Jesus and me broke up*
It’s true! Funny thing is, it was a gay man who helped break up this relationship. But before you jump to any conclusions, and before you panic and try to decide which side of the relationship to remain loyal to and keep in touch with, before you send your cards of commiseration, I want to stress that what follows is not a joke. I am seeking to tell the truth as best I know how.
Some years ago now I had what was commonly called a relationship with Jesus. Boyfriend was not the term we used, of course, but he was effectively a kind of invisible friend. I talked to him. Not all the time of course. In fact it was mainly when I was stressed. ‘Help me Jesus, I’m in over my head here’ or, alternatively, ‘Thank you Jesus for this lovely sunny day.’ I wouldn’t have said that Jesus and I were close, because that would seem immodest. But that was the aim of it all. However the relationship was clearly, in retrospect, one-sided. I did all the talking. It was all about me. I knew that Jesus was meant to do some of the talking. He didn’t really. I knew there were supposed to be techniques for listening so I tried to do some listening. You were supposed to read the Bible and then your take on what you had just read was taken to be what Jesus was saying. Alternatively when I had questions and asked Jesus about them I was supposed to wait and see what ideas came into my head. And if they persisted and I felt them impressing themselves strongly upon me, then I was warranted in regarding that as Jesus talking. It was a strange relationship!
Looking back it was hard to distinguish from a kind of relationship with myself. I never actually heard a voice with my ears, just as I never saw my invisible friend with my eyes. I am trying not to caricature the situation, just to see it clearly. I’m not quite sure why I called my invisible friend Jesus rather than God. I notice nowadays young people talk more about their relationship with God and it sounds like they have the same kind of ‘invisible friend’ relationship with God as I had with Jesus (it’s a fact that gets the theologian in me thinking). When I was young it had a lot to do with asking Jesus into your heart or life. But it had very little to do with the actual life of Jesus as we know it from the gospels. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about that, but it had very little in practice to do with my invisible relationship. The relationship was all about my fears and my needs and my wants and, the benefit of talking to someone about them. I was constantly being told that ‘Jesus loved me’ so it was easy to assume (without thinking too much about the sexual overtones of it all) that this was the basis for a romance – Jesus & me 4 eva.
It wasn’t that I didn’t realize that something was wrong with this egotistical relationship. I certainly sensed it. However I had been constantly told that somehow my faith depended on it… and I wasn’t quite prepared to ditch that in a hurry. So I persevered, carrying with me also the weight of responsibility and the idea that my spiritual growth depended on my ability to maintain this relationship. This is deeply ironic given how self-centred the relationship had become.
If I can return for a moment to having a relationship with Jesus as opposed to, say, God. For me the question was a live one early on, and the reason I retained that focus rather than another is a long story which I will keep for another occasion. But in my younger days there was a sense that ‘a rose by any other name’ might do just fine. To put it another way, provided the store provide the goods it didn’t matter which face was serving at the shop front. We might say that, initially for me, Jesus was a friendly face (one could say ‘user-friendly’!) for an invisible God. Only problem was, the concreteness of Jesus, the real face, so to speak, got lost in my endless chatter.
However, to cut to the chase, what put paid to it in the end was, quite simply, that the nature of my relationship with Jesus was almost the opposite of the one presented by historic Christianity. The invisible Jesus, who was a sounding board for my thoughts and the supplier of my felt needs (a therapeutic commodity) needed to be cast out, and replaced by a visible Jesus – visible in a specific way. If historic Christianity was to be believed, what I needed was a Jesus who would change the very structure of my desires and my identity – one who would save me rather than help me. An invisible Jesus would never confront me and never change me. And it would make no difference if I swapped to a relationship with ‘God’. An invisible God would be equally impotent. The language of relationship had become a fraud, a kind of narcissism.
The man who took the romance out of my relationship with Jesus was a theologian called James Alison and he pointed out that, if the witnesses are to be believed, Jesus had some quite specific concerns about the ongoing relationship that his disciples would have with him. The same Jesus who gave himself again to his disciple after they had contributed to the process by which he was killed, this same Jesus was concerned (prior to his death) that he be remembered precisely for and in his death. This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. Do this to remember me! The Jesus of Christian faith is not an invisible psychological aid. The experience of resurrection is this: living he confronts us with his death. He wants us to know him as a man who poured himself out for the world and also as a man who was broken by the world. This death is the culmination of the person and it is this that determines whatever kind of ‘relationship’ we might have with him.
I guess if there is a sense now that I have a ‘relationship’ with Jesus (and the term relationship certainly sticks in my throat) it is in the sense that I know Jesus now as my ‘victim’ – my divine victim. What I need is something like a ‘liturgical’ relationship with Jesus rather than a romantic one. I need to be constantly addressed by the drama of God’s encounter with the world as it culminates in the great revelatory victory of the cross of Christ. As I am addressed by this drama I learn to respond to it, to act a part within it. After all in spite of it I still find myself constantly drawn into a world process which produces new victims and I am constantly drawn to deny my complicity in this process. Unless I am liturgically confronted by the forgiveness of my divine victim, Jesus, I will never be truly human nor truly participate in God’s life for which I was created. My hope is that eucharistic liturgy is the Spirit’s way of casting out romantic narcissism and making disciples.
* I stole this title from a blogger who no longer has the posting on his site, although traces of it remain across the web. http://peaceablezealot.wordpress.com/about/