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The taste of salt
Salt has a distinctive taste. It is easy to recognise. It stands out, like a light on a hill.
Jesus said to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth and You are the light of the world [Matthew 5:13,14]. They were encouraged to stand out, to be different and to be recognised. Yet last week we were thinking about humility: Blessed are the meek or the poor. People of no great distinction were promised special blessings and we saw there were good reasons for that. Surely then, if seeking fame and fortune is not to be rewarded as are the poor and the meek, Jesus is not expecting us to put ourselves forward with attention getting behaviour. That is true. He was not encouraging us to draw attention to ourselves, but to be distinctive in another way. See just what he said about the light:
The disciples were encouraged to let their light show up what they did so that God, not they themselves, would be glorified: let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. God was to be credited with the good that they did. There is the crux (= cross!) of the matter. It was indeed through humbling himself that Jesus drew attention to the saving love of God who draws people to himself through the sacrificial work of those who love other people as they love him. Jesus is the model and the means of achieving this strangely humble kind of recognition.
The visibility of Jesus
In a few weeks, at the beginning of Lent, when we read the about the temptations of Jesus, we will be reminded of how Jesus was tempted to make a great show of himself:
Jesus had already dealt with this temptation before he spoke to them about being the salt of the earth and light of the world. Afterwards, he dismissed many times any request to show off his special powers. For example, as we were reminded recently:
He could not, however, avoid attracting a good deal of attention by the work that he did in response to the needs of others.
I wonder how an advertising agency would have managed him? Would they not, with today's technology, have arranged a photo opportunity of some dramatic demonstration of what he could do -- or have him teaching live on TV? Would they not have had him do things to attract attention in the most public way possible. Yet his teaching in the "sermon on the mount" about salt and light was actually given when he withdrew from the city to a quiet place in the hills. Even when he did things that people thought wonderful, he would sometimes tell them not to tell anyone about him. I think we can say that Jesus would not have been easy for a public relations manager to manage. No doubt he had great potential, but he tended to avoid publicity or to attract the wrong kind. Yet he left his taste in the earth and the light he lit still stands on the hill; indeed the taste of him is more distinctive and his light has lit up more dark places than any other person in the whole of human history.
The call to stand out as a witness
From his example we should not be seeking cheap publicity, attracting attention to ourselves to excite a passing interest or fashion. Yet the disciples were encouraged to stand out, to be different. The memory of those instructions clearly belongs to the inspiration for their world wide mission which Matthew, most clearly amongst the evangelists, emphasised in the closing verses of his account of the gospel:
The words about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world were for that purpose, for evangelism. The implication is clear. If you are to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, you must be prepared to be different enough to be noticed. If you are a true Christian you cannot hide who are. And let us be honest: it is not easy. We all need to recognise that it is difficult to stand out. There are times when we all would rather hide.
We like to be thought well of, yet Jesus said:
Usually, people feel it is best to conform to what is expected of them. It is difficult to say "No" when everyone else is doing it, or to say "Yes" to what is generally disapproved. More than that, it has become quite common for people to feel that they do not even know what is right or wrong except by watching what others do.
In recent times even the idea that things can be objectively right or wrong tends to be dismissed; it is said that there are no rules, basically because there is no legitimate moral authority. When people do not believe in God, they tend to believe in themselves and their group, so they think that what suits them and their group is right for them, allowing perhaps that other things might be right for others.
The pressures on young people who are still discovering who they are and what is right and wrong are enormous. It is extremely difficult to stand out, and most will follow almost any popular trend. It really hurts to be different. There is plenty of encouragement to rebel against authority, but within the group those who do not conform to their peers are punished, and if they continue to stand out they are made to fear being isolated and then expelled from the group. Great courage is required to stand out like a light on a hill when the levellers are at work or to taste like salt when everyone is seeking sugar.
The need to share the faith and support one another
We need to understand and to support young people who find that they need other Christians around them in order to survive the pressure to conform to a hostile world. Indeed people of all ages need support in the fellowship of believers to strengthen their own witness. I am hope that as we think about our future together we will see how we can develop the kind of supports that will be helpful for different groups.
It is certainly necessary that we need to share the faith more openly amongst us, to support and encourage one another. When young people, especially, are asking for older members of a congregation to talk with them about what they believe, that is a real challenge, because many in the older generations have not been used to sharing like that. They have tended to be private believers, keeping important things between themselves and God. Times have changed. The pressures to conform to an unbelieving world are now much greater and the possibilities of transmitting the faith indirectly through the culture of church and community are much reduced. The result is that within the fellowship of believers it is increasingly necessary to share the faith, to support and encourage one another so that we grow together in maturity in the faith.
Sharing the faith within the fellowship helps us to share with non-believers. If you have learned how to speak of what you believe in the security of fellowship with other Christians, even one or two, you will be better able to say what you believe elsewhere. So faith sharing within the fellowship is very important. It is important for transmission of the faith from one generation to another, for defence against a hostile world, for growing in maturity of belief, and to encourage witness to non-believers.
But, in the end, no matter how much support we have or how much we give to the fellowship, the time will come when we must each answer individually. Whether we keep our saltiness, whether we hold up the light so that others can see, does depend on our own personal commitment.
What should the light shine on?
