Three Simple Rules: The United Societies

. 6 min read

Oct 2018, Christ Mountain Top
the Psalm, Psalm 133
Acts 12.1-17
Acts 2.42-47
is so easy to romanticize this text. “All who believed were together and had
all things in common” (Acts 2.44). That
is really neat, all warm and fuzzy, but really difficult to live out. Anyone
here sold major personal property to share the proceeds with others? And aside
from this primitive Christian socialism (what else shall we call it?), we have
the simple difficulty of being together.
Where’s the personal space? Where’s Daniel Boone’s famous “elbow room”? Being
together ain’t easy, even when you’re talking about good people that you love
and maybe even like.
vacation in Maine, not quite enough personal space, mom’s phone flashlight on
in the middle of the night
together, being “in community” (to use the Greek root repeated over and over in
this passage – common, community), being “in community” requires persistence,
stubbornness, commitment. Over and over our bishop, Jeremiah Park, says that we
are “better together.” Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it easy.
      Eugene Peterson, that renowned pastor,
writer, and translator of the Bible version The
once wrote an article titled “Learning to Love the Church.” He
died this past week at the age of 85, surrounded by community – his family in
particular. And his reflections on this are plenty valuable for us today. He
we become Christians and start following Jesus, we soon find ourselves in the
company of others who want to get in on it. It does not take us long to find
many of these people are not much to our liking and some of them we actively
dislike—a mixed bag of saints and sinners, the saints sometimes harder to put
up with than the sinners. Jesus doesn’t seem to be very discriminating….
goes on to talk about how frustrating it was for him that church people could
be so … the word I would pick is human.
One guy fell asleep ten minutes after the opening hymn, every week. Two guys in
the choir exchanged stock tips each Sunday. One angry teenager sat in the back
pew and read comic books. He was so happy that one of the women in the church
brought her note pad and took shorthand notes of his message each week. Until
he discovered that she was preparing to divorce her husband and go back into
the workforce.
      Newsflash: The church is full of church people.
It is TOUGH to be together in Christian community. It is also necessary.

Methodist movement began as a small group, several future Anglican priests
studying together at Oxford. They called themselves the “Holy Club.” Amazingly,
they actually had more than a handful of members. Not surprisingly, they were an
object of derision, called “methodists” because they were so methodical about
their piety. John Wesley liked to embrace the bad names people called him and
turn them into badges of honor, so he claimed the name for the new movement. And
there was a madness to the method – a Holy Spirit driven love, a thoroughly
practical approach to mission, and the discipline and stubbornness to be together.
      Our Book
of Discipline
includes among our “doctrinal standards” a document in its
1808 text, with some amendments in 1848 and 1868. Its title is “The Nature,
Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies.”
Nature, Design, and General Rules
Our United Societies (1808 text, amended 1848 and 1868)
In the
latter end of the year 1739 eight or ten persons came
to Mr.
Wesley, in London, who appeared to be deeply convinced
of sin,
and earnestly groaning for redemption. They desired, as
did two
or three more the next day, that he would spend some
time with
them in prayer, and advise them how to flee from the
wrath to
come, which they saw continually hanging over their
That he might have more time for this great work, he
a day when they might all come together, which from
they did every week, namely, on Thursday in the
To these, and as many more as desired to join with them
their number increased daily), he gave those advices from
time to
time which he judged most needful for them, and they
concluded their meeting with prayer suited to their several
This was
the rise of the
United Society, first
in Europe, and
then in
America. Such a society is no other than “a company of
having the
form and
seeking the
power of
godliness, united in
order to
pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to
over one another in love, that they may help each other to
work out
their salvation.”
preface sets the context for the General Rules, the guidance John Wesley
provides for discipleship, then and now. The context is a context of community. And it did not depend on John
Wesley. He very quickly divided the growing societies into band and classes,
each class with a class leader, each society with a steward and a minister.
Very similar to the primitive church, the Methodist movement was discipleship
in community.
·       They
devoted themselves to the teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
“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
·       They
spent much time together. “Appointed a day when they might all come together,
which from thenceforward they did every week.”
·       And
the Lord added to their number daily. “Their number increased daily.”
the next few weeks, we will take time to discuss the devotions of the primitive
church, the three rules of the Methodist Societies, the spiritual practices
that we encourage here at Christ Church. You will see them listed in general
categories in today’s program booklet. [SHOW]
      We must not, however, forget that the
context of these spiritual practices is always communal, always in a group.
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among
them” (Matthew 18:20). Do you want more
of Jesus in your life? Then gather with his people – church people. Be stubborn
and persistent about it. It can be difficult. And it matters. It is neither
romantic nor idyllic. It is, simply, transformational.
      Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the task of
the Church . . . is to become a polity that has the character necessary to
survive as a truthful society.” Become a polity? That’s a fancy technical
church word for the way we are organized, the way we do things … not for who we are. Isn’t it? Often, however,
the way we are organized, the ways we structure our connection, say an awful
lot about who we are. Polity. It
shares the same English root as “politics.” You know, “I hate office politics.”
“I hate church politics.” BUT, when we become a “polity,” with character, the
kind of character that sustains us as a truthful people in a world full of
falsehoods, when we can honor those around us and be honest about ourselves …
when this happens, it is a beautiful and powerful thing. It is also one of the
reasons why new folks to Christ Church choose to come back: They sense enough
of that God-given connection, that Spirit-driven transformation, to say that
they want to be part of it too.
book of Proverbs tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the
wits of another” (Proverbs 27.17). My wits are sharper because of you. And
there are some deeper things, some more important sharpening, that happen
because of the connections we have with each other. Kim Carpenter’s raw honesty
rubs up against my restraint and pushes me to be truer. Tim Shearer is gracious
when I feel like sandpaper, and that calls me to a life that is more in touch
with grace. Steve Ross smiles when my stomach is in a knot and reminds me of
the peace of Christ. Ann Kline knows what it is to do the work of the Lord, to set
a table in the midst of enemies. Michael Johnson makes certain faith is real,
not fantasy.
      I get to know people like this in small
groups, around kitchen tables, and in visiting house to house. I encourage you
to get to know people like this, to connect with Jesus in a deeper way because
you are connecting with people in a deeper way.
·       Join
a group! Spiritual formation groups like Sunday School, Breakfast & Bibles.
Social groups like breakfast fellowship and Sunshine and Friendship circles.
·       Be
part of a seasonal group to examine the Three
Simple Rules.
Read the book, view the video together, discuss what you are
learning. I am available to help groups gather and get started on Wednesday or
Sunday evenings. 3×5 cards to respond with name, day, email, phone.
Peterson, “Learning to Love the Church,” Christianity
26 October 2018
Hauerwas, A Community of Character:
Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic
(Notre Dame, IN: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1981), 3.