Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my family and those whom God loves:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Today I want to focus on that part of the Gospel reading from Matthew 5 (13-16) where Jesus says…
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (ESV)
If someone asked you personally, “Who are you?” and “What are you about?” how would you answer these questions? How would you answer those questions for your congregation?
“Who are you?” is a question of identity. “What are you about?” is a question of purpose, calling, or mission. These are questions most people begin to struggle with in their teenage years and yet, how many of us have been able to answer these critical questions in a way that brings us comfort and assurance? Do you have an answer to these questions for yourself or for our congregation?
I sometimes wonder whether most people, and even most churches, simply give up on these significant questions and just “do” life, you know, just stop thinking and do what you have to do. Approaching life in this way, however, can leave us wondering whether we’ve done what needs to be done or whether we’ve done enough. And if you’re a Christian, taking this approach can turn Christianity into one more of those many “do” religions out there rather than the “done” and “finished” of the faith Christ has established.
As Christians and as Christ’s body, the Church, we have an identity and a purpose and God’s Word has not only laid it out for us, but the Holy Spirit has planted that identity and purpose in our hearts and minds.
Today’s message is for believers, for those whom Christ has called and gathered to himself; who have been baptized into Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection; who have repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Now if you are not a believer, know that God still loves you and desires that you repent of your sin and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. But today’s message is for believers in Christ alone because that’s who Jesus was speaking to as he sat down and taught all that we have written in Matthew, chapters 5-7.
After calling his first disciples (Matthew 4:16-22) Jesus begins to teach them (Matthew 5:2) the Good News of God’s reign and he starts with those words at the very beginning of Matthew 5: Blessed are you…Nine times (Matthew 5:3-11) he pours out his blessing upon his disciples and each blessing expresses who these disciples are in Christ (poor in spirit, mourning, meek…). Added to these blessings Jesus attaches both present and future promises that his disciples are given because they are in Christ. They receive promises like (the kingdom of heaven is yours, comfort, the very earth itself…). Now just as you were given your names, Christ has given his identity to his disciples – to you; you are the blessed children of God and your calling or mission is to be a blessing in the world despite the persecution that Jesus says will come falsely on my account (5:11).
However, Jesus doesn’t stop here in the formation of their identity and mission. He continues by summarizing their identity and calling as his disciples in these words from Matthew 5:13-14: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Now although we shouldn’t read too much into these metaphors of salt and light they are still an important picture of who we are and what we are to be about as Christ’s followers; as disciples of Jesus Christ; as a church where Jesus lives bodily among us and in us.
13 “You are the salt of the earth…
I think we’re all aware of what salt is and what it can do in terms of both enhancing the flavour of food and preserving it. We also know how it can sting and cleanse an open wound. But why does Jesus use this image here? Allow me to suggest two reasons.
First, both John the baptizer and Jesus recognized that the world needs cleansing; it needs the salt of God’s kingdom. This world is corrupt with sin and evil. It is a world inhabited by people living in the darkness of sin and unbelief and it is into this very world that both John and Jesus came preaching (Matthew 3:2; 4:17) that salty message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So the image of salt speaks to both the sting of repentance and the cleansing of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Second, some of those whom the Holy Spirit worked repentance and faith in were called and gathered together by Jesus; men like Peter, Andrew, James and John, and it is to them and to us who have been called in repentance and faith also, that Jesus said (Matthew 5:3-12): Blessed are you… ” and then he adds, You are the salt of the earth…. “This is who you are!” This is your identity and your calling to salt the earth and later, also to be light to the world. So these images describe our identity and the mission Christ has given his followers.
“You are the salt of the earth. Christ is not pulling you out of the world or putting you on the sidelines until God wants to take you to heaven. Heaven is not God’s objective. Rather, the Holy Spirit has called you together into this community to salt or seed the world with his Word of Good News that the reign of God may break into the darkness of our lives and our world. God’s objective is to reconcile all creation; to recreate and eventually to restore us to new resurrected bodies in a new world – not heaven, but a new world under the reign of God.
But like those disciples, we often live with so much uncertainty about ourselves. Yes, Jesus has said to us, Blessed are you… but we wonder “Can we be such blessed ones?” “Can we really salt or light up the world?” At times, we get so hung up on our ability or maybe our inability to do what Christ has called us to that we forget that our identity is neither created or preserved by how well we salt or glow. Instead, it is God’s Word that promises to go out and not come back empty (Isaiah 55:11). Just as whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s so also God’s mission will not be accomplished by us but by God.
At the same time though, Jesus does warn his disciples – warn us, about not being who we have been called to be or perhaps even watering out the salt of God’s Word or maybe even acting like the world and taking that salt of God’s Word and trampling it under our feet. Jesus said,
13 …but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
Is Jesus somehow pleading here for the mission he has called his disciples to? Is he suggesting that if you’re tasteless, how will the earth be salted? Jesus considers his disciples to have a beneficial effect on the world and that their role – your role, is to be one of salting the earth, much like that image of seeding Jesus uses later on (Matthew 13:1-9). However, it’s important to understand that it is not the disciples’ role to make the earth salty, but simply to make sure the salt is spread. The ice can only melt on a sidewalk if someone first spreads the salt. Your calling to is spread the salt and let the salt work.
