Posted by: rogermitchell | September 28, 2011

In relationship with Jesus

Gareth Davies very helpfully drew attention to an article on twitter today in which Professor John Suk of the Asian Theological Seminary questioned the usefulness and biblical character of the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus. He describes it as essentially secular in its roots []. I understand what he is getting at here. It is a similar point to the one my late supervisor Dr. Paul Fletcher makes in his book “Disciplining the Divine,” and I refer to in my coming book, where the exaltation and deification of the autonomous self is elevated to a transcendent status and Jesus is submitted to me rather than me to him. As a result the Jesus I claim to relate to is really God in my image and not me in his. There is truth in this in some alleged forms of discipleship today. Nevertheless, I don’t at all believe that the answer is to relegate talk of a personal relationship with Jesus to the unbiblical or the unreal.

Instead, I believe, we need to return to the testimony of Jesus, the God he reveals and the relationship into which he clearly does call us. Given that some professed followers of Jesus are more like the progeny of the devil (as he described the Pharisees in Jn 8:44), and some not-yet-disciples are clearly children of peace (like the householders referred to in Luke 10:6), it is important to get more clarity on what such a relationship really means. It seems to have everything to do with how a person relates to the good news of the kingdom, which is tantamount to Jesus himself, and involves repentance. As Mark’s gospel has it “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. As he was going along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:15-18).

Repentance is turning away from one thing and embracing another. However, if, as my thesis suggests, a corporate ecclesial fall in the 4th century effectively resulted in turning away from Jesus and embracing the rule of empire, then to properly relate to Jesus we will need to redefine what repentance involves. Since then, repentance, at least in part, has been understood as turning from the failure to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, and keep his and the clergy’s laws and to embrace one kind or another regular participation in a religious liturgy. It is hardly surprising, if, in reaction to this, people end up constructing a Jesus in their own image, especially since the real one is largely displaced. It follows that the act of repentance itself needs reconfiguring, and that in some ways this will turn it into its opposite, which is both serious and disturbing.

If sin is seeking our own kingdom, dominating others, and insisting on our own personal, familial or tribal autonomy, then repentance begins with the recognition that we have constructed a god in the image of our own selfish desire for power. This attitude to power is clearly incompatible with friendship with Jesus. It follows that most of us who profess a personal relationship with Jesus are only partly experiencing him, while partly relating to an extension of our own fallen selves. This is why it is so crucial to rediscover the gospel Jesus at this time. Until we’ve got this sorted out, much so-called evangelism, which is often couched in terms of bringing folk into a relationship with Jesus, is reduced to a form of religious proselytization which is at best converting people to a particular dogma, liturgy or lifestyle but may actually be no more than an ongoing legitimation of the church’s political and theological fall.



  1. There’s poetry in your words…

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Through the unknown, remembered gate…[Eliot]

    And pith…

    Before great things can be done, things need to be undone, so we can
    begin again.

    Thanks for the un-doings. In Chesterton’s eyes, it’s the great ones that undo, unveil, untie, re-dig, prompting us to rediscover that which was there in the beginning.

    Your pen has been doing a lot of digging lately. And the treasures it’s unearthing are scintilating

    Here’s to more, much more.

    • Thanks SO much for the encouragement given and greatly received.

  2. Gold dust! Love it.

  3. You know, for many, many years I felt that we in the church needed to cease evangelizing. I felt, strongly, that we needed to shut up because we did not know what to say and what we were saying was not really what we should be saying. The whole model of evangelism is based on the wrong things, wrong assumptions about what it means to enter into the Kingdom (and stay close to it), wrong assumptions about who has the power to broker the change. I wish we would go silent for a time – that might provoke some curiousity out of some folks. This also reminds me that as my 4th grade teacher Mrs Jackson used to say, “actions speak louder than words”. See Mrs. Jackson, I remember you! So we’ve been saying a lot but often not living the Kingdom at the same time – a kind of ‘do as I say not as I do’ situation. And we have reaped what we sowed. On the whole people don’t care much about the church or what it has to say while at the same time I find the young people I work with are hungry for authenticity. They want to see the real thing in action. Just words won’t cut it with a generation raised on advertising. So perhaps we are moving, finally, to a better place. If the world out there isn’t interested in our words then we have to move onto real deeds. I just hope we can get as radical as we need to be and do some real Kingdom stuff.

    • Thanks Cheryl for this tough but salutary advice for those who reckon they have the gift of evangelist aka Ephesians 4:11. I may be one of them, which explains my drive/ obsession with digging deep to recover incarnational truth, reconfigure our understanding of the nature of deity and find our way to the relational politics of the God who is like Jesus. For sure this latter means a realignment of deeds and words around his way of behaving.

  4. Roger, again I say “wow!” Thanks so much for writing this.

  5. I’ve been ‘mentoring’ a young man for around 2 yrs. He came to church facing the prospect of a 2nd prison term, and thus responded to altar call. I was on the prayer team and began working with him. What a struggle this has been, and his attitude is that he feels can trust me, but is much less sure about God (who hasn’t ‘shown up’ as he thought) or anyone at the church. He’s constructed Jesus in his own image. I too slowly recognised this, and now have quite a challenge on how to change his view of Jesus. I see this issue with several other new/young believers as well. The difficulties come (he did go back to prison), he came out angry that God didn’t see fit to keep him out etc, etc. I think I didn’t really help him to see Jesus for who he says he is in the word, rather than the less than perfect image my friend saw in me (but which was a great improvement over his own life, something of father figure his missed growing up). And for a while, that appeared sufficient.
    As we traveled a bit further down the maturing path, there seemed to be ittle growth, anger at God and the church etc. Thanks for succinctly observing one of the failures in evangelising (and corresponding discipleship when the ‘coming to Christ’ is done incompletely). This will certainly help me to become far more biblical in helping people ‘turn from’ their former lives to fully embrace Jesus Christ.

    • Thanks for this Kent. My encouragement to you, at this key phase in your own experience and this young man’s, is to focus on any ways in which your own understanding of the people of God and Jesus needs to be updated. In my own life this has meant a new reliance on the Holy Spirit and a determination to make my hermeneutic of the Bible and everything else radically Jesus orientated. In your case this will deepen and refuel your love for your friend I expect, as well as give you new insights into how to help him further.

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