I wrote this sermon to be read out to the congregation by the Session Clerk in the traditional service, and the Sunday School Superintendent in the All Age Gathering. I couldn’t be there because I had a sore throat. What an interesting experience to write a sermon for other people to deliver!
Sunday 9th February 2014, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Salt and light
As I’m writing this sermon to be read to you, I’m reminded of the way things used to work in the Church of Scotland a few centuries ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were few ministers available, so each minister had several churches under their supervision. This is also why many churches still have quarterly communions instead of monthly or weekly ones. The minister used to write a very lengthy sermon, and then send it on to the readers in each congregation. They stood in the pulpit and read the sermon, unless it was their congregation’s turn to have the minister in their pulpit. Some suggest that we may be going back to that model soon, albeit without the ‘lengthy’ part…
Last week we began a journey through the sermon on the mount. The passage known as ‘the beatitudes’ deserves a whole series of sermons, as each beatitude is so rich in meaning and implications for our daily lives. We should take time to reflect on each of them.
We were invited last week to look at happiness from God’s perspective, which is always surprising and counter-cultural. How can those who are persecuted be happy? How can one be happy when they are insulted, persecuted and slandered because they follow Jesus? The challenge was to look in our own lives at one issue or situation that we would rather do without, and reflect on the opportunity it could provide for us to deepen our faith, and to learn to live more fully in God’s grace.
Today’s passage continues with the sermon on the mount, where Jesus turns from the personal aspect of happiness to its communal aspect. Being salt and light has to do with the way we relate to one another and to the world.
Jesus declares to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth!” We could spend a lot of time unpacking this declaration alone. Jesus refers here to two aspects of salt: its function and its value. The function of salt is to give flavour to food, and salt is also valuable. Salt was used as a trading commodity in the Middle East, sometimes in the buying and selling of slaves. That’s why a lazy slave was said to not be ‘worth his salt’.* Also, the word ‘salary’ comes from ‘salt’…
If the purpose of salt is to give flavour to food, what does it mean that the disciples of Jesus are like salt? If we think of our journey this year in looking at life in abundance, perhaps we can see it from that perspective. We can perhaps imagine someone who gives flavour to life, someone who is full of life, someone who is the life of the party. Can you imagine someone like that? Do you know someone like that? There is just something about them that makes life more beautiful, more attractive, more interesting when they’re around. There is a clear sense of joy, of energy, of enthusiasm. Did you know that the word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from two words – en Theos – which means being filled with God?…
There is a clear mandate from Jesus for his disciples to be people like that. He also warns that the flavour can be lost. We may be tempted to say that salt actually never loses its taste, but that is not accurate. Most of the salt available in Judea came from the Dead Sea and it often had impurities which caused it to decompose and lose its taste. This warning speaks volumes of the mandate from Jesus to live a life that is full of flavour, since this is not just about us individually, but about the effect we are having on people around us.
The same is true of the light. Jesus was declared by John the Apostle to be the ‘light that shines in the darkness’. The prophet Isaiah announced the coming of the Messiah as the ‘great light’. And here, Jesus declares that the disciples themselves are to be the light of the world. Isn’t this surprising? By saying this, Jesus clearly makes his mission, their mission. If Jesus came into the world to bring light into the darkness, this is also what his disciples are called to do.
Light had to do with knowledge and wisdom in a context of ignorance and foolishness. In the time of Jesus, the Law – or ‘Torah’ – was known as ‘salt’ for Israel.* And the rabbis and religious leaders were sometimes called the ‘lights’ of Israel. Now Jesus calls his disciples to be ‘lights’ in the world. This call is to become visible, to be IN the world, out there, not separated, huddled together in holy cliques. The purpose of salt is to give flavour to food, not to be stored in a cupboard never to be used. The purpose of light is to give knowledge and wisdom to those who live in darkness, not to be hidden for the benefit of a select few. Salt and light is not to be kept for oneself, but it is to be shared and made visible to all. What does this mean for the church and its mission? What does it mean in relation to its mandate to give flavour to life and to be a beacon of knowledge and wisdom for a world that lives in darkness?
