Brethren have a long tradition of “gathering around the Word.” Taking the New Testament as our guide, we discuss what Jesus did—and why. Then we try to pattern our own lives after his.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” Jesus promised, “there am I in the midst of them.” Through the practices described here, Brethren come together—as small groups or larger ones—in loving imitation of Jesus’ actions. At these times, we’re especially aware of God’s presence. We call these practices our ordinances, because we think of them as instructions from God.
At some time, almost every person—even the most devout—may become anxious, despairing, or ill. Following instructions given in the New Testament, the Brethren practice an ordinance called anointing: the prayerful, loving application of oil to the forehead of someone in physical or spiritual need.
Most of the time, members take initiative to request anointing for themselves or for members of their family. Recently more and more people have discovered anointing as a powerful symbol for the full range of renewal and healing. People ask for anointing before surgery or during serious illness, and they also request it in times of grief, emotional turmoil, or brokenness in relationships.
The anointing service is usually conducted in a home or small-group setting, although some congregations use it in public worship. A time is provided for confession. Then the minister or other representative of the church applies oil three times to the forehead, symbolizing forgiveness of sin, strengthening of faith, and healing of body, mind, and spirit.
Finally the minister lays hands on the one to be anointed, sometimes inviting others present to do the same, and prays specifically for this persons’s expressed concern. The laying on of hands is a reminder that the whole congregation, whether present or not, joins in prayer and support.
Love feast and communion
In an act of great love, Jesus gave his life for ours. The Brethren, as Jesus’ followers, love God and each other—and take that love into the world. Once or twice a year, Brethren celebrate what the earliest Christians called agape: the outflowing love that seeks not to receive but to give.
Jesus taught us this practice, sharing with his disciples a last, loving meal the night before he died. He washed the disciples’ feet, ate supper with them, sought to draw them closer into the fold of his love, and offered them the symbolic bread and cup.
During love feast, we repeat these simple, meaningful acts. After reconciling any discord among ourselves, we lovingly wash each other’s feet, then enjoy a meal together. Quietly we share communion, the bread and the cup that remind us of Jesus’ great gift; we renew our commitment to follow his example of sacrificial love. Congregations may also observe the eucharist, or bread-and-cup communion, at other times and in other settings.
Love feast closes with a hymn; then follows the humble task of cleaning up, in which all are invited to participate. When we leave the feast, reunited in our dedication to Christ and to each other, the deep, nourishing love goes with us.
Jesus knew that this evening, this meal, was the last time he and his twelve disciples would gather as a group. He wanted his followers to remember, in the difficult days ahead, why he had come and what he had taught them. When the disciples began to argue about which of them was more important, Jesus decided to make his lesson plain: Taking a towel and a basin of water, this great teacher knelt beside the first disciple—and did not stop until, like a lowly servant, he had washed the feet of each one there.
By including the service of feetwashing in our love feast, Brethren imitate Jesus’ actions and honor his lessons. No person ought to be greater than another, Jesus taught. Love has no need to prove status or position; love simply gives—and keeps on giving.
A symbolic, cleansing act, feetwashing prepares us for the meal and communion that follow. It reminds us that, in God’s sight, everyone needs loving attention, and everyone can offer that service to others. First we humbly accept attention and care from the one who washes our feet. Then we in turn wash someone else’s feet. After each act of feetwashing, the two people embrace and share a simple phrase of blessing.
In receiving this emblem of God’s cleansing grace, we remember that as followers of Jesus, we can help distribute God’s blessing to others—through steady, loving service, symbolically washing the feet of the world.
Before making any serious commitment—to marry, to accept a responsible office, to practice healthier living—a person considers the meaning and consequences of that choice. Often, he or she undergoes a public ceremony to acknowledge the momentous personal decision. For Brethren, the ordinance of “believers baptism” marks just such a deliberate, thoughtful commitment.
Choosing to follow the example of Jesus begins with repenting, or humbly re-examining one’s relationship with God. Jesus himself showed us the way: He asked to be baptized by John, and he instructed his disciples to baptize others who wanted to be symbolically “reborn” through God’s grace, into a new life of mature belief and service.
Three hundred years ago, the first Brethren chose adult baptism as their ceremonial response to God’s saving act—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today, in the presence of the congregation, a newly committed person kneels in the water of the baptistry, publicly acknowledges his or her decision, and is immersed three times forward, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Through this symbolic cleansing and rebirth, the person becomes a full member of the Brethren congregation and of the larger body of Christ. The decision to be baptized indicates a willingness to take on both the joy and the responsibility of living Jesus’ teachings.