The General Rules & The Baptismal Covenant – Part 3 of 3
By Steve Manskar
"A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness…. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be" (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast). The General Rules are the United Methodist rule of life. This is the last piece in a series of essays exploring the relationship between the General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant.
The purpose of our rule of life is to equip Christians, and congregations, to live out the baptismal covenant with God and one another. You will find the Baptismal Covenant in The United Methodist Hymnal on pages 33-39. I will focus my attention on the three questions found on page 34. The General Rules are found on pages 75-78 in The United Methodist Book of Discipline-2012. The rule of life is also available as a downloadable pdf here.
This final essay will focus on the relationship between the third question of the Baptismal Covenant and the third General Rule. After persons are asked if they renounce wickedness and repent of their sin and accept the freedom and power God gives to resist evil and injustice, they are asked: "Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?" When you respond affirmatively to this question you claim Jesus Christ as the One whose life, death, and resurrection sets you free from the powers of sin and death. He also sets you free to live a new life that is shaped by his life and mission in the world. He is The Lord of your life. You are set free for a life of "joyful obedience."
When you profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord you promise to take on his way of life that is shaped by the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." His way is the way of self-giving, self-emptying love described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-8 and by Charles Wesley in the third stanza of his great hymn, "And Can It Be That I Should Gain": "emptied himself of all but love." In Jesus we see that love is the power of God that changes lives and transforms the world. When you are baptized you take on the life of Christ and begin the process of training that leads to becoming the person God created you to be, in Christ.
This third baptismal question tells us that living in the world as a Christian is a matrix of relationships. It is first a relationship with Jesus Christ. Secondly, baptism is a relationship with the Church; both the worldwide Universal Church of Jesus Christ and the local church. The church itself is a huge matrix of relationships. This tells you that there are no solitary Christians. Being a Christian means being part of a community that is centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. It also means while your faith and discipleship are deeply personal, it is not private. We are all responsible for supporting and helping one another become better, more mature, faithful disciples of Jesus.
The third General Rule provides the means for you to nurture both your relationship with God in Christ and with the Church. We participate in these relationships "by attending upon all the ordinances of God, such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of The Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence." These are essential practices John Wesley called "works of piety." They are how we nurture our relationships with God and with fellow Christians.
An examination of the list of six practices reveals that the first three are acts of worship, while the second three are acts of devotion. Public worship is the most important act of the church because it tells the world we are a people centered in God who is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God's Son. We proclaim that Christ is the Lord of the Universe and he is at work in the world preparing it for the reign of God that is coming. In worship we offer ourselves to the service of God and to building one another up in holiness of heart and life.
We are people of the Word that is both read in the Holy Scriptures and proclaimed in preaching, prayer, and mission in the world. In the Lord's Supper Christ himself invites us to his table where he promises to forgive our sins and set us free for joyful obedience and service with him in his work of preparing this world for the coming reign of God. At the table we take his very life into our bodies and then he sends us out into the world that he loves to serve as his witnesses. Through worship, word, and sacrament the Church becomes a sign and foretaste of God's reign on earth as it is in heaven. When you participate in these practices your heart is opened to the grace Christ wants to give you, the grace you need to live as a fully human being and channel of God's love for the world.
Personal and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence are practices done in private. They are how you make yourself available to God and the grace he wants to give you. All relationships require regular, intimate communication. Prayer is the primary means of communication with God. It is where God promises to meet you. All you need to do is show up and keep your daily appointment with God. Prayer is where you share your heart with God and listen to what he has to say in reply.
Searching the Scriptures is how we learn God's story for the world and your place in it. It is where we learn the good news of God's kingdom and how to live as faithful ambassadors for and citizens in that kingdom.
Finally, fasting or abstinence are important because they are how we imitate Christ's self-emptying love for the world. When you empty yourself you are reminded that God is God and you are not. When you feel the discomfort in your belly after skipping a meal you remember that you are not self-sufficient; that you depend upon the fruit of God's creation in order to live. Fasting is also allows us to live in solidarity with the millions of people for whom fasting is not a choice each day. Fasting opens the heart to God and those whom God loves, especially the poor and hungry people of the world. That is why fasting is always accompanied by prayer.
The Baptismal Covenant describes the three-fold relationship between God, you, and the Church. The General Rules provide simple and practical guidance for how to live, grow, and thrive in those relationships. They both lead us toward the goal of life in God's household, which is holiness of heart and life; inward love of God with all your heart, soul, and mind lived out in the world by self-giving love of all that God loves.