I attended a day long evangelism workshop yesterday and learned quite a bit. One person was bold enough to give her testimony about when and how she accepted Jesus as her personal savior. That’s a bit unusual for us non-evangelically minded Episcopalians. I’ve known this woman for years and know her faith to be real and deeply held, and her intentions without guile. But I also know that, for many people, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior has become a formula for the one correct way to become a Christian. Case in point; I got an e-mail just recently from an occasional reader who knows that I am an Episcopal priest and wanted to know the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I doubt if it occurred to her that there was any other question to ask of a Christian. I have some problems with that.
For one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the individuality of the language: it’s just me and Jesus. Don’t need anyone else. For another, I dislike the implication of ownership: “my personal savior,” as if Jesus belonged to me as something I own. Finally, the idea of accepting Jesus as my personal savior seems, at least to me, to put the burden of my salvation on my back, and I’ve got enough to carry without adding that.
When my occasional reader asked for the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior I wrote back, “I didn’t.” I was brought up in the Church. I cannot remember a time when God in Christ was not a part of my life. There was never a question of whether I accepted him as my personal savior. It’s a question that didn’t even make sense. But there were plenty of questions about whether, and to what extent, I was willing to be a part of his community of followers. Maybe that sounds like splitting hairs, but if so, I think they are hairs worthy of being split. It’s one thing to have a personal savior. It’s another to become a member of a community of disciples who faithfully trust that this Jewish carpenter is so uniquely the presence of God among us that he really is the way, the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Becoming a follower of Jesus must always put us into the company of other followers. Moreover, following implies a journey. Being on that journey brings to my mind the multitude of conversations that have to be taking place among all the others walking with us. I’m in conversation with you the reader right now, but at another time I might be deep in conversation Erasmus or Augustine or some guy named Ralph. We can (but maybe are not required to) each have a very personal, even intimate, relationship with Jesus, but it can never be singular, nor can it involve any form possessiveness that might imply our ownership of that intimacy.
That leaves plenty of room for Jesus to be the one in charge of what avenues of access to God are open or closed, acceptable or unacceptable, and I don’t recall that Jesus ever asked our advice on the matter. One can most certainly be very authentic in one’s testimony about how Jesus became their personal savior. I may have my own problems with that statement, but I won’t deny it as a genuine statement of faith. What I will object to is any claim that it is the only acceptable statement of faith, the only and necessary entrance ticket required by some heavenly gate usher.
P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear Victoria Heard, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, speak on evangelism, do it. Her workshop, “How to Share your Faith without Spooking your Friends” is excellent.