Recently a friend posted on Twitter that she hated the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus.” It sort of took me by surprise, given that she’s an ordained pastor, but then several other pastor, elder and seminary friends chimed in to say they took issue as well.
I think this is one of those moments when I get hung between the two worlds in which I live and work. Being a writer for one of the largest evangelical para-church organizations in the world, I use that phrase pretty regularly. We are all about making sure that people have a change to hear how God loves them personally and that God’s grace makes it possible for them to be in relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Of course, being a para-church organization populated mostly by folks who are part of Congregationalist or non-denominational traditions, there isn’t much concern about where that relationship with God is lived out. Sure, you should be in some sort of accountability group where you study the Bible and learn how to tell others about this Jesus you now follow. And it’s good to find someplace where you can worship God with others. But it should be a place that encourages you to grow in your personal relationship with Jesus.
Meanwhile, in my seminary classes and in conversations with others in my denomination, we are talking about the nature of the Trinity as a relational model for our lives in Christ. I may make a conscious choice to respond to God (through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit) and to pursue a deeper, richer understanding of God’s love and desires for me, but I can only do that in the context of relationships with others. It is in those relationships, where I learn to love people who are like me and not, who annoy me and thrill me, who make me so mad I want to spit nails and make me sing with joy for their victories, who hurt me and speak healing words, in those relationships, I learn how to love well.
I learn how to love like Christ, who was so attuned to God’s will that he was able to live a fully human and utterly sinless life. I learn how to love like Christ who was filled with the Holy Spirit and mediates the Spirit to us. I learn how to love like Christ, who embodied the sacrificial love of God for all humanity, even knowing what absolutely recalcitrant, violent and asinine creatures we can be. I learn to lead and to follow. I learn to stand with, beside and behind my brothers and sisters. I learn to reach out in love to those with whom I disagree. I learn to listen to those who are reaching out in love to me, even when it hurts to hear what they have to say.
Do I have a personal relationship with Christ? Yes.
Do I have a corporate relationship with Christ? Yes, and that makes all the difference.