9 February – Salt, light, law…

9 February 2014

10.00 Communion @ Hadlow

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.

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.  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.  On a summer evening, on holiday, standing on firm ground it is a beautiful sight.

But of course Bishops Rock, and all the lighthouses around our coast, are not there simply to be picturesque.  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

It is clear that we now have a very different relationship with salt.  To us salt is a cheap commodity which is often used to bulk up substandard foods and we are told constantly to try and avoid having too much in our diet because, like most things, too much is not good for us.

But it is clear that Jesus meant the phrase as a high compliment – and of course salt then was a highly 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.  In fact salt was so valuable that wages would often be paid in sal, from which we get the very word salary.

Although we may try to avoid eating too much salt we still associate the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ 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, as we did last week at Candlemas, 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 again Jesus continues with a warning:

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel.”

A lit lamp under a bushel, which was a heavy basket used for bringing in the harvest, is a useless lamp, it is a lighthouse that has been switched off, and Jesus does not want his disciples to be useless:

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.  Secondly 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 therefore ‘be saved’ because our salvation is by God’s grace alone. 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.

Finally Jesus says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them

This is pretty challenging stuff.  Jesus says that until heaven and earth disappear not the smallest letter, literally not one iota, of the Mosaic law will disappear.  When we are talking about the law here of course we are not just talking about the 10 commandments but much of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of laws and, from the Jewish perspective, these laws are expounded further in works such as the Talmud.  There are literally hundreds of laws about all sorts of things covering everything from food, clothing, growing crops, dealing with infectious skin diseases, women’s problems, men’s problems, disputes over land ownership, dealing with mildew in the tent to bigger stuff such as who can marry who and which animals to sacrifice at which festivals and how to do it.  And, it has to be said, the penalty for getting most of this stuff wrong was, quite frequently, being put to death.  We simply do not follow this law.

Anyone who is a fan of the West Wing may remember the way that President Bartlett dealt with a Christian who tried to prove a point they were making by quoting Leviticus at him.  I shan’t repeat it all here but it was a useful reminder that we can’t simply pick and choose scripture to support our own views while conveniently ignoring lots of other stuff – the fact is that the Christian community stands in a slightly odd relationship to the laws of Moses.  But Jesus seems to be saying that the law will not pass away – So, the question arises, has the Christian community been doing something wrong since the time of Jesus or is something else going on here?

Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them.  What might that mean?  It might be easy to see how Jesus came to fulfil the prophets in the sense that he was the one whom the prophets foretold, so his appearing was both the fulfilling of Jewish prophecy about a coming messiah and an end to the prophetic line.  But how does one fulfil the law?

Let’s think about that from just one angle this morning – I suspect it is something we shall come back to again. The laws of Moses laid down very detailed descriptions of the animal and other sacrifices required at particular times of year and for particular purposes.  It is clear that we don’t do that and Hebrews 10 puts the reason better than I can:

Day after day every priest [which means the Jewish priests in the temple] stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin.  But when this priest [i.e. Jesus the great high priest] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.”

That’s us by the way – we are the ones being made holy.

So we no longer follow the sacrificial system because we believe that when we went to the cross Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the law by becoming the ultimate, which can mean both the best and the last, sacrifice.

So although the laws set out in Scripture have not passed away Jesus has completed the purpose of those laws, which is to overcome the barrier between God and man, and when we join ourselves to Jesus – when we become part of the body of Christ and when we enter into communion with him through sacrament and prayer then the law has been fulfilled for us and all that remains is the great commandment to love God and to love one another.

And how do we love God and love one another?  Again I suspect that is something we may come back to but for today it is by going out into the world and being the salt of the earth, striving and praying never to lose that which enhances and preserves the best and for each of us to become like Bishop’s Rock lighthouse:

Letting the light of Christ in our lives shine into the lives of all those around us so that they may see all that we do in his name and give glory, not to us, but to our Father in heaven.

Amen.

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