It’s important in this new time and new context that we find ourselves in, to stop and again look back to our founder and his vision for his followers. To rediscover our call and purpose … Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German theologian who had to work out what it meant to follow Christ under the Nazi regime said
“The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”
And Jesus had started to call disciples, ordinary people about their everyday work to come and follow him and as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount it says his disciples came to him and he began to teach them. The Sermon on the Mount is like the job description of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus… it’s discipleship 101 if you like.
Jesus starts off with the Beatitudes ( Which I preached on earlier this year in a series called The Jesus Guide to Happiness). In what Philip Yancy calls the revolution of Grace, Jesus turns the prevailing religious view of the day on its head. In the beatitudes we see that it is not those who are good enough the spiritual superstars who have it all together that are blessed and able to be part of God’s family and kingdom, but the poor in spirit, those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Those who are meek, the merciful and the peacemakers, the pure of heart, those who suffer persecution and alienation because of Jesus and his kingdom. These people are blessed because they find their poverty, hunger, thirst and desire for peace meet and filled in Jesus and his mercy. They, we, are the people God invites into his Kingdom in Christ.
Then Jesus says quite a profound thing in the passage we had read out to us this morning. He says of this ragtag group, his disciples… you are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world. Right from the get go Jesus gives them and all who would follow him this identity. That who we are is to have an impact on the world in which we live. Our relationship with Jesus maybe personal but it is not private. Our relationship with Jesus may bring inward transformation but it is to be outlived out there in the world in a way that will have impact. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah we see that God’s plans and purposes for his people have always been missional, have always been about living in a way that would reflect the very nature of God. That would reflect God’s grace, God’s goodness and God’s justice to the world, that the nations would come and know and worship God.
Jesus uses metaphors, word pictures to explain that. Salt and Light and people down through the ages have wrestled with what those thing mean.
Firstly, Salt. In Jesus day it was so valuable that roman soldiers were paid in salt… its where we get the saying “he is worth his salt”. It opens us up to look at different ways in which we can be salt. We are most used to it as a flavouring agent. I often get (my daughter) Bethany to taste test my cooking, and her number one suggestion is that it needs salt to bring out the flavours already there. Just like with Salt you and I are to bring a Jesus flavour to all we do, to bring that flavour to the world.
Up until the beginning of the twentieth century and the invention of refrigeration salt was used to preserve meat and food. In his re-enactment of the voyage of St Brendan in the 1970’s explorer Tim Severn set out across the Atlantic Ocean in a small bullock hide chorale. He took modern space age freeze dried food and also some more traditional salted meat and cheese. He said that as the salt water got into the freeze dried stuff it went bad, but with the traditional foods it simply added to the flavour. Another aspect of being salt then would be in a world of decay to be a preserving agent, to stop the rot as it were and be a force for the goodness of God.
Salt is also used in healing in purification, we often hear about rubbing salt into a wound as a way of making something painful hurt more, but it was a way of guarding against infection. We still use it today, saline solution is used to clean out wounds. Again it can talk of being part of God’s healing into this world. Being where the hurt is so that the infection of sin won’t spread.
Light… of course is a more common biblical metaphor. It speaks of God’s truth and presence. In houses in Jesus time there was a lamp placed on a lamps stand in the corner which would provide illumination to the whole of a house and it gave people the ability to look and see what was in the house. We used to live in Napier and at least once a month I would come back from Wairoa after attending a Church meeting there and get home about midnight. The Wiaroa/Napier road is a long winding dangerous road with several gorges prone to slips, but you knew you were almost home and safe when you’d come out by the coast and there off in the distance was Napier hill with all its lights. It pointed the way home. The way we live is to point people to the one we have found life and light in. People, says Jesus, will see our good works, how we live and love other people and through that they will give glory to our Father in heaven.
Of course in John 8:16 Jesus says “I am the Light of the World” if we follow him we will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life in us”. We are able to be light because we have the light of Christ in us. I guess you could say it’s kind of like the sun and the moon. The moon provides light in the night, when we don’t get in the way, but not its own light, it is reflected light from the sun. So it with us through our words and deeds we are to reflect the light of Christ to the world around us.
