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Markers or milestones of discipleship

In between the insurance quotes and voucher offers, I received a very welcome surprise email the other day. It was from the Illuminate Christian Bookshop in Shrewsbury saying they had sold three copies of the Holy Habits book which were going to be confirmation gifts for members of a local Messy Church. It was a lovely moment and I was glad to share the good news with Lucy Moore, pioneer and founder of Messy Church.

Here was yet another indication of how Messy Church is nurturing people of all ages in Christian discipleship. For more on this, you might like to look at the report A Voyage of Discovery produced by the Church of England Evangelism and Discipleship team, facilitated by BRF and Church Army’s Research Team.

It was also another example of the collaborative fruitfulness of Messy Church and Holy Habits. If you are involved in a Messy Church and would like to explore this further, you might like to look at a book that Lucy and I co-produced called, unsurprisingly, Holy Habits in Messy Church.

The email also got me thinking again about markers or milestones of discipleship, something I explore in the chapter about making more disciples in the Holy Habits book and which is also explored in the Making More Disciples church handbook.

For me, Simon Peter’s story is particularly interesting and it is an intriguing question as to when he became a disciple of Jesus. Was it at the lakeside, traditionally seen as his place of call (Luke 4:5–11)? Or was it perhaps earlier, when Jesus cured his mother-in-law (Luke 4:38)? As the adventure of discipleship unfolds for Peter, there are other milestone moments: his confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 9:20); his restoration by the risen Jesus following his denial, which poignantly ends with Jesus reiterating the call to discipleship, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:19). Then there is his participation in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) and the critical ‘conversion’ moment when he realises that God loves Gentiles too (Acts 10).

For all those who follow Jesus on the adventure of discipleship, there will be significant moments. Every journey will be unique, but over time the community of disciples we call the church has come to recognise, mark and celebrate these in a number of ways.

In the early church, there were two key markers towards the beginning of the journey: baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. These were closely linked to ‘conversion’ or a first decision to follow Jesus (Acts 2:37–41). Incidentally, it is intriguing to note how the promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit is made by Peter to those who were listening, their children and ‘all who are far away’ (Acts 2:39). I can hear Messy Churchers saying ‘Amen’ to that.

Today, different parts of the body of Christ mark the beginning of the journey in different ways. Baptism in particular is celebrated in a range of customs and practices. There are those who believe a conscious profession of repentance, faith and desire to follow Jesus must be made by the person being baptised. There is a very clear outworking here of Matthew 28:19 and the related commands of Jesus to make disciples, baptise and teach. Others take seriously the place of the household in the New Testament (in the book of Acts in particular) and baptise the children of Christian households. There is then a service of confirmation for those who were baptised as children and want to publicly profess their commitment to follow Jesus.

Peter’s story encourages us to think creatively about the services and markers that are offered on the adventure of discipleship. Some traditions do offer services to mark restorative moments for those who, like Peter, have in some way denied or drifted away from Jesus and want to re-declare their allegiance to him. Many offer services at Easter time in which people can renew their baptismal vows. Others (not just Methodists) use the Covenant Service introduced by John Wesley as an annual renewal of their commitment to following Jesus.

I wonder what markers and milestones are important for you and what, if any, acts of renewal might be helpful or appropriate as churches of all sorts resume the practice of physically gathering together again. Please do share any thought you have.


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