Part of John Wesley’s genius, as the founder of the Methodist Movement, was the way he organized to make disciples. He established small groups everywhere he went. When these small groups met, they would go through a list of questions at each meeting. The questions were designed to guide the group members into a deeper walk with God.
Here is the fourth question:
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
Wesley knew better than to think that spirituality, or following Jesus, was simply a matter of spending time each day in prayer and bible study. He knew that following Jesus would affect every area of our lives: including the way we dress, our choice of friends, where and how we work, and habits we hold on to.
But the wording of this question reminds us that neither is following Jesus only about shopping at different stores, befriending a different group of people, etc. The beginning of the question is as important to the disciple of Jesus as the ending: “Am I a slave…?”
In John 8:31-32 Jesus said “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Following Jesus sets us free from all matters of bondage, including things like clothing, friends, work, and habits.
Perhaps the most basic way this question challenges us to grow is in facing the truth that everyone who follows Jesus doesn’t look exactly like us. They won’t all dress the same, have the same friends, work the same jobs, or have exactly the same habits.
I’m reminded of a story told by a deeply faithful Free Methodist college Professor. His young adult daugther was in a relationship with a young man of the Dutch Reformed tradion. Unlike the Free Methodists, Dutch Reformed do not carry the same social taboos on alcohol and tobacco.
Knowing the young man to be a committed Christian nevertheless, this professor told me how he and his wife sought to reach out across such different practices. If their daughter was serious about him, they would make every effort. They invited him to join them at the symphony.
The young man graciously declined. “While I very much appreciate the invitation, I would never dream of doing such a thing on the sabbath,” he told them.
When we find ourselves enslaved to some social particulars, we might set up barriers that keep us from fellowship, and that can poorly represent our Lord.
Dress, friends, work, and habits matter. They matter deeply. But they are not lord of our lives. That place is reserved for Jesus.
“Put Jesus first.” I feel like I hear this a lot. The scripture that has informed our current sermon series, Colossians 1:15-20, supports this directive. It says, after all, in verse 18
He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
But what does “putting Jesus first” look like?
In our society, people who “get to go first” don’t have to stand in line like everyone else. They receive protection from all the normal people; they can have guards and gates and get ushered to the front row or the luxury boxes.
Not only was Jesus NOT treated this way; there is no indication that Jesus ever sought to be treated this way. In fact, I’m reminded that he said that “Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— just as the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:27-28)
Jesus WAS the head, the firstborn from among the dead. He DOES and WILL occupy the first place among everything. He was also so secure in his relationship with God that he felt no need to act like it, or to show it off. In fact, he emptied himself, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)
May you and I, and all who are trying to follow Jesus, be secure enough in our relationship with God that we, too, might not seek to be recognized as first, or as more important than others. May we follow the way of Jesus – and, in doing so, we’ll find we are putting Jesus first.
I’m a terrible person. Or so I am tempted to believe as a result of a phone conversation that ended a few minutes ago.
Of course, I can think of all kinds of reasons he was wrong, but all of these reasons are playing less loudly right now than the reminder of his voice.
“So, you hate veterans?” He hung up before I could answer.
Of course I don’t hate veterans! But, while I could have shot this simple statement out before he disconnected, I didn’t even mutter these words because that wasn’t an answer to what was actually happening.
He didn’t really care if I cared about veterans. He cared if I cared about him. Making things even more difficult than that, the only way I could prove to him that I cared about him was if I gave him exactly what he was asking for.
He did what he was supposed to do, right? His best play was the card he had that could most likely win; his best card was the “veteran” card. He had already played the “my grandfather was a pastor” card, and that hadn’t worked.
In that moment, he wanted me to play favorites. More accurately, he was hoping I would both play favorites and that he, in one category or another he had presented to me, was in my list of favorites.
At this point it would be easiest for me to call up the “God is no respecter of persons,” which is how the King James version translated it. The Common English Bible renders it “God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” (Acts 10:34)
So was I playing favorites by choosing that verse?
Are we are always choosing to play favorites, one way or another? Is it really a matter of being honest with ourselves and with others about how we choose favorites?
I am left with the story of the starfish.
However it is that we play favorites, may we realize that in helping one, any one, we at least offer help to that one. Whether or not we change the world in doing so, we might hope to be part of the change in that one’s world.
Blaming things on DNA is so 1990’s.
You’re going to need a better excuse.
In church work and leadership, it’s still a big thing to talk about identifying your church’s DNA. Of course DNA is a metaphor in this case. We use this metaphor we we talk about a congregation’s origin story and significant points in that story that define it or limit it for the rest of the life of the congregation.
For instance, in the late ’90s, I pastored a church that had moved to its current location in 1925. For the ensuing 75 years, this congregation perceived itself as a church that struggles financially. It makes a lot of sense for a church, which relocated and built just 4 years before the Great Depression, to come to understand itself in such a way.
This insight is helpful. Defining as DNA, however, might not be.
Way back in the 80’s, when I was in college, all the psychology classes included some time for discussion on the “nature v nurture” debate. What caused or most contributed to a person’s behavior, attitude, intelligence: the intangibles (DNA) one was born with, or the environment in which one was raised?
The answer was always some combination of the two, but we were pretty sure of one thing,: that DNA held deterministic power over the “nature” side of the argument.
But what we knew and what we know are always in a dance together, and this dance has changed.
Sure, genetics, or DNA sets some baselines, or some expectations. But we now know that genes can be turned on and off during one’s lifetime. My favorite study – maybe because it is the only one of which I know any particulars. In a long-term study, rhesus monkies genetically prone to anxiety, when raised by non-anxious, ‘super-nurturing’ parents, had the gene indicating for anxiety turned off.
The DNA of the anxious monkeys didn’t condemn them to lives of anxiety. In fact, the expression of the DNA was changed by nurture.
Takeaway: You are not enslaved by your genes. I believe this is especially true for any of those settings where DNA is used as a metaphor. It can be helpful in understanding some of the primal forces that brought you, or the institution, or organization, to where you are today, but there is no good reason to let it limit or determine the paths who walk from this day forward.
So: “What’s in your DNA?” might be a good conversation starter, but it is not a conversation ender nor is it more ammunition for blame games or excuse making.