Face-Palm Jesus: Why Character Matters for the Witness of the Gospel
Preparing for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Two Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 126
Old Testament: Isaiah 43:8-15
Epistle: Philippians 2:25—3:1
God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.
You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he (Isaiah 43:10).
"Let this, I say, be our way of overpowering them, and of conducting our warfare against them; and let us, before all words, astound them by our way of life. For this is the main battle, this is the unanswerable argument, the argument from actions. For though we give ten thousand precepts of philosophy in words, if we do not exhibit a life better than theirs, the gain is nothing. For it is not what is said that draws their attention, but their enquiry is, what we do....Let us win them therefore by our life.—John Chrysostom (349-407)
At the moment, the church is having a crisis of character. The revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, mega-church pastors, and the news of L’Arche founder, Jean Vanier's sexual misconduct shocked and saddened those who have been in awe of his ministry to the intellectually disabled. In addition, Christian excuse and dismissiveness over the deep character flaws of our political leaders as long as they accomplish what we want them to do has put off many unbelievers in an unfortunate way. We tolerate sexual misconduct dismissing it as “just about sex” and in some cases we even cheer on crude talk and behavior as “telling it like it is,” forgetting the many warnings in Scripture about slanderous language. For those who have forgotten, here's a few examples:
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.—Luke 6:43-45
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.... Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.—Ephesians 4:28, 31-32
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.—James 3:7-10
The toleration of such language allows for abuse to continue unchecked, and it seriously undermines the witness of the gospel in our communities. The words of John Chrysostom above ring true. When the church behaves in a grossly unchristian manner and when we excuse unchristian abuse, both physically and verbally we cannot expect anyone to take us seriously when we tell them about Jesus.
There can be no substitute for character which is a moral consistency in word and deed; it cannot be for sale in exchange for political power and expediency, nor can it be sacrificed because it will not achieve our ends. We can protest the actual behavior, but if we dismiss it in others for temporal power, we are using our politicians as means to our ends, which is exactly what sexual abusers do to their victims. Jesus never, ever viewed anyone as a means to an end. Human beings are created in God’s image and they are ends in and of themselves. We cannot love one another, as John counsels us in his first letter if we do not hold them accountable; and neither can we be loved without our being held accountable. To say we do not care about the character of others is to confess that we do not love them, and lack of accountability is a tacit admission to the perpetrator that their words and deeds are acceptable.
Dallas Willard remind us, “We don't believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” When we put our own ends ahead of bearing witness to God’s Kingdom by our way of life and by what we tolerate and even approve of because "it works for us," we can say we believe the Great Commission is important until the cows come home, but in practice we confirm that it is not. Instead of the world being scandalized by the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23), it is scandalized by our behavior and what we tolerate in others who are supposed to be examples of what is good and right.
In the nineteenth century, prior to the Civil War, Quakers wanted to speak prophetically to the nation about the sin of slavery. It was decided that they could not speak with integrity as long as some Quakers owned slaves. So, the leadership approved a requirement that to be a Quaker one could not own slaves. The result was that many-slave holding Quakers became Episcopalians. It was a courageous decision, but the Quakers knew that their counsel had no integrity with a message of “Don’t do as we do, do as we say,” ethic.
When it comes to sexual immorality, crude behavior and coarse speech that diminishes the image of God in others, I don’t believe the church has much credibility in lecturing others about right and wrong. Until we embrace the centrality of character again, the gospel will suffer. We need to heed the word of Chrysostom once again—”For though we give ten thousand precepts of philosophy in words, if we do not exhibit a life better than theirs, the gain is nothing.”
Christians need to astound the world by a way of life that honors the Good News. Let’s stop astounding them in ways that make Jesus do a face-palm.