In the first few centuries, the small gatherings which formed the church were known for their joy of living, for their love for one another, for the way they supported and cared for each other. This is what attracted Jews and pagans to the church. They saw how Christians lived and formed supporting communities. It wasn’t so much the moral stature of individuals, but rather how they understood the living of faith in community.
I mentioned that the Law – or the ‘Torah’ – was known as ‘salt’ to Israel. This brings us to the second half of our passage for today. Jesus affirms the importance and validity of the Law of Moses. He warns against those who do not live by the Law and who teach others to not live by the Law. He declares that such people will be the least in the Kingdom. These words of Jesus are surprising for us, as we all know the Gospel to be a Gospel of grace: We are saved by faith, not by works, so that no one can boast. This has been preached from Reformed pulpits for over four centuries.
The Apostle Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans at Chapter 3, verses 27 and 28: “What, then, can we boast about? Nothing! And what is the reason for this? Is it that we obey the Law? No, but that we believe. For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.”
Paul does not end there, however. Further down he writes, in verse 31: “Does this mean that by this faith we do away with the Law? No, not at all; instead, we uphold the Law.”
This apparent tension between the Law and faith can cause tremendous confusion. Many books have been written about the Law, and how it fits with the Gospel of grace.
The key in understanding this tension goes back to the purpose of the Law. If we regard the Law as a way of God to test our righteousness, as a way of separating the good people from the bad people, the faithful from the heathen, then we misunderstand what the Law is about.
The Jews regarded the Law as a gift from God. Moses received the revelation of the Law as a gift from God for the nation of Israel, at a time when the nation was nothing more than a vast band of refugees and ex-slaves. They had no law, no structures, no leadership, no culture to hold them together. A nation without law is not a nation at all. A nation cannot survive and thrive without order and wisdom.
The Law was given to the nation through Moses as a blessing, as an expression of God’s wisdom, in order to help the Israelites to build a strong nation according to God’s justice. God said to the Israelites as they came out of Egypt: “You are not a nation, but I will make you a nation!” The Law was the means to accomplish this promise.
If we study the Law in detail and as a whole, we will discover that its intent was to build a just, prosperous and godly nation, in which all people thrived and lived happy lives. This perspective on the Law was very much what motivated John Knox to bring the Reformation to Scotland, to rebuild a nation in justice and holiness.
But the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees turned the Law into a means of self-aggrandisement. They turned into a project of self promotion and personal superiority. They missed the point of the Law. Jesus, as well as the prophets before him, points this out again and again.
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says: “How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty.”
That was the point of the Law: justice, mercy, honesty. It was about community, nation, togetherness. The Law was given so that people may live together in harmony and blessing, not so that some may consider themselves superior to others.
For this reason Jesus says to his disciples at the end of our passage: “For I say to you that if your justice does not abound more than the scribes and pharisees, you may surely not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus sends his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations, to baptise them and teach them to obey ALL that Jesus commanded them. Why should they obey? So that they may be able to consider themselves ‘better’ or ‘superior’ to those who don’t? No, but so that the kingdom of God may come to earth by making his justice known and manifest to all, as Christians form loving communities and live together in harmony, justice and peace.
This is the purpose of God’s commandments. The Law was not replaced by grace; it was accomplished by grace. This means that our self image and our sense of self-worth does not come from how well we obey the Law, but rather from God’s unconditional grace and acceptance for us, in Christ Jesus.
We obey BECAUSE we are loved. We obey because we want God’s will to be done on earth, because we want the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We obey because we want to build a community of love and justice in our church and beyond, so that people may learn to live a life that is full of joy and happiness for the benefit of all. May we all be inspired in our daily lives by such a vision!…
Here is something to reflect on for the coming week: In what ways do we sometimes regard the Law of God as oppressive and judgemental, as something negative and imposed? How can we change our perspective in order to be able to genuinely delight in God’s commandments, as the psalmist wrote?
May the light of God shine on all of us this week, and enable us to shine his light for others.
* Some of the background references are taken from the “Progressive involvement” blog.