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~ Personal or Communal? ~

        Our long-term readers are familiar with our attentiveness to the meaning of words and the difficulties of the textual and cultural translation of language. In just my life time, so many words have been invented and so many have had their original meanings changed, which generally means corrupted: words like art, religion, gay, family, pastor, minister, love, Christian, church, faith. Word combinations can become absurd, such as "peace-keeping missiles,"  "ethnic cleansing," and "just retribution." We throw words at each other without much thought, believing we are describing reality. Perhaps that's why St. James advises us to be "slow to speak." (James 1:19)

        So I'm suspicious of theologians who can delineate our Beloved Lord in clear, doctrinally academic terms and call it "Christology." If Romeo was a clinical psychologist, could he write a "Psychological Evaluation of the Dynamics and Structure of Juliet's Love for Me"? And if he could, would we not think of him as strange and cold? And if he could, would it be worth reading? No, such an academic treatise would not be a love story; it would not move us to share in the ecstasies and tragedies of two people in deep love to which we can all relate. The important things which constitute the fabric of life are best described by music, poetry, dance, laughter, tears, and sacrificial, loving acts.

        I also like to look at spiritual practices that many never examined and assume "that's the way it's been always." Examples of this in some denominations and non-denominational groups are the "altar call," the "coming forward," and the 10-second "Sinner's Prayer." These strategies of professing faith and "winning" souls as proliferated today are less than 70 years old. Their newness doesn't mean anything is wrong with them, but doesn't it raise curiosity as to why these weren't done for the previous 1,900 years? As I look into the origin, I was circled right back to the original meanings of words essential to our faith and redemption.

        The word "religion" comes from the Latin term "to tie again" or "bind together again." As used today, to know a person's religion tells you almost nothing about him or her. But to ask, "what binds you again to the Source of all life and meaning?" will tell you a lot, even if the person has no answer. Even before Christ began His ministry and work, His cousin John was declaring, "You must repent!" But how? Does a 10-second prayer suffice? Today we confuse "remorse" or "being sorry for our sins" with "repentance." The Greek original word used was "metanoia," connoting a radical transformation, as radical as changing from a caterpillar into a butterfly. How long does repentance take? Is it done in a minute, a year, or is it ongoing?

        Changing from being an atheist to a "religious" person is not metanoia. A person who now judges other religious people and argues about religious insignificances instead of judging worldly people and arguing politics is not any closer to redemption. A person's mind can be filled with thoughts of God instead of thoughts of lustfulness, but this is not a picture of metanoia. Many think religion is a way to get one's soul to heaven. Personally speaking, at the risk of being misunderstood of course, I don't want to take this soul of mine into heaven. Furthermore, I would not want to be forever with many souls who are called Christians and, no doubt, many would say the same about me. If some Christians do not get along as loving brothers and sisters here, then they won't be great company in heaven. But we'll be transformed, you say. No. The scriptures are clear that metanoia is to be done on earth. Repentance or radical transformation into Christlikeness is our earth-bound mission. It must be done before death. We must be born again here. Our souls must be crucified with Christ here.  And the life I lose here, so I can gain life there, the soul I surrender to be crucified with Christ here, will not be the same soul and life I take into my eternal heavenly home.

        Indeed Christ is my "personal" Savior. I understand the reason for the recent practice of constantly linking "personal" with "Savior." It emphasizes intimacy. However, there is a cost to consider. The Scriptures do not emphasize "personal," but rather "world." Christ is the Savior of the world, of the people and the Bridegroom of His Church. We are described as the branches of the one vine…Christ. It would sound strange, if plants could talk, for one branch to assert to another branch that the plant's vine is "my personal vine." Of course Jesus is your personal Savior and my personal Savior, but what is lost in that image is the Savior's emphasis on community. In practice, this results in spiritual narcissism or egocentricity.

        Some of us fall into the perception that the heavens revolve around us. A Christian loses his or her job and falls into despair. Most, if not all, his or her prayers concern getting a job, and not keeping in mind the millions of Christians who lost home, family, health, freedom or faith. When such a Christian hears that a spiritual brother or sister is stricken with cancer, he may feel sympathetic and pray for the other, and go on with his life, thanking God for his blessings. When he gets cancer, however, he may cry, "why me, Lord?" But it takes a community-minded Christian to say, "Why not me?" and keep praying and doing what he can for others less (or even more) fortunate than him.

        I've been reflecting on what it really means to do as St. Paul taught, to share the bonds of prisoners as though you were really there; to feel the hunger and distress of the poor mother who cannot feed her baby as though you were with her. I do know when one practices communal Christianity as taught in the Scriptures, one is moved into action and prayer. And if one is truly one with his or her brother or sister as Christ prayed we would be (John 17), our prayers will not be quick recitations of "Lord, please help so-and-so, thank you, Amen," but rather be deep groanings of one's spirit, in metanoia, perhaps punctuated with genuine tears, truly feeling with that person. And the converse would also be true. When one hears of a brother or sister recovering a lost job or health, our rejoicing for them would be so genuine that tears may come then also, and our thanks to God would be as deeply felt as the brother or sister's. That's how branches of a vine feel about each other, because the vine does not personally belong to each of them, but are one body, all sharing in the same source, strength and glory. Our personal sufferings and joys are just a drop in a great ocean of communal pain and joy.

        "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them." (Acts 32-34a, NIV)

        "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them as you have loved me." (John 17:20-23, NIV)

        From Christ's lips to our ears, this, brothers and sisters, is how our Savior wants us to spread the Gospel. This is His will, that through our unity the world will believe God sent Christ to be the world's communal Savior. Throughout this chapter in the Book of John, Jesus repeats the same prayer in several ways. That is how important our one-heartedness and our one-mindedness are to the mission of the Great Commission and to our Beloved Redeemer. Heavenly Father, may Your will be done on earth!

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Weekly Reflections © August 25, 2001

"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.

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