Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Salt and Light- Mat 5

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us who we are as his disciples. If we claim to be followers of Jesus then the Sermon on the Mount should be front and center in our lives. It is at the end of the Sermon that Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23)

It is a frightening warning that comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which doesn’t talk about casting out demons, or prophesying. Those might be impressive (even important at times), but we should not be too concerned with those flashy ministries, when what really matters to Jesus is the character of the person he describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

In the Sermon Jesus describes a person who is not controlled by the divisive force of anger; who treats lust as seriously as adultery; who doesn’t abandon and leave vulnerable a person they have been married to; a person whose word can be trusted without extra oaths and contracts; who doesn’t seek revenge; who even loves their enemies; who gives to the needy secretly without needing to be recognized for it; who doesn’t serve money as the most important reality in life; who is not anxious about the necessities of life; who doesn’t judge others when they still have so much wrong with their own. These are not abstract characteristics. We can do miraculous things like cast out demons, or prophesy, or other miraculous works of power, but if we are not marked by these kingdom characteristics Jesus is talking about then it was as if we didn’t know Jesus as all, or worse, as if he didn’t know us.

So for Jesus, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount describe his followers. If these characteristics are not present then these teachings also show who is not his follower even if they claim to be. It is a frightening thought because the Sermon on the Mount asks a lot of us. It is probably the Sermon that G.K. Chesterton was thinking about when he said, 
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
 The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought the Sermon was the real hope for the future of the church, he says, 
“the renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.” 
 The Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored.

Our gospel reading last week began the Sermon and this week we are still at the very beginning of it. Jesus is speaking to his disciples. He is speaking to you because you are connected to him. 

He is telling you who you are- "You are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). In the ancient world there were no refrigerators and salting meat was the way people preserved it from rotting. For Jesus to call you “salt” means you are a preservative- You are a force against decay. Salt also brings out flavor that is hidden in the food. For example, eggs taste very different with a dash of salt.

How does this apply to us though? The world was created to be a beautiful place. It was created to be good. We read that when God created, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Sin entered the world and had a decaying effect. If we are a preservative for the original creation then we are preserving that original goodness against the rot of sin. We are a preservative, but we are also to bring out the original flavors that are originally part of creation.

How that works is going to be described in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. It happens by not being controlled by anger, not allowing lust to fill our minds, but taking the breaking of relationships seriously, by speaking truthfully, by not seeking revenge, by loving enemies, by giving secretly, by using money as a tool to be used rather than a master to be served, by our focus on God preventing  us being taken over by anxieties about life, by recognizing we all have things to work on and not judging others for their part. What Jesus is describing in the Sermon is life as it was meant to be. The characteristics of someone living in the kingdom of God is a person as they were created to be.

We are made to be salt and to both preserve creation against the rot of sin and bring out the original flavors of creation. If we are not doing that then we are “no longer good for anything” (Matt 5:13) just like salt that has not its saltiness.

Jesus uses another metaphor. He says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). We might feel intimidated by this. Jesus seems to be putting a lot on us. We would perhaps prefer to turn back to Jesus and say he’s the light of the world, not us. In the Gospel of John he said as much, 
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). Jesus turns this back on us telling us that we are the light of the world. 

Some of us have been given a form of the Gospel that expects very little from us. We say, "don’t look at me, look at Jesus. I’m just a forgiven sinner." True as that is, the church should be different. St. Paul had the boldness to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Most of us wouldn’t dare say that. And yet, Paul does. And Jesus tell us we are the light of the world. We are to be different. True, we can’t be the light of the world on our own. I was recently told a story about a little boy who was asked what a saint was and he pointed to a stained glass window of a saint and said, “it’s those people the sun shines through”. The pun is beautiful. Just as the sun shines through the window, so the Son of God shines through the lives of the saints. That is really the only way we can be who Jesus is asking us to be. And to hide that light makes us as useless as salt that has lost its saltiness.

We can’t be salt and light by just trying hard. It does require effort, there’s no doubt about that. However, our primary focus is on Christ. Being salt and light are side effects. We so focus ourselves on Jesus and his teaching that we become filled with awe. We become amazed by his love and the beauty of his life. When we have that vision of Jesus as the focus of our lives then everything else falls into place. When we realize how much Christ loves us and how he forgave those who were crucifying him it becomes natural to live a life of forgiveness. If Christ can do what he did, how dare I take offense or hold a grudge. Whatever enemy I think I have, they have not crucified me. The more we focus on Christ the more the kingdom character Jesus describes in the Sermon makes sense.

The alternative starts to look hellish in comparison. The alternative is a life controlled by anger, and filled with unbridled lust. It is a life of broken relationships and lies. It is a life full of the desire for revenge, the constant need for people’s approval and reassurance. It is a life of service to money, and full of anxiety about the necessities of life. It is a life full of judging others while hoping we can ignore our own failings. That sounds like a hellish life. It is the opposite of the kingdom life Jesus describes.

Those who live the Kingdom life Jesus describes are light to the world. Just as salt preserves against decay, light shines in the darkness. When we light a candle in the darkness we see the beauty of the flame itself, but that flame also allows us to see what is hidden in the darkness. We stub our toe more often in the darkness. We stumble and trip in the darkness. In the darkness we see a garden hose and we think it’s a snake. Light shining into the darkness removes illusions and shows us where to plant our feet as we walk.

Jesus tells us to let our light shine before others. What is our light? It is our “good works” that cause people to “give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). It doesn’t mean showing off. In fact, if you are getting the glory for it, you probably aren’t doing it right. As we live the kingdom life Jesus describes people should become caught by the beauty of it. The world that seemed dark- uncaring, vicious, and meaningless- suddenly seems to be filled with beauty and there is a desire to live that way.

Jesus is not necessarily teaching anything new. Jesus is showing us what life was supposed to be like. This is the life described in the Old Testament Law, if properly understood. Jesus is recapturing the original creation. Jesus is showing you who you really are. When you hear Jesus teaching the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t your heart leap? Even just for a moment? Before you start critiquing it and wondering how you could possibly live like this, isn’t there a moment when you are caught by the beauty of it? That is you recognizing yourself as you are created to be. That is you recognizing the world you were made to live in. As your gaze rests on Christ may you find yourself and your true home as you become salt and light to a world that so desperately needs you. AMEN

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