Works of Piety
By Steve Manskar
…and to follow his teachings through … acts of worship and devotion …
This is the third article on the General Rule of Discipleship that shapes the covenant that serves as the agenda for a Covenant Discipleship group’s weekly meeting:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In this article I will look at how Christians love God with all their heart, soul, and mind (see Matthew 22:37-39) through practicing what John Wesley called “works of piety.” In the General Rule of Discipleship this practices are referred to as acts of worship and devotion.
Acts of devotion are the personal works of piety. They are practices performed alone with God. John Wesley recommended at least three acts of devotion (see “The United Methodist Rule of Life”):
- Personal and family prayer
- Searching the Scriptures
- Fasting or abstinence
In the film “Shadowlands” Anthony Hopkins played C.S. Lewis. He gave one of the best definitions and rationales for prayer: "I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God—it changes me."
Wesley wrote, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer. . . . On every occasion of uneasiness we should retire to prayer, that we may give place to the grace and light of God, and then form our resolutions, without being in any pain about what success they may have.”
Prayer and searching the Scriptures are daily practices that often accompany one another. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures often leads into time in prayer. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice in which reading Scripture leads the Christian into prayer. Reading and meditating upon devotional classics or a resource like “The Upper Room” helps to center the day in Christ.
Fasting is another ancient means of grace. Wesley practiced fasting at least one day a week for most of his life. He believed it to be a very important practice because Jesus fasted and taught his disciples to do the same (Matthew 6:16-18). Fasting leads to prayer and self-giving. It is a simple way Christians can imitate Jesus who “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7) and become one with humankind as a humble servant. Charles Wesley describes Jesus’ self-emptying love in the third stanza of his great hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,”
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
When you fast you empty yourself and become more aware of your dependence upon God’s good gifts of food and drink that sustain your life. Fasting also places you in solidarity with the people of the earth for whom fasting is not a choice. Christ suffers for them every day. Wesley encouraged Methodists to give alms to the poor when they fast.
Acts of devotion keep the heart open to grace that keeps you centered in Christ and what he is up to in your life. When the heart is open to grace it becomes more and more open to the world that God loves, which means that acts of devotion help equip you for acts of compassion and justice.
Acts of worship are the social and public works of piety. They are what Christians do together when they gather in Christ’s name. Through praise, confession, Scripture, proclamation, prayer, giving, confession, thanksgiving, sacrament, and blessing the Christian community builds one another up in love and offers itself in service to God and the world that God loves. In worship the church lifts the world and itself to God in prayer. Christians come to worship to experience God’s presence and power, to be forgiven, eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and sent into the world to serve as Christ’s witnesses.
John Wesley lists three acts of worship in the third General Rule:
- The public worship of God
- The ministry of the Word, whether read or expounded
- The Lord’s Supper
Methodists need to participate in worship on Sunday morning in their congregation and other times throughout the week. Wesley wanted the Methodist people to be “salt and light” for the Church. This meant being faithful in the worship of God through praise, prayer, word, sacrament, and service.
The “ministry of the Word” is listening to the Word of God as it is read aloud. It is also listening to preaching and interpretation of Scripture by preachers and teachers.
In addition to being an evangelical renewal movement for the Church, the Methodist movement was also a Eucharistic renewal movement. Charles Wesley wrote and published a collection of 166 hymns on the Lord’s Supper. The Wesley brothers believed the sacrament is an essential practice and means of converting and sanctifying grace. The Methodists were encouraged to participate in the sacrament as often as possible, at least once a week.
God is relational. He initiates and consecrates his relationship with you and me in the sacrament of baptism. The acts of worship and devotion are God’s gifts to us. They are basic practices that enable us to participate in our relationship with Christ. They open our hearts to the grace we need to join Christ’s mission in the world through acts of compassion and justice. Your Covenant Discipleship group helps you make sure you show up daily to keep your appointment with Christ. He is always there. Are you?
Next month we’ll explore the final phrase of the General Rule of Discipleship: “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”