Approval ratings of politicians are at an all-time low. In a Gallup poll, Americans were asked to rank twenty-two professions for honesty and ethical standards. Congress scored next to last. We long for integrity in our elected leaders, but it no longer surprises us when a politician is caught lying, discovered taking bribes, exposed as a philanderer, or has their obscene language picked up by an open microphone. We’ve come to expect some bad apples in politics.
Is there any rotten fruit in the church?
Here are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before returning to heaven: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He charged them to “Go and make disciples.” That had to create heartburn in the early church: someone was sure to bring up Judas. “Who are you to be talking to me when Judas was on your original twelve-member board?”
Or someone will mention Peter: “Peter, also one of the big-twelve, denied this Jesus you want to talk to me about—said three times that he didn’t even know him. And you put this turncoat front-and-center as chief spokesman for your bunch on Pentecost.
“In fact, all the apostles abandoned Jesus and hightailed it out of Dodge when he was arrested. Wasn’t a stranger strong-armed to carry the cross because none of his disciples hung around to help? Is that the best you can do—showcase a bunch of cowards who couldn’t be counted on when the chips were down? And you want to talk to me about becoming a part of your crowd? Save your breath.
“Oh, and didn’t your church get into a squabble because the Hebrew-speaking widows were elbowing their way to the front of the cafeteria line, stuffing their faces with pot-roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, leaving the Greek-speaking widows to make do with leftover turnip greens and black-eyed peas? And what about Brother and Sister Ananias lying about their offering? You have the audacity to say that I should listen to what you have to say when you have these kinds of people in your church? Give me a break!”
Twenty centuries later, we’re still skittish about witnessing. From the get-go, we feel the need to disqualify ourselves. “Who am I to be talking to others about the faith? I have enough trouble keeping myself on the straight-and-narrow without presuming to tell someone else how to live.”
Then there’s the unnerving fact that our house isn’t all that clean. It wouldn’t be so unsettling if we could hold our church up as a model of morality—if there were never any misconduct, infidelity, or scandal among us: if no one on our rolls was addicted to pornography, drugs, alcohol, calories, credit cards, or social media—then we could feel comfortable talking to people about committing their lives to Jesus. But we’ve got trouble right here in River City; we know it, and they know it. So, what right do we have to witness and disciple?
And there’s that unity thing. Jesus prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.” If our attitudes and actions were an answer to that prayer, we could easily talk to people about him. If we loved one another, got along, didn’t split into contentious, antagonistic, quarreling camps over opinions and personal likes and dislikes, we would have the right to witness. But with a half-dozen churches in our town wearing the same name, many of which wouldn’t be caught dead fellowshipping the others, do we have that right? And—forgive me for calling this to your attention—whether you’ve pitched your tent in the camp on the left, on the right, or in the middle, if you go about your religious business with a judgmental and hostile spirit, you’re helping create the mess that causes people to question our right to witness.
With all these flaws, do we have a right to be his witnesses, to urge people to discipleship?
Yes, yes, we do. Because witnessing isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus. How do we justify our failings? We don’t. We can’t. The blemishes are in plain sight, and any attempt to whitewash them is a sure-to-fail effort to defend the indefensible. The Bible spends no coin trying to cover the sins of church members. Neither should we. But we must never permit the exposure of our weaknesses to get us off message. Our message is not to defend the human element but to exalt the divine. Our message is about Jesus, not us, only Jesus. For it is Jesus who saves, not us, only Jesus.