What is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Does your academic career hurt it?
I am a vocational teacher of the Christian faith. Since Jesus Christ is its object, my career does involve the subtle temptation to reduce Jesus Christ to an object. Theology teachers naturally adopt a "third-personal" relationship with Jesus. Add this to a busy life with young children, a new home, a new workplace, and an increasingly apocalyptic world, and lately my Jesus has been more a "him" than a "you," more existentially distant than I am used to him being or would like him to be.
Yet a third-personal relationship with Jesus is both rich and appropriate, for while the Church waits for Jesus to return, we experience him and speak of him in his absence in the third person.
Jesus is my creator. My life's original and ultimate significance lies specifically in him. We are made through him, in him, for him. He puts me in my place. That humble but wonderful place is in a world governed and loved and being remade despite its rebelliousness. It is in a communal kingdom that already enjoys some of the blessings my people had and lost, and the even richer blessings to come. It is a family where my wife's and my love for each other might image the Church's and Christ's love and mutual commitment, and where our love for our kids might model God's love for his adopted children. It is a neighborhood of friends and strangers whose relationships might reflect that same infinite love.
Jesus is God's word, God's reason. This is especially critical for me nowadays. September 11 and its aftermath exposed whole worlds of madness that had been festering under the veneer of international civility. Once again God's would-be spokespeople are teaching their theology through weaponry, and other believers are approving, and God is allowing it. Such a God makes no sense. Without the Church's memory of Jesus as a God who forgave rather than avenged and triumphed through suffering and waiting, my faith would have foundered on the spectacle.
Jesus is my Lord, my commander, my master, my mentor, my rule of faith. With my fellow Christians I follow him. Apart from him we are bees without a queen: mindless, confused, at odds, self-destructive, doomed. With him we are fellow citizens of Israel's commonwealth: wise, purposeful, harmonious, edifying each other as we serve our coming king, assured of an eternal life in which we already participate.
Jesus is God's self-sacrifice, Gods atonement, my healer. When I was his adversary, he was my friend. When I was dead, he raised me. When someday I "sleep," he will still be my hope. He even remains faithful to me when I cease to be faithful to him. In a world of betrayal, he is always trustworthy. "Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong," said Polycarp. "How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"
Jesus is my baptizer with the Holy Spirit. Through God with us, God over us poured God onto us. He emptied himself to fill us. So Jesus and we now share more than just human nature. We share more than God as our heavenly Father. We also share God as our common inhabitant and our power, as (to appeal to David duPlessis) our living water and our fire.
So Jesus is also my fellow laborer. He grants me a share in his work of reconciliation. He has his work, and by his grace I have mine.
Jesus is my hero. I point others to him not just because that's what Christians are supposed to do, but because I'm a fan. I worship the man. I adore him. He alone is worthy.
And when I tell him so in prayer, and show it in meetings of our fan club, he comes. Then my third-person relationship opens up anew into a second-person relationship. Absence becomes presence, "he" becomes "you."
Without a second-person relationship, my academic study of Christianity would be strange, pathetic, and futile like chronicling Elvis sightings.
Yet the times of Jesus' personal presence do not sideline any of the aspects of our third-person relationship, or bracket my professional work as a theologian and educator. Without a third-person relationship, my dialogue with Jesus would be shallow, self-referential, and immature like a Chris Farley interview on Saturday Night Live.
I have the high privilege of a career dedicated to appreciating the Church's most treasured relationship. Each grounds the other. As the theological axiom says, Lex orandi, lex credendi: "The law of prayer is the law of belief."
I would like the shift from third- to second-person to happen more easily and more intimately than it recently has. Surely there are things I can do to facilitate it. I am learning to treat obstacles in my relationship with God as opportunities for reflection and study, working through them constructively. I am learning to stop defending God and to let God defend himself. I can be more disciplined and serious about prayer, corporate worship, and fellowship. I can make my left-brained self learn and practice unfamiliar forms of spirituality. I can meet God by serving others reconceiving my time with my family, with my students, with strangers and friends, and my chores at home and work as times of fellowship with my Creator-Redeemer.
Since the transformation from third- to second-person depends on divine grace rather than mere human works, on Jesus keeping a promise rather than me constructing an apparition, it happens whether or not I first will it. This makes the times of absence more endurable and the times of presence more joyful.
For every reunion I am profoundly grateful!