Salt and Light
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 ESV)
In the history of Christian theology we have a pendulum swinging, it seems to me, between turning the Gospel into works righteousness or turning the Gospel into righteous talk which is actually just hot air. Both ends of the pendulum are deadly because the masquerade of faith and love in Jesus is strongest when in truth the faith and love are centred on ourselves. It is when the pendulum swings back from its end point more to the centre that the tension that is part of Lutheran understanding – we are saints and sinners at the same time – and we live necessarily, not as an optional extra, close to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, and to the written Word of God in the Bible as we hear Law and Gospel comes into play. We know the faith is more than talk and we know that we can’t work our way into heaven, yet faith without works is dead.
Many Christians think the relationship with Jesus is like that of two magnets – the opposite magnetic poles attract each other and so once a person comes to faith, then it’s a matter of drawing closer to Jesus. The problem however, as I see it, is that we are more like the same poles of the magnet – Jesus is God and we in our sinful flesh and pride still want to be God – in fact this is what drives the pendulum for it is our sinful perspective, attitude and deeds that continually want to take over, circumvent, supersede the Gospel and for Christians, the struggle is to do it while looking a good disciple! So the Church swings through time with this emphasis or that emphasis which is a reaction to the present crisis. So works righteousness negates God’s action of saving us and down plays faith so there’s a reformation to bring the spotlight rightly on what God has done to save us. Then after we get so used to talking about what God has done and how we’re not works righteous that we stop doing any fruit of faith. And so the pendulum swings in all sorts of directions – about justification and sanctification, about the work of the Holy Spirit, about growth and evangelism, about baptism as grace or believer’s baptism, and so on.
I hear this tension in the Sermon on the Mount and in today’s section of it about the salt of the earth and the light of the world. There is a global perspective the followers of Jesus need to recognise; a status not earned but given – just as you can’t choose to be born into royalty or your birth family’s surname – so the disciples of Jesus – the ones he had just called ‘blessed’ when they effectively go through all sorts of hardships in and because of the world – being ‘poor in spirit’, mourning, choosing meekness, hungering and thirsting for … righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and then, on top of that, rejoicing in this lifestyle! – are salt and light for this planet. These two ingredients are vital for life and so Jesus gives his disciples a status worth noting – that without disciples of Jesus on this world then this world would be bland, putrid, cold and in the dark – for salt and light give flavour, cleansing, warmth and light by their very nature.
Salt and light are vital – momentarily noticed when used but quickly and easily forgotten, overlooked, and ignored. Jesus is not saying that his disciples are the kings and queens, the generals and CEOs of the world but are the quiet, almost hidden, life givers and sustainers of their community. The nature of salt and light – to be effective – doing what it does best – means that there will be the followers of Jesus on Earth when Jesus returns. The world will not stamp or snuff out the Church – and 2,000 years of history in certain times and places bear witness to this – that no matter how persecuted it is, it cannot die – for the Church as the Body of Christ participates already in Jesus’ resurrection.
Consequently the followers of Jesus still today then listen to this text and wake up each morning asking not ‘What shall I do today?’ but rather ‘How will I be salt and light in the world today?’. I can’t give you details for each of you – your daily marching orders – but I can point out those around you – family, friends, enemies, and if not enemies those you wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert island with, colleagues, neighbours, strangers, fellow citizens, the rest of creation and call you to be salt and light where you are.
As salt flavours, so the disciples of Jesus enrich life – flavours it with ‘real’ life – not chasing after what the world says will bring fulfilment – remember Jesus said that he had come so that we might have life to the full. With Jesus there is ‘real’ living – honest, boisterous, peaceful, quiet, joyful, cheerful living – where each moment is shaped by grace and love is possible – where the joy of the Lord is our strength. As salt cleanses or purifies, so the disciples of Jesus clean or purify life by minimising evil, distress, hardship that they cause others and which is done around them – individually, socially, communally, politically.
Why live this way? Because of Jesus and what he has done for us. He is the focus if people ask us as we get on with living.
Jesus’ words about light make it clear that the world should see not us – but good works – and the glory again doesn’t go to us – nor would we want it – but to God our heavenly Father who loves us by sending Jesus among us.
Today the Christian Church itself is on a pendulum swinging, it seems to me, away from ‘favoured position in the nation state’. Through history, politics and uses of power, the Christian Church has had a role in society that is being threatened in some quarters – and perhaps it should be – for it has often seemed more interested in organisational survival than being salt and light. Of course, it is never an issue of either / or but part of the pendulum swing, that whether by ourselves – individually in the classroom or the pub or workplace – or together in families or congregations or synods – our focus on this world is away from ourselves – to those around us – to the world – and also to Jesus who is with us – and trusting him, we live to God’s glory trusting that salt and light draws the world around us to do the same.
Lord Jesus, may this always be so!
- Matthew 5:13 - 16