These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 2, 2016, as part of “The Message.” The discussion was based upon a reading from Psalm 26:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. The authors are concerned about associating with immoral and unfaithful persons.
How was your run this week?
I’m curious. Did you run alone? No? Were the people you ran with encouraging you? pushing you to run the best race possible? Did their pace slow you down? Did they validate your excuses and encourage you to run slower?
If you ran alone, have you ever run with others? How do you know whether your pace is consistent? Or even the best you can do? What measure do you use, while running alone, to see how well you’re doing?
One of the first things I learned when I started running is that the people around you affect your pace. This is true when your training and it is absolutely true when you run the actual race. We each tend to set our own pace based upon the people around us.
I learned this lesson in a concrete way when I first went to run club. In preparation for the marathon, Chandra and I joined the Mohegan Striders. If you’re interested in running, this is a fun group.
The Striders are a running group that meets throughout the week at a variety of places in Southeastern Connecticut to run and train together. They meet weekly, on Wednesdays, in Norwich at Billy Wilson’s Aging Still. Each week, depending on the weather and who shows up, the group runs a group-determined route and then returns to Billy’s for a beverage and fellowship. The group always starts their runs together. By running, or at least starting together, I, as a fairly slow runner learned to keep pace with faster runners for as long as I could keep up. The more times I ran with the group, the longer I was able to keep up. In fact, I pretty consistently ran my fasted times when running with this group. Running with faster runners made me faster. The people that surround you will affect your pace.
In our readings for today, the writers who span several centuries apart, both point to the same concern and idea: associating with unfaithful people will effect one’s faith. And, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds the church that it has a responsibility in helping each runner in the community to keep a steady and swift pace.
I wrote you in my earlier letter [writes Paul] that you shouldn’t make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous. I didn’t mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort. Or with crooks, whether blue- or white-collar. Or with spiritual phonies, for that matter. You’d have to leave the world entirely to do that! But I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when a friend who claims to be a Christian is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory. You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior. I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, The Message).
Paul wants to make clear that the community bears significant responsibility in making sure that each runner in the community is keeping pace, running the race, and not pretending or holding the community back. We each, he suggests, have a responsibility toward one another to make sure that we’re each running the race and staying faithful along the way.
Faithfulness isn’t just a personal obligation; it’s a communal responsibility. I don’t determine my own salvation. My salvation—while a daily, personal commitment—is ultimately lived out in community; thus, my salvation is dependent in many ways on the faithfulness, not only of myself, but on the community that surrounds me.
I know that this may be a foreign concept to some. We, especially in our individualistic Western culture, have a false notion that religion is a deeply private matter between the individual and God. “But for Paul, holiness and piety, though surely grounded in individuals and in each person’s behavior, are community concerns and responsibilities.” We have a responsibility to help each other work out our salvation.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement described early Methodism as “a company of [persons] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.” Early Methodism confirmed this communal responsibility; the idea that the race of faith cannot be finished alone, but only through the support and encouragement and accountability of a community of faith.
While much of Methodism has changed as we evolved from a movement into a global denomination, this is one of the things that has remained the same: we bear communal responsibility for one another. We are still called to watch over one another in love. We’re obligated, as members, states our Discipline “to participate in the corporate life of the congregation with fellow members of the body of Christ.” We are “bound in sacred covenant [with other members] to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members…[and] called to speak the truth in love, always read to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation”
When we baptize individuals we vow that “with God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that [the baptized], surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal” (Congregational Pledge 2, The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), p44). We commit to help the newly and already baptized to grow in faith and love. We commit to taking responsibility for one another that we might work out our salvation. We recognize that we have the power as individuals to help or hinder one another as we seek to grow in God’s grace. We admit that the people that surround us affect our pace; and that ultimately, we need one another if we’re going to finish the race and enter God’s Kingdom.
Indeed, the people around you affect your pace—and ultimately your ability to finish the race.
So continue encouraging each other and building each other up…
12 Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. 13 Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:11-24, Common English Bible).
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), p852.
 from “The General Rules of the Methodist Church” in The United Methodist Book of Discipline—2012 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), p76.
 “¶219. Mutual Responsibility” in The United Methodist Book of Discipline—2012.