Have you ever tried a new and exciting diet?
Several years ago, I remember watching in horror as my friend ate two large pieces of greasy beef. There was no bun, no vegetables, or anything else for that matter. There was just meat – and lots of it. What surprised me more than the fact that he could consume so much meat was that he was proud of himself for being on a diet. Why eat a salad with no salad dressing for lunch, when you can eat 32 ounces of ground beef?
Truth be told, my memory is not crystal clear regarding this experience. (The trauma of the experience may have caused me to block parts of it out.) He may have been eating chicken, or lamb, or hot dogs. I am certain, though, that it was meat and nothing else. And while I am not a vegetarian, the idea that this was a diet seemed patently absurd. With each bite, I felt like I was watching his heart slow down.
Some of you may remember this particular approach to weight loss. If you don’t remember this one, you probably remember another fad diet. I suspect that most people know that the basic ingredients to weight loss are a balanced diet and exercise. And yet, fad diets continue to pop up. They are often startlingly different in content, but what they tend to have in common is the promise of a short-cut. They promise that you can lose weight without having to be disciplined about the kind of food you eat and how much of it you consume. Or they promise that you will drop pounds without exercise.
I think there may be another reason that there is so much literature available on diet, exercise, and weight loss: It is easier to think about losing weight than to actually do it. It is easier to read a book about diet and exercise than to prepare healthy food and commit to regularly exercising (you can even have a snack while you read about the diet you will try someday).
From this perspective, diets are similar to Christian discipleship. I am confident that you could read a book about Christian discipleship every day from now until you died and you would not read every book that has been written on discipleship. In other words, the literature related on Christian discipleship is enormous. Some of these resources are excellent, others are… well, not excellent.
Like diets, Christian discipleship is not actually that complicated. The reason there are thousands of books on Christian discipleship is not because nobody has figured out how to actually be a disciple of Jesus Christ, or because we can’t quite figure out what a mature disciple looks like. Rather, I suspect there are so many books on discipleship because it is easier to read about discipleship than to be a disciple. It is easier to think about what it would be like to live lives of radical faithfulness to the God Christians worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit than it is to actually live such a life.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40, TNIV)
John Wesley organized Methodism around Jesus’ summary of discipleship in the “General Rules.” The first rule was a simple reminder to “do no harm.” If we love God and neighbor, we will not do things that harm either of them or our relationship with them. The second rule, “do good” to others, echoed Jesus’ second greatest commandment. For Wesley, doing good is an active expression of love of neighbor. The third rule, echoed Jesus’ commandment to love God with heart, soul, and mind through the means of grace. When we pray, worship, receive the Eucharist, search the Scriptures, and fast we express our love for God.
There is more that could be said about discipleship. And yet, one of the profound gifts of Methodism is its recognition that understanding Christian discipleship is relatively easy. What is far more difficult is actually putting it into practice.
I have a hunch that when a parishioner expresses a desire to go deeper in their faith, most United Methodist pastors are most comfortable recommending a book for them to read. And while this is understandable – there are some great books to recommend – I wonder if this is somewhat like giving people stones when they ask for bread.
If someone came to me wanting to lose weight and asking me what they should do, I could recommend they read a book about how to lose weight. Or, I could invite them to go running with me.
United Methodism will be most effective in its mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” when pastors and lay leaders offer both resources about discipleship and guidance on practicing their faith.
If someone asks me about how they can go deeper in their life with God, I hope that as I listen to them I can think of the perfect book to give them that would help them continue thinking about their faith. But I also hope I would take the time to ask them about how their life with God is. Are they practicing the means of grace? Are they doing good to their neighbors? What do they think the next step of faithfulness looks like? I hope I would walk with them.
In the sermon I preached at New Haven United Methodist Church this past weekend, I focused on Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me.” My prayer is that we will become a people who are so captivated by Jesus’ invitation to follow that we will walk with Christ, rather than falling into the trap of thinking about walking with Christ. May we become people who support and encourage one another as we seek to follow Christ.