I remember visiting Assisi on one of the occasions I was working in Rome at the Anglican Centre, and I stayed in a convent in Assisi at the top of the hill. The two churches of St Francis and St Clare were like beacons in the community, not simply a place for the tourists, but literally and figuratively reminding us of Jesus’ words:
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.’ (Matt. 5:14)
This declaration by Jesus to his disciples, following his teaching about the Beatitudes or blessings, continue to challenge us as his disciples. Jesus was not pointing to a future time when his disciples, including us, have earned the right, or been blessed as salt or light. He was not making a ‘perhaps and maybe’ statement about timing after we’ve been good. He was making a statement to all of us who follow Jesus, which we hear freshly, again today, about the nature and quality of our presence in the world alongside him. He is saying to us directly:
‘You are the light of the world.’ ‘You are the salt of the earth’. (Matt. 5:13
It is not Jesus’ teaching about certain practices that are ‘salt’ and ‘light’ but the witness you and I offer as disciples in our living, which mean we are salt and light, already, right now. Neither salt nor light are rare, but both are essential for life. They are good for the world. Our presence makes a difference and I hope it is a loving difference.
Our goal is not to be valuable according to the world’s standards, to be the best producer of salt or light, or have the biggest production budget, or be the most popular church or most professional in our liturgy, or the most polished in our offerings. Like ordinary salt, or ordinary light, our life is to ‘be’ beneficial, useful, to be life-giving elements in God’s world, in God’s kingdom. To the extent we are able to stay true to this calling, we give glory to God and we are able to demonstrate God’s love in and for the world.
Israel’s vocation in the Old Testament is as ‘a light to the nations; and as disciples who follow Jesus, we function as a light to the world. Our inherent character as Jesus’ followers means this is not human-initiated effort but a human response to the will of God in heaven. Jesus is not coercing a response from us, but reminding us of our choice and our being in God’s presence.
Our effectiveness as disciples does not depend on our success according to the world’s standards. The point is not to give glory to ourselves, but to God. Doing this means nothing more than the humility of being who we really are: our vocation and calling as salt and light. Jesus is not coercing us or the early disciples but intensifying our choice to respond to God’s invitation or to ignore it and stay in this world.
Over the last few weeks, since I’ve joined this community, I’ve been drawn to your ‘being’ as a church community, each day encountering you as salt and light, quietly, kindly and carefully. The care you have for each other and in your visiting, kindness on a daily basis, and concern for one another in sharing your own griefs and joys. I have seen your joy in liturgy and worship, your passion for social justice and the community. Your commitment to learning and developing your faith. The strength of your welcome to all comers. Salt and light are your character!
You are salt and light. So my next question is to ask whether other people who don’t come to church, can also see you and taste you? Do they know, see and hear you as different? It is by your difference you help people to see God. Your behaviour, your words, your actions show the God you believe in. Your commitment to the law and prophets, like Jesus, reveal the God of love and justice we know today. Our God is not a God of vengeance, or rule-based dogmatism which has degenerated into human bureaucracy and madness in a humanly defined religion, but a God who so loved the world, God gave God’s only Son to show us the way to be and a God who continues to love, forgive, bring justice, show mercy and compassion.
God does not need an unconquerable military power or people fixated on power and wealth and vengeance, God seeks instead, a people through whom mercy, love, forgiveness and faithfulness, in other words, God’s own righteousness or justice, is evident.
As Jesus argued in Matthew’s Gospel, those who follow him are set free to follow the law and the prophets in ways yet to be imagined by the religious leaders of the day, ways leading into the reality of God’s reign. Isaiah reminded us of this expectation:
Is not this, the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;…then you shall call, the Lord shall answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:6-9)
To imagine we have understood God completely and know God’s heart and are able to express God’s love in ways we can control, define and restrict, is to limit God and reduce God to an idol made in our own image fulfilling only our own human needs.
We are not being called into a competition about who is most blessed, who is most salty or light-filled, nor whether we are better than the pharisees and scribes or one another. As disciples we are called to a righteousness and justice seeking always to be expressing the merciful, forgiving, reconciling will of God cradled exquisitely in the loving, just heart of God’s law. Jesus’ focus on righteousness in the beatitudes, encompassing practices of mercy, forgiveness and justice, spelled out in the law and the prophets, allows each of us to be in God’s presence as salt and light, loving God and our neighbours, revealing God to those around us, as we light up the world and being God’s flavouring in the world for everyone.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 1 Chapters 1-13.