From the image of salt Jesus now turns to the metaphor of light, a far more common image in the New Testament. Jesus said,
14 “You are the light of the world.
This is the same explicit declaration that Jesus made earlier about his disciples when he said, Blessed are you… and You are the salt…. In other words, this is who you are! You are the ones to bring light to the world; to be light bearers.
Light has such a revelatory function in two very opposite ways. Light can reveal what is bad, evil, or not right and it can also reveal what is good and true. In this way, the light Jesus speaks of can act as both Law and Gospel. As Law, it reveals our sinful condition and separation from God. As Gospel, it proclaims the Saviour who we as sinners need.
That Jesus would describe his disciples as the light presumes that they have been blessed with the light of Christ already. This is not a light of their own making, but one that is born in them and only then begins to shine out. That light came into you at your baptism as you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit joined you to Christ in his death and resurrection, Christ the light of the world came into you. And it is at baptisms that many congregations give a candle to the baptized and tell them and remind all who have been baptized in the congregation: let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Jesus also characterizes disciples as the light of the world. Like the phrase salt of the earth it connects disciples to the world they have not been called from, but into. You are to be salt and light in the world that so desperately needs the salt and the light of Christ you bear. Jesus said..
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
Unlike the image of salt which Jesus implies could lose its saltiness, Jesus uses two other images that speak of the impossibility or ridiculousness of not shining once the light is in you. The first image is that of a city set on a hill. Now modern readers don’t even need a city on a hill to understand the light that glows from cities at great distances. It is impossible to hide such cities.
The second example Jesus uses speaks to the purpose of the light. One doesn’t turn on the light in order to cover it up with a basket or anything else. We light candles and turn on electric lights to help us and others see. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5). Jesus said,
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
In saying this, Jesus draws his disciples back to their purpose of being light; letting the light of Christ within them shine out to those around them. The force of this command is similar to God saying in the beginning (Genesis 1:3), “Let there be light…” and there was light because it couldn’t help but happen.
This statement of Jesus,’ so that they may see your good works… may cause is some concern because who know we are not saved by works, but by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. We also are hesitant about making too much of our good works and looking like Pharisees. So how then shall we correctly understand what Jesus is calling his disciples to be about here?
Well first, Jesus is exhorting them to let the light of the Gospel be seen through their good works. The good works Jesus refers to will be explained in the remaining part of his sermon, the rest of chapters 5-7 (Matthew 5:17-7:12). These works are to be public and visible, but done with the sole purpose of bringing glory to the Father in heaven. Most important about the role of these good works is that they are intended to lead people to Christ; that they may be converted; that these good works would lead people to faith and discipleship.
Second, these good works ought to also edify or build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12) and the reason for this is that a person can only glorify the Father if you first know the Father rightly and this can only come through a right knowledge of his Son (Matthew 11:25-27). So these good works are always grounded in God’s Word. A Wordless work is like a limp carrot.
So how will these good works find their way into the world? Will we all have to become pastors? Of course not, but I want you to remember the primary image used to describe the Church. St. Paul says that we are the body of Christ and so these good works will be carried out through all of the members of the body as they perform their ordinary functions or vocations as Jesus’ disciples. In other words, these good works are done by you every day as you lives as a baptized member of this congregation; as a father, mother, child, a student, employer, employee, and yes, even as a retired person. There is not retirement in God’s kingdom whether in this life or in the next so you better get used to that.
Yes, it will be through our ordinary vocations that the good works of God’s kingdom will be done and it is because we are blessed by Christ that these works become extraordinary as the Holy Spirit enables us to perform them in purity, faithfulness, piety, love and generosity. In other words, the good works we do stand apart from those who done by those who do not believe. Why is that? Because of the Spirit of Christ’s blessing in our lives. Christ’s disciples are salt and light and this can be both seen and heard in the darkness of this world. The salt we bring and the light we bear is not unlike anything else in this world!
Shining the light of Christ through your good works does not guarantee that others will see Christ. They may see as the Spirit works according to God’s will, but our purpose is not to make people see. We are to simply bear the light of Christ and thereby give glory to our Father who is in heaven. This is our ultimate purpose and one that we need to keep in the forefront no matter what the results may be, including persecution (5:12) or even decline as a church.
To bring all of this to a conclusion I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Jeffrey A. Gibbs who in his Concordia Commentary: Matthew 1:1-11:1 (p.262) summarizes what Jesus has said to us as his disciples in this passage. Dr. Gibbs writes:
Both words and deeds are necessary. Words without deeds will not be heard. Deeds without words will bring no one to praise the Father in heaven. Each believing man or woman, layperson or pastor, stands as a disciple because of Jesus’ forgiveness and blessing, and receives Jesus’ calling to be salt and light. In the brightness of his light, our light will shine for the blessing and salvation of the world.
You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world.! This is Jesus’ promise to you as children of his kingdom.
Grace be with you,