Jesus said, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works. This saying about "good works" is difficult. As we saw before, it is not to attract attention to ourselves, but to God, but it is still about good works, about the way we live or what we do. As we have seen, it is part of the call to evangelism, but letting people see your good works is not the same thing as telling people about Jesus, which is what we usually think of as evangelism. If we take the example of the apostles, as we are told their story in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, for example, then spreading the good news is essentially about telling the story of Jesus and confessing one's own belief in him. There is no doubt that Jesus expected his followers to do that, but in this teaching in the Sermon of the Mount he is saying something else besides. It is not something that can replace the personal witness to Christ in which we name the name of the Saviour. We should assume that the disciples understood that they would tell others about him, but he is asking something more of them. It is something in addition and not in the place of talking about him. It is something about the quality of the life that we lead. It is about what we do as well as what we say: that they may see your good works.
It is difficult in part because is not always easy to do good, and for another reason also. There is a very strong, and widely held false belief, that we can put ourselves in the right relationship with God by doing "good works". It has been a popular heresy for many centuries, and it is extremely resistant to the good news. Good Christian people, and even others lacking faith in Christ, often believe that they can save their souls by doing good. But that is not Christian teaching. As Paul says so strongly in his letters to the young churches, we depend for our salvation not on what we do but on what God has done for us.
It is said often enough even if people don't hear it, that none of us can ever be good enough to earn our place with God. It is given to us freely out of God's love for us. It is a gift of grace, not earned, but freely given. But that does not mean that we can do as we like. Paul goes on immediately in that letter to say how good works are a necessary part of the way of life that we are called to live in faith:
Good works and the moral law
How can we do good and thereby to stand out like a light on a hill, while we also avoid false beliefs about saving ourselves by own efforts? There is another related problem: besides the old heresy about saving ourselves by good works, there is the modern heresy of cheap grace derived from libertarian beliefs, saying that if it all depends on the grace of God, then the old moral law counts for nothing and we are free to make our own choices regardless of what has been taught previously about what God expects of us. That fits well with modern humanistic prejudice, the idea that we are completely autonomous and can literally work out own salvation That is not true, and it is not new. Paul had to deal with it in his letter to the church at Rome:
That, I think, is what Jesus was talking about in sayings about salt and light and the moral law. People should show the change that has come to them through faith by living in a way that can be shown up in the light to the glory of God. There was, in fact, at that time, a great controversy about how much the old Jewish moral and religious law still applied. It is seen in the conflicts Jesus had with the religious authorities and in the struggles in the early Church to decide how much of the Jewish law should be required to be observed by converts who were not Jews. Peter and Paul, though they sometimes disagreed with each other [see Acts 15 and the first three chapters of Galatians], both discovered that the rules about food and ritual sacrifice were not required of those who belonged to Christ. But what about the moral law, rules such as we find in those commandments about not giving false witness, stealing and adultery, can they also be consigned to history? The answer Jesus intended is clearly "No". What could be left behind as a relics of the past consisted in the apostles teaching of those rituals and social practices which were required to be Jewish, the special rules about Jewish identity, but what God expects of all people, whether they are Jews, Greeks or whatever, remains. [See Romans 1:18-28, where there much that applies to the world today.]
It is not surprising that following these words to the disciples about letting the light shine on their good works we have further sayings about what it means to do good. Matthew, of course, tends to record this kind of teaching more than the other New Testament writers, probably because he was writing mainly to Jewish Christians who had the background to understand it, but this teaching is part of the gospel and cannot be ignored:
In Matthew, it is a very strong emphasis. There must have been people who did not agree and were teaching otherwise, for he continues:
I am not wishing to be hard on people and there is no point in being moralistic, but there are times when it necessary to speak out against abuse, and there are people, even popular preachers, who distort the truth about God by emphasising freedom rather than responsibility. We do have both freedom and responsibility. There is no easier way to be popular today than to condemn traditional moral teaching and tell people that they can have a close relationship with God on their own terms. It is not true.
Fulfilment of the law in love
Matthew goes on say that Jesus taught that his followers should do even better than faithful keepers of the old law, and in the verses which follow (in the gospel reading for next week) several examples are given: it is not sufficient not to murder, but you should not insult a brother or sister and should seek reconciliation with them; it is not sufficient not to commit adultery, you should avoid lustful intentions and desires to violate the moral law and keep the covenant you have made with your marriage partner; it is not sufficient to keep oaths made to God, but you should keep your word always; it is not sufficient to love your neighbours, you must love your enemies too. He was talking about the fulfilment or completion or perfection of the law of God -- I have come not to abolish but to fulfil, he said. He concludes these extraordinary commands with what might seem to be impossible:
Is that the quality of life, the high standard of good works which should shine from the disciples of Jesus like a lamp on a hill? Perfect? Impossible you say! Perhaps! Who knows what is possible with God's help; but it cannot be denied that we are called to a life of holiness. That should be our aim. We know that if we fail we have someone who pleads our cause, who represents us with God and makes things right with him for us when we repent of what we do wrong.
We do not live as people who have no hope, but we rely on Christ's work to accomplish in us what we could not do for ourselves. Then, when it is his achievement in us and not ours alone, we may rightfully hope that when the light falls on our good works it will point people away from us towards God. When we know that it is by love that the law of God is fulfilled, we know how God has made it possible for us and in us what might otherwise be impossible.
People who are sensitive to the call of God to live a holy and disciplined life which can be shown without shame to the world are, of course, those least in need of being reminded of it. Such people need to be assured that it also part of the gospel to know that
It is when we respond in gratitude for his gracious love, that we are best able to live a good life, to know and to keep the taste of salt.
It was to give God the glory that Jesus said You are the salt of the earth and your are the light of the world. So,
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