Jason Byassee: Straining toward holiness. Together.

Jesus’ hardest commands are signs that we can’t be Christian in isolation.

There are many versions of Christianity that hold the faith to be merely a matter of belief. We might ask, “Can you swallow that the world was created by a good God who sustains it in existence?” And maybe potential believers can. But such questions don’t require us to do much more than hold those beliefs in the space between our temples.

Jesus often demands more than beliefs. For example, in Luke 12, Jesus 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 few months a friend and I have tried to train for a marathon. 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. Anything to avoid the date with soreness and sleepiness.

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. It was about my friend, who, if I failed to get up, would be left alone. 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. 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 made progress through friendship to health. Now we wouldn’t not run.

This is how the early Methodists pursued God. 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. A relationship between me and Jesus was never enough.

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. 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.

This was originally published in "Connecting the Mind, Body, and Spirit," by Leadership Education's Clergy Health Initiative.