Think about it for a moment. The very notion of a relationship with God is strange, but one that implies intimacy is bizarre. The Bible is clear that God does indeed know us intimately - from the time that we are in the womb, he knows each cell and even before, he imagines us into being. The gospels remind us that God is a loving Father, the one who numbers the hairs on our head and holds us carefully and gently; Isaiah describes him inscribing our names on the palms of his hands. And this God is revealed in Jesus, born of a teenage nobody, the one who walked alongside ordinary men and women, eating their food, sleeping in their beds or in ditches along the way, washing their feet and allowing his own body to be anointed at their hands. What does Jesus have to tell us about the intimacy of relationship sought by God?
And yet...it is not an equal relationship. When we say we love, we do not love like him. When we say we know, we know nothing of what he knows.
The very phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus' is extremely recent. There seems to be no such expression before the renewal movements of the 1960s - and indeed, it does smack somewhat of the seismic shifts in social norms of that era. In many churches that notion is now the norm, such that it is central in our prayers and songs. And that's fine; for many many believers, that is a very genuine expression of their experience. But for some, it's not, and it can leave people feeling that there is something wrong with their version of faith. Is it personal enough, if I don't have a 'very real sense' of God all of the time? Is it 'relationshippy' enough, if I don't consider Jesus to be my 'best friend ever'? Is it Jesus-focussed enough, if I tend to pray through Jesus to God my Father, or if I have a more Trinitarian approach?
The notion of Jesus as my best friend is one that holds considerable bear traps. Is he a best friend like other, human best friends? Because they let me down, yes; but they are also off to a good start, in that they are, intrinsically, like me. Not just human, but holding much in common - probably similar age, background and interests. God is Other. How can we compare our relationship with the Great Other to that of the mate we meet down the pub?
Of course, people use the phrase intending to communicate something of the joy in relationship with God. The relief of being able to approach God knowing that he cares about all of our stuff, and doesn't care if we're not all sorted out to start with. But feelings are unreliable markers of progress; we need to let ourselves off the hook if we don't feel it.
We spent some time thinking about the Biblical images of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd; part of the Trinity; the heart of the Church; the prophetic challenger; liberator; Lord; Teacher; the revelation of God's nature; role model for life; and Lamb of God. How does that affect how we approach him - as dependant, awe-filled worshipper, looking for Jesus in our common life, speaking out and seeking to deal with injustice, as followers and learners, looking to see God through Jesus, basing our lives upon his example, and establishing an economy of grace. The image we could not fully see in the Bible was that of Best Friend, in an exclusive sense or in a Jesus-is-my-buddy fashion; yet Jesus does call us his friends, establishing the notion that we are not grovelling sinners but followers who mess up, yes, but seek to walk in his footsteps. He is the one that meets us on the beach and offers breakfast - one of the most gentle and real acts of reconciliation, grace in the ordinary fish and charcoal fire after resurrection as much as in the bread and wine of Gethsemane.
The icon at the top is called 'Jesu et son ami' - Jesus and his friend. Jesus calls us his friends, us all of us, together. Yet each of separately finds a way to make that a reality in our daily lives. We discussed prayer: does it feel too much like R S Thomas's description?
Prayers like gravel
Flung at the sky's
window, hoping to attract
the loved one's
attention, But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
The movement of a curtain.
The goal is surely to interweave our spiritual lives with our earthly patterns, developing an awareness of the God whose essence is community in the everyday; and seeking to follow the Lord who calls us his friends.