But Salt and light also tell us how we are to have that influence on the world. If we hide the light away says Jesus, what good is it. We are to shine that light. Salt is used by being spread out and applied, not simply by sitting in the salt shaker or a sack somewhere. It adds flavour as it permeates through a soup or casserole or baking. It needs to infuse into meat to cure it and it is poured into a wound to clean it. You get this idea of the kingdom of heaven not being a kingdom that will come by conquest or by power or legislation, but by people who follow Christ and live in a Christ light manner permeating the world. Being there and being involved…. In schools, in community, in government, in families, where you work to bring transformation… There were times in history when the Christianity was seen as the state religion and able to impose and legislate, but even in those times there has always been the need for people to be salt and light of the kingdom as well, drawing people back to Jesus vision and version of the Kingdom. One of the greatest reformation movements was St Francis of Assisi, in his day the church had become very much associated with the wealthy and powerful and Francis and his monks were able again to show a Christian faith, based on the sermon on the mount that cared for the poor and marginalised, that didn’t seek power or maintain it by violence.
Salt and light also give of themselves to achieve their purpose. Oil is burned and consumed to give of light and salt dissolves and infuses to bring flavour, purify and preserve. Again this reflects Jesus own ministry of giving himself for us.
There are going to be times when being Slat and Light will draw us into conflict with the decay and darkness in the world. Martin Luther made the comment that salt was meant to bite when it did its work of purifying. Jesus had just finished talking about the fact that just as they had persecuted the prophets of old so they would persecute people who held up the light of God’s goodness. How we deal with those things also calls us to be salt and light.
There is also a warning in Jesus two metaphors here. Jesus says if salt loses its saltiness how can it be made salty again? It’s no good except to be thrown on the roads and trampled underfoot. Likewise we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel or basket. Again we get the light metaphor but scholars have wrestled with what it means for salt to lose its saltiness. Salt is no good for cooking if it is contaminated by other things. People used to collect salt that had been evaporated from the water round the dead sea, and some of it was good salt and some of it was mixed with gypsum and other minerals. While you could use it to preserve things at first, it wouldn’t last that long as the salt would dissolve and eek away leaving only the gypsum which was no use except to pave the roads. Some have suggested that Jesus was referring to rabbinic saying of his day, which mean that salt can’t lose it saltiness and maybe it wasn’t salt in the first place. But these two warnings point to two extremes that the church has been prone to down through history. Firstly we lose our distinctive and simply reflect the world and culture round us rather than Jesus. Then well we are just another social club in a crowded social network landscape. The other trap is that we hide off from the world and well it’s nice and light under the bucket or bowl but it is of little value. Dietrich Bonheoffer says “flight into the invisible is a denial of call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him”.
These metaphors prepare us for what Jesus will say in his sermon, this ragtag group bought into the kingdom of heaven by Jesus revolution of grace are to live differently than those around them. To be a follower of Jesus is to accept responsibility for sharing that distinction both in word and in deed, in living a different way it’s a call to be where the decay is and to shine in the darkness. To speak out against injustice and unrighteousness and to share the good news we have found in Christ. And back both those up with our actions, as John Stott says to penetrate the world with its structures and powers and preserve and bring flavour, Jesus flavour. Can I say we’ve often done that from a position of power as if Jesus aid we were the gold and silver of the world rather than humble but essential things for life light and salt.
Well how do we start… William Klein in his book on the sermon on the mount “ Become what you are” finishes his comments on this passage with some challenging questions… He asks ‘What injustice flourishes in the world around You? You are the salt of the earth… What about simply telling someone about Jesus? Can I say I’m heartened to recently hear stories of people encouraging other to come along to church because they find it a great place to belong… I hope it’s because in what we do and who we are that it just bursting with that Jesus flavour. Think of the mundane parts of your everyday life… how can they become places to shine light? Corporately, are we known as a caring community…in our community?