Encounter, Communion & Union: Layers of Relationship – Brad Jersak
Our Relationship with God
I have been pondering the various words we use to describe our relationship with God. “Relationship” itself is an intriguing term as it invites us to consider how we relate to God, to ourselves, to others and to our world. But it also suggests that they relate to us. Healthy relationships are a two-way street… not so much transactional as reciprocal. As John says in his first epistle, we love God because he first loved us.
But relationships are also complex. Three words come to mind that describe our relationship with God: encounter, communion and union.
We often use the word encounter to describe those incidents in our lives where we meet God or experience grace in specific events that may be unique, profound, and pivotal in our faith journey. Encounters, in this sense, are particularly marked by the transformation they might generate, such as what Saul of Tarsus experienced on the road to Damascus or the vision John saw in Revelation 1. These types of encounters are episodic and may seem random, rare and even unbidden. Happily, while an authentic encounter with the living God is wonderful, I’m grateful that our relationship with God is not dependent on chasing them down or accumulating experiences for validation. Those who do tend to reduce their faith to an experience of their experience or a religious technique for reproducing the encounter.
Gratefully, we can also enjoy our relationship with God in what we might call communion or what Brother Lawrence called “practicing the presence of God.” By “communion,” I’m not only talking about the Lord’s Table. I’m referring to the way those in relationship commune with each other. Communion, as I’m using it, refers to our regular, intentional, and conscious awareness of Emmanuel (God with us, at all times). That is, we can enter communion with the living God who abides with us and in us, who welcomes us into a deliberate time of fellowship every time we pray or worship or are conscious and grateful that God is present with us in whatever we are doing.
A third register of our relationship with God is the ongoing union we enjoy, settle into and remain in, even when we’re not purposely focusing on God. God in Christ abides in us by the Spirit even when I my mind is elsewhere or I am busy working at something unrelated to divine things. We are in a “covenant union” in which the triune God abides in me and in us, committed to the relationship whether I’m awake or asleep, excelling or struggling, conscious or unconscious of the relationship.
All Three Together in our Covenant
How to the three registers of relationship relate? Perhaps encounters (dramatic or not) serve as invitations and reminders to enter times of intentional communion, and both encounters and communions reaffirm the reality of our abiding, stable union. So the three seem both distinct but intimately connected.
Indeed, intimacy is an important word that relates to the many ways a covenant works, defined most often in Scripture as a spousal arrangement between God and God’s people. God uses marriage as a metaphor that expresses all three registers of relationship. For example, my relationship to my wife includes a range of experiences from (1) episodic encounters (e.g., sexual intimacy) to (2) intentional communion through date nights out or quiet conversations at home, to (3) the companionable silence of watching TV together, where the focus is not on each other, even though the experience is shared.
Even when I’m away from home on a trip, where we have extended periods without any direct encounters and the communion is reduced to occasional phone calls, the covenant relationship remains stable and reminds us to reunite for communion and/or intimate encounters. In all these ways, through encounters, communion and union, our love deepens, and our trust grows. It seems to me this is the case in our relationship with the Lord.