Thursday, March 17, 2011

What is Your Relationship with Jesus?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the First Sunday in Lent: Matthew 4:1-11

How many of you are what we call “cradle Episcopalians?” Of those of you who are, how many of you feel like the church did a good job teaching you how to have a relationship with Jesus?

I ask that question because it has been my observation over my 25 or so years in this church that Episcopalians don’t talk about their relationship with Jesus very much, if at all.

So, as I said in my March newsletter article, I want to talk about relationship with Jesus during Lent.

First I want to start with two basic concepts that will be true throughout this conversation. Then I want to see what the story of Jesus’ temptation has to tell us about this man with whom we are called to relate.

Let’s start with this assertion: we are already in relationship with Jesus, and, perhaps without realizing it, it has already gotten just about as intimate as it can get. When the presider prays over the water at a Baptism, he or she says:

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection.[1]

In our Baptism, we believe, we are joined to Christ and live his life, death, and resurrection. In a good, old-fashioned Anglican word, we “participate” in it. Richard Hooker, probably the greatest Anglican theologian who ever lived (1553-1600), used this word a great deal to describe our relationship with God. Contemporary theologian John Booty says

Hooker believed that our true happiness, the purpose of human existence, consists in our participation in God and God’s in us.[2]

We’ll keep working with this word “participation” as we go along. But the bottom line for right now is that you and me are already in relationship with Jesus. Our life was joined with his life at our Baptism. We participate in his life and he participates in ours.

Second of all, I believe that not only are we already in relationship with Jesus, but Jesus wants to be in relationship with us. Jesus even wants to serve us.

I’ll repeat the story I told in the March newsletter. I was at my first retreat after having been ordained—two or three years after. The leader was Brother Martin Smith of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who was a kind of hero of mine from reading his writings.

I got to have two one-on-one sessions with Martin. I was extremely nervous about the first—I had him on a pedestal so I expected he would teach me some new but difficult spiritual trick. Would I succeed or fail?

We chatted after I sat down. He got to know the circumstances of my life as it was then. Then he said, “Now here is what I suggest you do.” I almost fainted in anticipation. “I want you to ask Jesus what he wants to do for you.” I was speechless and he ushered me out of the room.

It sounded like a question that shouldn’t be asked. You know, ask not what Jesus can do for you, but what you can do for Jesus. Who was I to ask such a question? My job was to do what Jesus wanted me to do. Well, I wrestled with the question so much during the retreat that I never did actually get around to asking it.

So two days later I went back to see Martin. “How is it going?” he asked. “Not very well” I replied. I was confused. He had completely disrupted my prayer life rather than improved it.

He responded by telling me to close my eyes and breathe deeply. He read me chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, the story we read on Maundy Thursday, the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. At the end of the story comes Peter’s protest, in which I heard my own, “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” Then I heard Jesus say, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

Martin said nothing else. He blessed me and sent me on my way. I’ve been wrestling with the implications of what he taught me ever since.

Jesus wants to be in relationship with you. That’s another bottom line and one you cannot affect.

A brief aside: I know that some of you have trouble relating to Jesus because of who he was. He was a man. He was Middle Eastern, although throughout history he has most often, erroneously, been portrayed as white. He can be perceived as weak. However, I think the experience of Christians over the centuries is that Jesus can and will take any form you need in order for him to relate to you. There is a great tradition, for instance, of the African Jesus. And as I said, Europeans made him look like them for centuries. Some great Christian mystical leaders such as Anselm of Canterbury and Julian of Norwich have called Jesus “mother.” Jesus will be in any form you need him to be.

So who is this Jesus we meet in today’s gospel? He has had his sense of calling affirmed at his Baptism, hearing the voice from heaven, “You are my beloved.” He then continues his quest in the wilderness (always in the Bible a place of testing), and at the end of forty days he meets one who is first called the “tempter” and then the “devil,” which literally means “the deceiver.”

And the question is, which way will he follow: the way of deception or the way of reality, that is, God’s reality? The devil tempts him with displays of three kinds of power: the power of miracle, the power of safety and the power of dominion. Jesus says an emphatic no each time. I am called to a different way. And he goes on that way and that way will lead him to the cross where he will hear a similar temptation, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[3]

This story tells me that if we are going to relate to Jesus here are things we have to be prepared for:


v Jesus is not willing to be your personal magician, miracle-worker, or power broker. They are not in his job description, but…

v Jesus will be more than glad to walk with you through the desert, as long as it takes.

v Jesus, simply put, will refuse to be who you want him to be. That’s the bad news. The good news is, he will never, ever leave you and he will never, ever stop loving you.

Oh, and one other thing. Don’t play Bible-trivia with this guy. You will lose.

None of this answers all the questions we have about Jesus and how to relate to him, and to allow him to relate to us. But it’s a start. Now for the next four weeks we will hear four great stories about individual encounters with Jesus from John’s Gospel. Next week from chapter three, Nicodemus will come to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Then, from chapter four, Jesus will be passing through Samaria and stop by a well for a drink, where he will have a long encounter with a woman.

Then from chapter nine, Jesus will heal a blind man and there will be much fussing about by both his parents and the religious authorities. And finally, from chapter 11, Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus will die and Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha will send for Jesus and an awe-inspiring tale will follow.

My goal is this. I believe that after Jesus’ death, it was the relationship that the disciples had had with him that made all the difference, that made Easter real. I want that same real Easter for us. I want us to know more deeply what we say at our Baptism, that we have been buried with Christ in his death, and raised with him in his resurrection. How can we participate in Jesus’ life, and he in ours?


[1] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 306.

[2] John Booty, Reflections on the Theology of Richard Hooker: An Elizabethan addresses Modern Anglicanism (University of the South Press, 1998), p. 170.

[3] Matthew 27:40.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

I miss your homilies. So glad to have found your blog! Jim and I regret to this day that we were unable to see you before you left St. George's.