About 19 months ago I began studying the Bible with my friend Nathan. Nathan had just recently become interested in faith and our time together was the first opportunity he had ever had to read scripture. I began where I often like to begin with people who have a background in which a lot is assumed about the Bible: the sermon on the mount. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5-7 tend to subvert people’s expectations, and they never leave anyone unchallenged in thinking about how we embody Kingdom life. We began reading through the sermon a section at a time and asking our normal DBS questions, and so it was that around the third week we read Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation.
Mt. 5:21-24 (NRSV) “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Nathan knew little more than a handful of Bible stories at this time, so what he said next surprised me. When we got to our questions about how we would put this into practice the next week, he said, “I haven’t spoken to my father in 8 years. He recently got out of prison and I think I need to reestablish contact with him.” That week Nathan called his father for the first time in almost a decade. Later that week he called his sister and tried to mediate between his father and her. Before coming back to church the next week he called several ex-girlfriends including the mother of his daughter and apologized for his treatment of them in their relationship. He sought their forgiveness, explained to them the ways in which his lack of love emerged from his own family life, and described the steps he was taking to make that right because of his new found faith. And when I learned all of this the following week during our DBS, I was relieved he hadn’t asked my permission or advice, because Nathan clearly had more faith in Jesus than I did that week.
If Nathan had explained to me his plan beforehand, I would have cautioned him to move more slowly. I would have reminded him of how damaging some of those relationships had been and how dangerous it was to rush back into them. I would have pushed him to think more in terms of forgiveness than the reestablishment of right relationship with people who might just hurt him again. I would have advised him on these things, and I would have prevented him from being as faithful of a disciple. It’s people like Nathan who demonstrate why discipleship is risky: when we allow others to step out in faith we may be allowing them to walk into delicate spaces, and things may blow up in their face. When we ask people to put faith into practice, we can’t protect them from the difficult things Jesus calls them into. Nor can we take responsibility for the outcomes of their efforts. But it’s also people like Nathan who demonstrate why that risk is so necessary. I challenge you to risk as you disciple others this week.
S.B. in NYC