Strength in Numbers

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There are many versions of Christianity that hold the faith to be merely a matter of belief.

Note: This is the sixth post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.

August 8, 2010
Luke 12:32-40 • Sell your possessions, and give alms.

There are many versions of Christianity that hold the faith to be merely a matter of belief. We might ask potential believers, “Can you swallow that the world was created by a good God who sustains it in existence?” “Would you buy that Jesus is the Son of this God?” “Ok, if that’s not too much, can you handle a Holy Spirit who revolutionizes our existence?” And maybe they can. But such questions don’t require us to do much more than hold those beliefs in the space between our temples.

In Luke 12, Jesus is in one of his demanding moods. He wants us to act. “Sell your possessions, give alms, be ready for the end.” These are the sorts of demands that can set us to intellectual dissembling. “He didn’t really mean…” or “Viewed in its historical context…”

I wonder instead whether life built on the strength of community could make some of this discipline seem . . . doable.

In the last six months or so a friend and I have tried to train for a marathon. Only we each have some pounds to lose. Or dozens. We’re Methodist ministers, we go to potlucks; it’s not easy, ok? The first few times we tried to run, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. The alarm would go off at 6 a.m., and I would rejoice to see that it was raining outside. Can’t possibly run today. Or I’d think of an excuse before I ever set the alarm the night before. Anything to avoid the date with soreness and sleepiness the next day.

Then something happened. I realized that whether I made it out there or not, my friend would be there. If I didn’t show up, he’d run alone in the dark. Suddenly the decision of whether or not to run wasn’t just about me and my level of comfort or tiredness or athleticism. It was about my friend, who, if I failed to get up, would be left alone to struggle against his body and the trail. I started showing up more.

As we ran, we got to listening to one another’s stories differently. Something happens as you crawl toward 26.2: first we hit six miles, then eight, 10, then a half marathon. And it takes us hours. We’ve taken to calling each other “cellmate.” We’re beginning to finish each other’s sentences and to ask for retellings of stories about each other’s cousins.

This is how relationships are supposed to work. You can’t cram it all into a power lunch. You have to have long stretches of unstructured time where you’ve both long since run out of things to say.

Something else happened: our bodies started to change. We’d run for hours and feel great all day – energized, like we’re flying. We pressed through injuries so that weak muscles and joints went from wounded to better to strong. We began to run not just for negative reasons, like guilt. And we made progress through friendship to health. Now we wouldn’t not run.

This is how the early Methodists pursued God. Theirs was a mutual, corporate sort of holiness. They banded together in small groups to ask one another how their pursuit of God had gone: “So, did anyone sin this week?” They also had to do works of mercy like visiting in prisons and feeding the hungry. And they had to give financially to the group to support mission.

Notice: all these acts are public, bodily, externally verifiable – done together, never alone. Methodists loved the individual pursuit of holiness too. But a relationship between me and Jesus was never enough. St. Basil asked Christians in the fourth century, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash? Who will wash yours?”

People who work in public health know that you can’t correct a public malady with individual solutions alone. Want to stamp out smoking? You don’t just pass out information and trade on guilt. You also tax the bejezus out of cigarettes. You make smoking illegal in many places. And you build a culture of disapproval around it. You have to change a whole ecology of behavior.

So too with holiness. Ancient Methodists knew that you would need friends, communities, churches, and eventually whole societies to pursue holiness if you wanted individuals to do the same. It’s no accident my friend and I are running. We’re in a town that’s built running trails. There are shops that provide the gear. Our culture increasingly frowns on fatness. In fact, our culture’s banging of the drum of health runs the risk of substituting for faith – are we seeking eternal life as we bound around the track?

My friend and I are only halfway to 26. But I’ll bet we’ll get there. Not because either one of us can do it alone, but because (and only because) we’ve done it together. And that’s how to pursue selling possessions, giving alms, and waiting actively for Jesus’ return.

…And how to avoid the doughnut shop.

Jason Byassee is executive director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and editor of Call & Response, the blog of Faith & Leadership. He is an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions to Consider

  • There’s a long history in America of talking about Jesus as “my personal savior,” and of “getting right with God” so that I can go to heaven. How does this emphasis on individual faith stand against the need to wash another’s feet, and to submit to having one’s own feet washed?
  • Is the time right for a community-based campaign against obesity, as it once was for a unified effort against smoking? Does obesity compromise the church’s witness in the world by diminishing the energy and well-being of laity and clergy, and in so doing, constitute an impediment to the Holy Spirit?

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