Proper 1 – 6 February

6 February 2011

10.30 Communion @ Woodchurch

Readings  Matthew 5:13-20


Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reveal something to us of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ Our Lord.  Amen.

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

As most of you know, one of my favourite places in the world is the Isles of Scilly and one of my favourite places in the Isles of Scilly is a small road on Tresco that follows the coast and looks across the bay to the next island of Bryher.  That small road also happens to run from the cottage where we stay to Tresco’s only pub, called the New Inn.  In the evening of the first night of our holiday, after I have had my customary ½ pint of Betty Stogs, we walk back from the New Inn along that road and look out across the bay and we really know that we have arrived on the islands when we see the light from Bishops Rock lighthouse flashing in the distance.

You will all probably know Bishops Rock from the famous Blue Peter footage of lighthouse keepers being swapped over on precarious bits of rope strung from boats over dangerous rocks and, whether you realised it or not, you may well have seen it on BBC almost any night of the week as the BBC ‘station ident’ film of the helicopter landing on top of a lighthouse is also filmed there.

But of course Bishops Rock, and all the lighthouses around our coast, are not there simply to look pretty during our holidays or on television.  They fulfil a vital function – by sending out their light into the darkness they help those at sea to navigate, they tell mariners where they are in relation to danger and they keep them from straying onto the rocks and being shipwrecked.  The lighthouse is there solely as a beacon and as a signal for others and if its light goes out it is useless.

Now you can probably see where I am going with this illustration and that is absolutely fine because, as St Paul says, “When I came to you, Brothers and Sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom.” And if that is good enough for St Paul it is good enough for me.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus has taken his disciples away from the crowds, up into a mountain, and he is beginning to teach them not about who he is but, rather, about who they are and about what it means to be his disciple.

Jesus starts his teaching with the phrase:

“You are the salt of the earth

Interestingly the positivity towards salt in this phrase conflicts with many other uses of the word. For example, in the Middle Ages, salt was spread on land to poison it, as a punishment to landowners who had transgressed against society in some way.

But it is clear from the context that Jesus meant the phrase as a high compliment – and of course salt was a high valued commodity, a little bit of salt enhances the flavour of many foods and a lot of salt preserves food against corruption, very handy in a world without refrigeration.  We now associate this phrase as meaning someone who is good to have around, they will be down to earth and they will get things done.

So Jesus is saying that the disciples are highly valued and, if we pursue the metaphor, that they have the potential to enhance the world and even to help preserve the world against corruption.

And yet Jesus does not simply affirm their worth and move on – he follows it immediately with a warning:

“…but if salt has lost its taste, how can saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Even though salt is a valuable and useful commodity if it becomes contaminated with something else and so can no longer be used as salt then it becomes worthless.

So, what is Jesus saying to the disciples?  Yes, you have been called by God, yes you are highly valued by God and yes you have a purpose in the Kingdom of God.  But don’t rest on your laurels – if you don’t realise your potential, if you don’t get on and actually do what God has called you to do – to be salt of the earth to enhance and to preserve – then your calling is for naught.

Jesus then switches his metaphor from salt to light:

You are the light of the world.”

We often think about and talk about Jesus as being the light of the world, and of course he is, but here Jesus is making the point that his disciples too are each individually and collectively called to be lights in the world.  It makes absolute sense when one recalls that the church, which here means the gathered disciples, is the body of Christ and that the church is called to be Christ in the world.  So if Christ is the light of the world then each part of the body of Christ is also the light of the world.  Brothers and Sisters, if you are a disciple of Jesus then you too are the light of the world.

But Jesus continues:

“A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

A bushel would have been a large heavy duty wooden container used for bringing in the harvest – if you placed it over a lamp it would stop 99% of the light getting out and might even extinguish the light altogether.  Why would you turn on a light simply to cover it up?  No, if you put on a light whether it is a lamp to light a room or even a lighthouse to warn ships off the rocks then it needs to shine out in order to do its job properly.  A lit lamp under a bushel is a useless lamp and Jesus does not want his disciples to be useless either for their own sake or for the sake of the Kingdom of God:

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This verse, and indeed much of this reading, causes consternation to some who are concerned firstly that our faith should not consist of doing good works, because of the whole faith versus work debate from the reformation, and they are also concerned that if we do do good works of any nature then we should not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing and we should certainly not let others know what we are up to – and there is good scriptural support for that view.  But, in my view, that is to misunderstand the point of what is being said here.  Jesus is not saying that we must do good deeds in order to win approval from God and to ‘become saved’ as the collect for today reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are accepted and called to God’s service.  However, having become called to God’s service, having become the potential salt and light in the world it is then incumbent on us to fulfil that potential.

As James 2:20 says “Faith without works is dead” which is a neat way of summing up Jesus’ teaching here.

But fulfilling that potential by being salt and light in the world is not and never should be about calling attention to oneself – “oh, look at me, aren’t I a good Christian because I am doing all these things” – but it should always be motivated by a desire to give glory to God – for it is not by our own abilities and strengths that we are salt and light but purely by God’s grace.

So what is Jesus saying to the disciples and therefore to us as his disciples today?

We have each been given a great gift by God – as the body of Christ and by the Grace of God we have the potential to be life enhancing – as salt we can bring out the hidden flavours of life and can be used to protect against corruption and decay.  As light we can illuminate the darkness of the world around us like a city on a hill, like a lamp on a lampstand or even like a lighthouse on a rocky shore.  And yet, and here is the really important thing, it is not enough to simply acknowledge that potential as a point of academic interest either at the feet of Jesus or here on a Sunday morning.  Rather, it is incumbent upon all of us to actually go out and realise that potential. Are we collectively or individually hiding our light under a bushel for good reasons or for bad?   Is the world giving glory to God the Father because of our good works?

If not then what good works should we do?  A good starting point would be the list in the reading from Isaiah, which is a list Jesus himself uses elsewhere:

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, and not hide yourself from your own kin?  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,”

In the second half of today’s Gospel Jesus moves on from talking about the disciples responsibility to live out their calling and goes on to talk about the relationship between himself and the Jewish law but I shall look at this in more detail next week.

In the meantime

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”


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