If there were ever a phrase that set my teeth on edge, it happens when I am asked if I “have a personal relationship with Jesus.” I’m never sure exactly what the questioner means but it puts me in mind of snapshots of couples who wear matching t-shirts, or go to the movies together, hug tightly and often and a bit too smugly, who are too self-consciously cute.
But a year or two ago I was walking down oven Street by the chemist across from Safeway when I saw this older Italian woman walking towards me. I remember her as dignified, a few years older than I am, carrying herself well but still with the feeling of having had a fairly busy day behind her. And she was walking with what I took to be a grandson or a great-grandson who was involved with some amazing game known only to himself. Every step was an adventure! Raising his knees and taking a breath and setting his foot down and raising his other leg up higher and looking like he was on the edge of winning some great prize known only to him. I can’t remember if he was intent on touching or avoiding the cracks on the sidewalk, but it was very involved and very important. And his grandmother, having had a busy day, watched him with a kind of weary graceful love as they passed me by. And I smiled because I had seen something quite simple and very human and amazingly beautiful on the sidewalk on Ovens Street that was completely unexpected. And at that moment I met the eyes of a woman who had been following the grandmother and grandchild and we had seen the same thing from a different angle. And our eyes met and we smiled together — and we had what I would call a personal relationship!
In that sense a personal relationship with Jesus makes sense to me. A sense that we’re in this together, that I’ll meet you here in the middle! but it doesn’t have to be hand in hand or arm in arm for a photo shoot. sometimes it can be a surprise! I remember, at nineteen, the first time I was touched by seeing people kneeling to pray, shocked, touched that people would openly acknowledge their incompleteness, their unfinished lives: what were they seeing, what could they trust to take that step to their knees and then go on: and i wanted what they were leaning into, could I please have what they are having?
Relationships grow in a common concern, what we share in common, what pictures come that move our hearts together: and in any relationship it grows over time if we’re lucky. I joined the church because of a need for social acceptance and relief for a long loneliness, but I grew into the church, and it into me, into this amorphous relationship because of singing good hymns and joining the choir, meeting young people and getting involved with the youth group, hearing about a book and going to a bible study one Lent. And the church, the message and momentum, the people gathered there and the good news too grew into me and changed me;
The scripture and tradition changed me. I remember hearing the Beatitudes and realising that the poor, lonely and lost were loved and that meant me too, with all my hidden sadness, that I was incorporated into this body of love; I remember realising that loving the neighbour meant not only that everybody was, by God’s grace, deeply loveable, and so was I! I remember being a little inconvenienced by the idea that not only was I not the piece of dirt in the middle of the universe, but that the middle of the universe was self-giving, life living love, lovely light that shines in the darkness which can never quite understand it, but love that is there before the beginning, which aims to meet us in the middle and means to mend this free-wheeling, which sometimes seems to be out of control, universe until it meets the end, which it aims to be love, and something more.
Some days I believe this a lot, other days I can only hope. But over time the community, the tradition, the stories told, the people gathered, accumulated into a series of God-shaped events which keeps calling me and somehow keeps moving us all together. I’ve talked here about how the Jesus stories in the Gospels function like a flip book, moving to show how Jesus moves, leading us like a dance lesson to move the same way. We come here to see the body of Christ, so that we can be the body of Christ, in the middle of the songs and stories, the miracles and misunderstandings, all the edges of anger and violence and virtue and love and hate clashing and even hanging around together to witness the senseless death of a good person in a world where so much goes wrong for no good reason, and something more.
In the last few months I watched a good friend die: enter into that mystery with some gravity and grace and an awareness of the unfinished nature of the journey that comes in the middle of human being; I saw him on the edge of the mystery, with just hints of that lovely light, that hidden love in which we are all called. But enough to watch with hope, to continue on the journey.
Jesus is there, in the long journey, in the letting go, in the hidden light in the love that lasts; and Jesus is here too, in our Sunday gatherings, in communion and coffee and tea and treats and trials and all the business of learning to live together in love day by day in El Dorado and Wangaratta. In the middle of a world where so much goes wrong and still love lives moment by moment in the midst of all our fragility and faith and something more to which we ripen, rise, are called to follow along this pilgrim way.
Just lean deeply into how love lives, the surprise, the little boy lost in the great game that goes on, step by step, love in the middle, life beyond life, holiness in the heart of here and now: for we are the body of Christ.