Day of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21; Ps 104:25-35,37; I Corinthians 12:3-13; John 7:37-39
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, June 3, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” – I Cor. 12:13
Several years ago, I was sitting on a bench behind Gorgas Library in Tuscaloosa, waiting for Steve to pick me up. I was immersed in whatever book I happened to be reading at the time when I overheard two girls ask a couple about their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My first thought was, “Please God, don’t let them walk over to me,” quickly followed by: “Is it really appropriate to ask someone about their personal relationship with Jesus?” “How uncomfortable to be approached by two strangers who are much younger than you and asking such a personal question?” “Do those twelve year old girls even know what that means?” “Do they do some sort of training or just send out these children to evangelize?” “How many people have actually been saved in this way?” “Is this approach doing more harm than good?” Granted, I am an Episcopalian and we don’t really do evangelism all that well. It wasn’t the idea that these two girls were walking up to complete strangers to evangelize—I actually kind of thought they showed a great deal of courage and spunk—It’s got to be really intimidating to even consider that kind of approach in spreading the Good News. No, their reaching out didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” That question bothered me not because it seemed intrusive; it bothered me because it was fundamentally the wrong question to ask.
Culturally we’ve begun to treat Jesus as if we can see and touch him, take him out for coffee, know him as we do our best friends. We’ve forgotten that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God until he comes again to judge the living and the dead. We’ve put so much emphasis into this second person of the Trinity, that we’ve lost touch with the divine side of Jesus. In a nutshell, we’ve secularized Jesus—made him something more relatable, painted him in our image rather than the other way around. We desire a personal relationship with Jesus and in our quest for one, we often construct a Jesus that we are comfortable with, one that we can hang out with, one that might encourage us to act in particular ways but rarely requires accountability.
In the book God In the Wasteland, David Wells warns those of us who have blurred the line between the divine and ourselves. He says, we “labor under the illusion that the God [we] make in the image of the self becomes more real as he more nearly comes to resemble the self, to accommodate its needs and desires. The truth is quite the opposite. It is ridiculous to assert that God could become more real by abandoning his own character in an effort to identify more completely with ours. And yet the illusion has proved compelling to a whole generation.” Basically, he calls us out for reshaping God into something that looks more like us and less like God. The problem with using language like “a personal relationship with Jesus” is that it does little to help us understand whom Jesus is and how we are to relate to him in this world.
“Personal relationship” language is self-defeating for those who don’t have that same understanding of their own relationship with Jesus. We all experience Jesus in a variety of ways and this intimate use of language can cause some of us to feel left out which can lead to feelings of doubt and anger in those who don’t experience Jesus in the same way their more evangelical friends seem too. In witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ, using “personal relationship” language can lead down a sticky path of possessiveness and judgment even when that is not your desired destination. That was my real frustration with the two pre-teen evangelists that day, but there is another reason why I am not a fan of “personal relationship” language.
Today we celebrate the Day of Pentecost—a day when the disciples were all gathered together and the Holy Spirit alighted upon them like tongues of fire. God did something new that day—he showed up in a different way and offered a different way of being in relationship with us. St. Paul explains that new relationship in the letter to the Corinthians we read this morning, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” This is not “personal relationship” language, it is communal relationship language. Think of what a gift that is—not only do we get the Holy Spirit, but we get the opportunity to be in relationship with Christ, with the divine, through community as the body.
A personal relationship with Jesus Christ can limit us to a very narrow and somewhat constricted opportunity for growing in love and maturity as a Christ follower. Once we break that open and begin to develop a communal relationship with Jesus Christ by being a part of the body of Christ, we broaden the possibilities of our own growth, of the community’s growth, even of those outside the community. To break open our relationship with Christ and grow through community is to release judgment, to release ownership of God, to release the need to dictate to the world what you think it means to be a follower of the Way of Jesus. And more importantly, to break open our relationship with Christ is about inviting others in and that is what true evangelism looks like.
Maybe “body of Christ” language and imagery has become cliché, there is little doubt as to its overfamiliarity and our poor assumptions as to what it means. But for Paul this communal aspect of what it means to be the body of Christ shifts and redefines how we are in relationship with the divine. When Paul was a Jewish zealot, his whole understanding of being in relationship with the divine centered around Torah and his (Paul’s) ability to follow it. It was an individual and personal relationship with YHWH. You follow Torah and obey the rules and YHWH will bless you. This personal relationship extended only to the community in that if there are those who did not follow Torah, they were not blessed and that could affect the whole of the community requiring some sort of atonement to restore right relationship with YHWH. In this way, there is a communal relationship with the divine but it is one of cause and effect and less of one in which the different parts of the community function together as one.
After Paul experiences his moment of conversion on the road to Damascus, his understanding of community and relationship to the divine shifts as his understanding of salvation changes. No longer does Paul find Torah the necessary path to salvation instead he begins to rethink faith in a whole new way; a way that offers a path for both Jew and Gentile alike; a way that no longer identifies rule-following as the path to justification but recognizes that we are only justified by the salvific act of Christ’s death and resurrection. We no longer need to follow Torah to be justified because there is nothing we can do for ourselves or to ourselves to ensure justification—only Christ can, and already has, done that for us. This is the extent of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship in which Jesus chooses us. It is not, however, the extent of Paul’s understanding of being in relationship with Jesus.
For Paul, justification is only the first step of a two-part process of salvation. Our justification through Christ is also an invitation into sanctification, the second step of Paul’s process to salvation. Whereas justification requires only faith, sanctification is marked by action. Basically, you can get into the club just by being who you are and knowing whom you know (Jesus), but to flourish in the club you’re going to have to put forth a little effort. You get in the club as an individual, but staying in the club requires communal effort. For years we’ve been debating faith versus acts, but for Paul the truth is faith and acts.
This morning/In a few minutes we will baptize Clayton Milhous Mitchell into the body of Christ. This action is less salvific as it concerns justification and more salvific in its consequences of sanctification. Christ already justifies Clayton through the cross. Nothing we do today makes that more or less than what it already is because Jesus has already done that work for Clayton and for all of us.
What we do today is to begin the process of sanctification in Clayton’s life by initiating Clayton as a part of us, a part of the body of Christ. It is this body that we profess in the third article of the Creed; defining the Holy Spirit as the Church universal and the communion of saints who receive forgiveness of sins and resurrection into eternal life. We, as the body of Christ, no longer profess our individuality through a personal relationship with Jesus; instead he offers us a personal relationship. What we give back to him is community—our identity bound up in the body, differentiated from one another but proclaimed together as Christ. The Holy Spirit is the vehicle of that relationship drawing us together as church.
John describes that which flows from a believer’s heart as rivers of living water. Just as a river of water cannot be known by its individual molecules of H2O, neither can we as Christians make Jesus known to the world as individuals concerned only with ourselves—sanctification doesn’t happen that way. As Clayton is baptized and drawn into us, he becomes one more molecule of H2O that flows like living water on this earth. He becomes one more part of the body of Christ. Amen.