Salt of the earth?

Epiphany 5

Matthew 5:13-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to be salt of the earth, light to the world. Amen.

Among other things, the recent flood, and now cyclone, has demonstrated that you do not have to be a card-carrying Christian to respond with love, compassion and action to a situation of need. In fact, one of the most interesting phenomena over the last few weeks has been the frustration, even anger of those who wanted to help, but could not. Men, women and children from all over Brisbane, those of different faiths and those of no faith, descended on volunteer stations and devastated communities anxious to be of use.  Similarly, many of the fundraising events are not being driven by those who identify as Christians but by anyone who feels that they have something to offer – musicians, comedians,. manufacturers, racing associations and local businesses.

Of course, that is not to deny the huge role played by Christian churches – in providing relief, food and shelter and by raising much needed funds towards the recovery – but it does remind us that we, as Christians do not have a monopoly on love and compassion.

This raises the question – if good works and a willingness to help others in need are not a means of distinguishing a Christian from the crowd, what is it that makes a Christian any different from anyone else? This is a question that good people have been asking for decades, though it is usually heard in the form of a statement: “You don’t need to go to church to be good.” One certainly can’t dispute that coming to church doesn’t make one any more good than anyone else.

The answer to the question is far from clear cut. In the West, society has been nominally Christian since the time of Constantine. This has had the effect that the culture itself have been christianised. Many people who would not claim to espouse the Christian faith would still demonstrate Christian values in their lives. In an increasingly secular society, gospel principle still permeate our society and determine how people behave towards one another. This of course, is a good thing but it does mean that oftentimes there is little to differentiate believers from those around us.

If not all good people are Christians then what are Christians if they are not just good people?

This is the question that the author of Matthew’s gospel addresses in what we have come to know as the sermon of the mount. The author has gathered together a collection of Jesus’ teaching which challenges the community to be better than good – to demonstrate a radical goodness which runs counter to the values and expectations of the world. Jesus demands that his followers do not just fit in with the society around them, but by their attitudes and behaviour act counter to the prevailing values.

The sermon begins with the list of blessings, that series of statement which turn upside down the values of the world. No right thinking person would really believe that being poor or persecuted was a blessing or that grief was something to be welcomed. Jesus overturns the normal interpretation of the believer’s experience of the world to open them to the values and ideals of the kingdom. Holding on the values of the world exposes one to their temporal, petty and ephemeral  nature and limits a person’s experience to the strivings and materialism of this life instead of liberating them from the cares and distractions of the world.

Following the section of the gospel which we read this morning, the sermon goes on to describe in even more detail the radically different values by which a Christian’s life will be determined and in which therefore the community of believers will be distinguished from the world around them. According to Jesus, in the kingdom – love your neighbour becomes love your enemy and an eye for an eye becomes turning the other cheek. Those who follow Jesus are not known just for their goodness – anyone can be good – a follower of Jesus is expected to go the extra distance, to demonstrate a willingness to go above and beyond. Jesus demands that those who follow will act out of love and not out of a sense of obligation, that they will understand that the smallest act of meanness against another person has the same consequence in kingdom terms as the murder of another person. There is no room for complacency, if we take the sermon on the mount seriously we have to act radically differently from the world – even if on occasions that leads to censure or persecution.

Our gospel today began with salt and light. Salt that has lost its flavour is not good for anything and a flame that has been covered is extinguished. Jesus’ statements about salt and light have something of a prophetic nature. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Words of commendation are followed by words of warning – salt that has lost its flavour can only be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Without flavour it has nothing else to recommend it. Light is only of value if it is light. There is absolutely no point in having a light and then putting it out.

One wonders if Jesus could see a time when the Christian community would become indistinguishable from the world. If he could foresee a time when his radical teaching had been appropriated into the blandness of goodness.

Jesus’ challenged the complacent goodness of the Pharisees who believed that there was an easy formula for getting on the right side of God. In his own life, Jesus lived the radical goodness that went above and beyond what was expected – he withheld his censure from those whom society condemned, he made no distinction between people no matter what their background or their status and from the cross he forgave those whose violence would kill him.

What would he have to say about our saltiness? Would he be able to see our light?

 

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