Discipleship Pathways Need a Rule of Life: Acts of Compassion & Justice
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, Soul Feast). A rule of life is a necessary guide for a congregation’s discipleship pathway. It is a practical guide to disciple-making.
“So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand, ‘the kingdom of God’” (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p. 1). The General Rule of Discipleship is a succinct rule of life. It describes the habits that align our desires with Jesus. It is a simple guide to obeying all of Jesus’ teachings summarized by him in the Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).
In my previous post I discussed some of the meaning of being a “witness to Jesus Christ in the world.” Part of being a witness to Jesus Christ is intentionally doing what he told his followers to do. We love whom God loves when we practice acts of compassion and justice. We love God with all our heart, soul, and mind by practicing acts of worship and devotion. The Holy Spirit leads, nudges, provokes, and cajoles us towards opportunities to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.
Acts of compassion and justice are the personal and social practices Wesley called “works of mercy.” Acts of compassion are personal practices of kindness for another person who needs assistance. Jesus teaches his followers are not only to help suffering people, we must also ask why they are hungry, homeless, refugees, etc. He calls Christians to work together, with other people of faith to be advocates to institutions and systems to work for the common good in acts of justice.
Practical examples of acts of compassion are described in the second General Rule (The Book of Discipline-2016, ¶ 104, p. 79): “By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all people.” Wesley goes on to give examples of what “doing good” looks like: “by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison” (see Matt. 25:31-46). These are ways Christians do good to their neighbor’s bodies. We are also to do good to their souls “by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any interaction with.” When Christians do good to one another and to their neighbors we witness to our love for God:
We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4:19-21, NRSV).
Acts of justice are described in the first General Rule, “By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced.” Refrain from causing harm to your neighbor’s body and soul. Your neighbor is anyone, anywhere in the world. Acts of justice address the causes of our neighbor’s pain. They require that Christians join with other faith communities as advocates to the institutions and systems that either are responsible for the neighbor’s pain or have the power to provide relief. Community organizing, petitions, voting, letter writing, visiting and calling elected representatives are examples of acts of justice. Local congregations may join ecumenical and interfaith organizations that give members opportunities to practice acts of justice. The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2016 is a good source of information on The United Methodist Church’s positions related to justice. Finally, the General Board of Church and Society provides excellent guidance and resources for understanding and practicing acts of justice. Go to their web site: https://www.umcjustice.org/ to learn more.
When congregations encourage and equip members to practice acts of compassion and justice they are likely to be good news to the poor (see Luke 4:18; Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; 1 John 3:16-18; James 2:1-7). A good question to ask of congregation members is, “Do you know a person or family living in poverty?” In order to be good news to the poor, the congregation needs to know who they are and where they live. John Wesley was very clear about the need for Christians who are rich to visit people who are poor:
One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart. "Indeed, Sir," said person of large substance, "I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want." How did this come to pass Why, he took good care to keep out of their way; and if he fell upon any of them unawares "he passed over on the other side" (Sermon 98: “On Visiting the Sick,” § 1.3).
Wesley’s definition of “rich” is people with enough to provide shelter, clothing, food, education, and security for themselves and all their dependents with money to spare. This describes the vast majority of people in The United Methodist Church in North America.
The church becomes a true witness to Jesus Christ in the world and an outpost of God’s kingdom when the poor experience it as a community of welcome, compassion, and justice. The General Rule of Discipleship is a Wesleyan rule of life centering the congregation on Jesus Christ and equips its members to join his mission preparing this world for the coming reign of God.