There are times when I realise that I’m pretty hopeless at this discipleship business. Off the top of my head I can think of two basic problems: I’m blind to ways in which it challenges my actions; I can see how I need to change but inside make an act of will not to. I’m sure there will be other, more complicated, reasons why I’m hopeless, but these two come top of my pile.
On Christmas Day, yes, Christmas Day, after my third Christmas service celebrating the Nativity of Jesus, a man drifted into church at coffee time and we gave him coffee, a mince pie and some chat. He was still there when I left – the need for sleep before Christmas dinner and guests arriving was getting the better of me – and as I stepped on to the street another man said, ‘Are you closing up?’ I answered truthfully and said, ‘Yes, we’re closing up.’ He turned to walk away and said, ‘Ok, happy Christmas.’
I knew inside me that he was not asking if we were closing but if he could come in – come in to church on Christmas Day, even if it was after the service and only for a coffee and mince pie. In that moment of decision before answering (truthfully) I thought of my need for sleep, and the imposition it would be on the people inside if I took this man back inside on Christmas Day when they were looking to close up and be with their families. What I failed to think of – sufficiently at least – was this man’s need for some food and company on Christmas Day. He showed more grace to me in saying, ‘Happy Christmas,’ than I showed to him.
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan – Sunday’s theme from Luke 10 – there was a more than superficial sophistication in the way he exploited the interplay of racial and religious dynamics. Tell the story again today and insert ‘Palestinian’ instead of ‘Samaritan’ and we regain some of the power of its impact. But the need of the wounded man was clear, even to those who passed by. He needed medical attention and ongoing rehabilitation, and he was willing to receive both from the compassion of a stranger and despised foreigner who was willing to give them at his own cost and inconvenience.
Sometimes it’s more difficult for us to identify the specific needs of people who come to us, or we may be less certain about the resources we can lay our hands on to meet them. But I suspect that when we allow ourselves to be moved by compassion we will come to see their situation with the eyes of Jesus and simply do something that we believe is right for that moment. The question is whether or not the coldness of our hearts will freeze out the warmth of compassion? Or will there be sufficient compassion to melt the icy heart? As Tom Wright says (Luke for Everyone, p129), ‘No church, no Christian, can remain content with easy definitions which allow us to watch most of the world lying half-dead in the road.’
Having been bothered by my Christmas Day discipleship cracker, and repented of it, I was walking down the street yesterday and saw a young man sitting begging. It was cold and he was shivering. Rather than pass him by I put a coin in his cardboard cup. I think I might have done it to make me feel better rather than him, but I did wonder afterwards, was that what he really needed? In the absence of some long term solution, might it have been better to buy him a coffee and sit with him for a wee while? I suppose at least I’m beginning to ask the questions, even if a bit too late.
What I can’t get out my head is what Scot McKnight calls the ‘Jesus Creed’ – the greatest commands are love of God and love of others – that gave rise to the story in Luke 10, and also the words that Jesus’ inquisitor left with ringing in his ears: Go and do likewise.