Summary: How we are to be salt and light in the world
Brooks Atkinson, an American journalist, said, “I have no objection to churches, so long as they don’t interfere with God’s work”.
Why are we here? What does it mean to be the church in Farnham in 2005? Our gospel reading has some ideas for us on what it might be all about, and our epistle reading has advice on going about that.
Salt for the earth and light for the world, according to Matthew, seems to be how Jesus thought of his followers. If we are to appreciate what Jesus was saying, we need to take a leap of imagination out of a world where salt is what you buy from Sainsbury’s at 50 pence a packet and light is available at the flick of a switch. It wasn’t like that in Jesus’ day.
You are salt for the earth, Jesus said. What would the disciples have thought of that? Salt purified, preserved, and gave taste to food, of course, but there is more. Salt was a rare and precious commodity in the ancient world, so valuable that it was sometimes used as currency. Throughout the Bible there are odd little phrases about salt, and it suggests that the disciples were to purify, preserve and sanctify the earth and make it acceptable to God.
That’s quite a tall order, for ordinary people to make the earth acceptable to God. We need to be careful to understand the subtlety, and not to misunderstand our metaphors, Jesus isn’t talking about flinging a handful of salt into a beef stew Delia Smith style. Saltiness is something to be preserved and cherished, not something to be dissolved. The message here is not ‘dissolve yourselves into society to give it taste and flavour’, but ‘retain your saltiness’, for as Jesus says, ‘ …if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet’. We aren’t meat and veg, we are salt.
This Christian community needs to remain recognisable and visible. Salt which can’t be recognised for what it is might just as easily be sugar or monosodium glutamate. This Christian community doesn’t have to be huge – a little salt goes a long way. Our work is twofold. First, we make the world acceptable to God and we do that by offering the world to God. Second, we preserve and purify the earth by allowing it to be what God created it to be.
You are light for the world, Jesus said. Being light for the world is no easy option because on the whole the world prefers darkness to light. Yet despite that, we must continue to be the icon of the light of Christ, shining ‘..in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven’.
So, salt and light is what the Christian community is called to be, distinctive, visible, sharing the world’s predicament, yet pointing beyond it to the God from whom all things come, and to whom all things shall return. As such it is a threat to the forces of destruction, death and darkness, that tried once to extinguish the Light of the World. That is the vocation of the church – salt for the world, light for the world, just as true now as it ever was.
So, as we think about what it means to be the church at this time and place, we need to be a community that is both salt and light. Whatever resources we have, and we have one heck of a lot of them in this Church, God has given us to fulfil our God-given vocation of being salt and light in the world.
What if we think we’ve already done that, or if we think we can’t even begin to do that? In our epistle reading (Philippians 3:4b-14), Paul talked about his journey following Christ. He began by explaining how Jewish he was. In every category, against every criterion to measure Jewish-ness, he was the most Jewish. He wants us to believe that it was not possible to be more Jewish than he was.
And then he says that that was all rubbish – actually the English translation lets us down – the Greek word is rather ruder that I’ll use in my first sermon here. All this was rubbish because he has chosen to follow Christ, and all who follow Christ stand equal at the foot of the cross, regardless of qualifications and status.
Paul then says that since he has turned to follow Christ, the original U-turn, that was not the end of the journey, it was the beginning. Paul suggests it’s like running a race, and we only get to the end of race after we’ve died, when we meet Christ in heaven.