and the serving of others constitute our true personal relationship with Christ, and the rest being, perhaps, merely imagination and emotion? If we are the body of Christ then is not our unity some indication of our relationship with Jesus, who is the head of the Church, and our disunity a sign of a poor relationship with the head? If this is so, then to be Protestant must require answering the question every day, “Why am I still Protestant?” We should have a very good reason, for the implications of disunity are too great not to take this seriously; the implications of being comfortable and unquestioning in the “breakaway churches” might be very grave indeed. And if I don’t have a good answer am I then willing to admit the seriousness of my situation? If I am not Protestant, but rather some vague evangelical who just “loves Jesus”, am I capable of admitting the serious of my situation?
I ask because I don’t know. But I have my suspicions.