In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea. I found myself participating in a Facebook debate about religion. Facebook is a good forum for many things, but it too easily turns to online road rage, providing more heat than light. I’m not sure that anyone ever changed their thinking on politics or religion by participating in one of these exchanges.
The discussion was prompted by an interesting blogpost by a pastor named Chad Bird. Its title: Christianity is not about a personal relationship with Jesus.
A red flag goes up for me whenever a sentence starts like that. Whenever someone says with such conviction what Christianity is or is not, I appeal to the words of the old hymn which speaks of the mysterious wideness of God’s mercy. That hymn includes this hopeful, humbling line: The love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.
But it all got me thinking about whether the Christian faith is an individual matter or a communal event. With dogmatic fervor and certainty rivaling rabid fundamentalists who claim the faith is all about accepting Jesus as personal savior, folks were arguing that Christianity is only and all about community, that a focus on a personal relationship misreads scripture, nurtures narcissism, and reflects an excessively private faith, celebrating a rugged, rigid individualism.
The Anglican in me found me posting: Does this need to be a choice? Someone asked me to explain. That’s when I signed off. It wasn’t the right forum. But here’s my best attempt at an explanation, based on insights from the baptismal service, of all places, a liturgy that says a lot about our identity, as it blends individual and communal spiritual experience.
Notice the progression in the baptismal service. As candidates for baptism are presented, responses are all in the first person, the voice of an individual. I do desire to be baptized. I do renounce evil. I do turn to Jesus and accept him as savior. I do put my trust in his grace and love. I do promise to follow him as Lord. (Side note: Doesn’t that language sound strikingly evangelical, perhaps even describing a personal relationship?)
But of course the service doesn’t end there. It widens in scope so that the next question asks the whole community to support this person. They respond: We will. The baptismal covenant follows, with affirmation of what we (not I) believe, what we (not I) promise to do, with God’s help. Those promises make the point that we can’t do it alone. We don’t do it for self alone. The covenant calls us to the vision of Archbishop William Temple who said that the church is the only organization on earth that exists for the sake of those who are not its members.
Why do the pronouns matter? It’s a total both/and. It’s all about relationship. An individual relationship with God in Christ, whatever that looks like, leads to a richer, healthier communal life. That communal relationship in turn supports the individual, because with the exception of a few really holy hermit types, we can’t be a Christian alone. Together, we participate in a movement aimed at healing a broken world.
So this Monday morning, how do you think about your relationship with God in Christ? (I added some comments from Marcus Borg and Martin Buber below for your consideration.) Are you part of a community that is helping you go deeper in that relationship? Are you bringing the amazing gift of your relationship to the community, so you can reach out to a world in need?
Thoughts on relationship:
Jesus said: My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.
Through the Thou a person becomes I.
The only possible relationship with God is to address him and to be addressed by him, here and now.
God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.
The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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