Christ, Community, & Challenging Injustice

In Dr. Lancaster’s reflection about the Wesleyan tradition of following Jesus, I was most intrigued by what I consider to also be a fundamental aspect of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition – a commitment to an understanding of justification and sanctification as a communal process in which disciples of Jesus hold one another accountable. I appreciated her acknowledgment of what appears to be a critical aspect of the Wesleyan faith because I believe it can be a resource to help reimagine what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. However, I would be interested to hear more from Dr. Lancaster about different manifestations of Wesleyan expressions of love. More specifically, I wonder: what does it mean for Wesleyans to consider that following Jesus is something that can be expressed differently, even if there are certain tenets of the faith I believe are required, and not optional?

Dr. Lancaster offers a significant insight in her exploration of the Wesleyan communal commitment to justification and sanctification. When she writes that with justification comes a “new birth” in which we “may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly,” she inadvertently provides the rationale behind the need for followers of Jesus to be in community with other believers (even before she makes official mention of it in the subsequent paragraph of holiness being “social.”). If we consider this idea of a “new birth” of a believer who has chosen to follow Christ, then she must be in relationship with people who will instruct her on this Christian journey (as the old folks in my tradition would say). Just as no child can grow up into a well-adjusted and functioning adult without parental guidance and support, so too will no person, new or old, in the Christian faith fully mature in their understanding of their belief without a group of persons who are there to rejoice with them in times of joy, mourn with them in times of sadness, and provoke them to love and good works.

Such a perspective of the communal nature of the Christian faith is foundational to many people who identify as followers of Jesus in the Black Church tradition. Even though there continues to be an ever-increasing emphasis on the individual over the collective in the language, programming, and structure of churches (Black churches included), there are still many Black congregations that embody Dr. Lancaster’s words: “following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” Black mothers and fathers teach kids what it meant to live for God so that God could one day declare to them “well done, my good and faithful servant.” If Black people were struggling to make ends meet or with a vice that was harming their loved ones, other Black believers would (and still do) pray with them, asking what might be needed to assist them in their time of suffering.

In other words, the communal nature of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition is nothing new. However, Dr. Lancaster did reiterate the importance of small gatherings and groups as we work to be faithful witnesses to Christ in the world. I do not think it is a coincidence that Dr. Lancaster writes the movement to conceive of holiness as social “was organized in small groups for members to talk openly with each other about the state of their souls, to encourage and if necessary admonish one another to follow Jesus more faithfully.” More often than not, it is more feasible to develop a relationship with someone in a smaller rather than larger setting because of the increased chances for conversation and deeper engagement. A person cannot be on the hide-out in a more intimate congregational space; typically, she is not another number on a pew (as opposed to many people in megachurch settings) but rather someone that people will recognize week to week, creating more opportunities for she and them to engage more deeply. While it is no guarantee that people will participate in a smaller congregation, I believe Dr. Lancaster is highlighting the possibilities of the depth of interaction that can be found when people in small groups choose to be open and vulnerable. And in a day and age in which many followers of Jesus appear content to just attend worship services and leave, Dr. Lancaster suggests there is a better way forward for growing together as disciples of Jesus.

But upon investigating Dr. Lancaster’s piece further, I left wondering about the different manifestations of Wesleyan theology when it comes to expressing holiness as love. More specifically, Dr. Lancaster writes that people will seek holiness through various behaviors or actions, with one such behavior being a commitment to protesting injustice. I struggled somewhat with this perspective because to follow Jesus, in my opinion, means being concerned with the plight of those who are experiencing oppression or inequality – pursuing justice is not simply a choice a follower of Jesus selects depending on how she is feeling but central to what it means to be a Jesus-believer. Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 echoes his commitment to upending systems that dehumanized those on the outskirts of society, and His earthly ministry reflected His desire to speak life into those whom so many others disregarded or rejected. So, being concerned with justice in the world is not an option for a follower of Jesus but a requirement.

I realize such a statement evokes a wide range of reactions, from agreement to outright rejection. I am not saying that everyone will have the same method of challenging injustice in the world, nor will we all embrace similar levels of commitment. We each have different risk tolerances that actively impact how we choose to show up in support of those who are discriminated against. However, Dr. Lancaster’s reflection reminded me that all followers of Jesus have a responsibility to speak out and fight against inequality wherever we may see it. This commitment is part of what it means to be holy – it is not optional. I then wonder: what would the Church look like if we fully lived into this Jesus that often goes missing from our sermons and teachings about what it means to follow Him?