Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen. Dear friends in Christ:
One of the really good things we’ve done at St. Paul’s, for many years, is to offer classes for those wishing to learn English. Many of you have helped with those classes, and many learners have been blessed through your efforts.
The English language has many challenges—among them being the use of the word “you.” Unlike most other languages, we say “you” when addressing both an individual and a group. Sometimes this can be confusing, which is why our Southern friends would use the word “ya’ll” for a group. As in, “ya’ll listen up now.”
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus addresses his teaching to “you,” and in the original Greek the “you” is plural. But a question still remains… to which group of people is Jesus talking? Is he addressing his disciples only, or also the larger crowds which followed him? Last week we read that “his disciples came to him,” which makes it seem as though Jesus were addressing them only. But at the end of the Sermon, we read that “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching.”
Last week I suggested that Jesus began this Sermon by addressing everyone, but then transitioned into speaking more directly to his disciples—addressing their specific needs and concerns and giving them specific promises. The words spoken to the disciples could still be heard by everyone, since Jesus wants all to be disciples. But they would speak most clearly to those who were making the efforts of discipleship.
Today’s text, which comes right after those transitional words we considered last week, begins with Jesus clearly addressing those who were following him as disciples. He makes two declarations in order to describe them; each employing a memorable image. First, he says: “you are the salt of the earth.” Then he says “you are the light of the world.” To each of these descriptions, he then also adds words of warning— to further teach on what it means to be a disciple.
When Jesus gives these images, of salt and light, he no doubt intends for us to meditate upon them. So, let’s do that.
When Jesus calls us salt, he certainly wants us to think about salt’s ability to both preserve and add flavor. Salt does both. As followers of Jesus, we both preserve and add flavor to the world.
Before we go any further on this, we should also note that it is God who does the preserving and flavoring. Not us. He does it through us, applying our saltiness in ways that he sees fit.
This is important to note because we sometimes feel great pressure to preserve this world on our own. Some feel pressure to preserve the physical world. Some feel pressure to preserve the world’s people. Some feel pressure to preserve the ideas and teachings they see as most beneficial to the world. Some simply feel pressure to preserve themselves. A little pressure is okay. But God is in control. He will preserve the world in his own ways, including by using his faithful people.
When we live with faith, and follow Jesus as his disciple, we are preserving the world. We don’t do it with conquering armies. We don’t do it through government policy. We do it by living the faith.
Likewise, God uses his people to bring a particular flavor to the world. Without this flavor, the world just isn’t as good. God knows how to flavor the world in just the right way. He flavors it with meaning. He flavors it with purpose. He flavors it with love. He flavors it with the message of salvation, given through Jesus Christ.
Many people rebel against God’s flavoring in Christ. They think the natural world is enough. Or they want different kinds of flavoring – perhaps something spicier. God knows how to flavor the world in just the right way. When we follow his teachings, we allow his flavoring to take place among us, and his flavoring preserves and enhances the world. As we know, it only takes a little bit of salt to make a big difference
As Christ’s disciples, we are the salt of the earth. Our task to keep our saltiness, and not lose it. If we’ve lost our saltiness, we’re not able to serve our purpose.
One may wonder, “how does salt lose its saltiness? Doesn’t salt just remain as it is?” As I understand it, the only way for salt to lose saltiness is if it becomes something else. And the only way for this to happen is through combining it with other chemicals.
In the same way, Christians will lose their saltiness if they combine in themselves teachings contrary to God’s Word. If we are to remain the salt of the earth, we must hold true to the Word of God. And this includes the whole Word—both the Law which teaches us how to live, and the Gospel which tells us of God’s forgiveness.
You probably know that people today will often use the word “salty” to describe something very different than what Jesus means. A “salty” person today is one who is angry or mean. “Why are you being so salty?” someone might say in response to another’s anger or insults.
Unfortunately, that new use of the word describes many Christians. These are the disciples of Jesus who are angry with how God is preserving the world. They see only the bad things, and in their anger, they place blame – on both non-Christians and their fellow Christians alike. They become salty in the wrong kind of way, in which case they are no longer preserving and flavoring the world, but hurting it. Assaulting it, you might say. Or pouring salt on wounds.
The true manner of a disciple is made even more clear in Jesus’ next description of his people. Jesus says we are the light of the world. Light does not push people. It simply helps them. It helps them to see.
As disciples of Jesus, we are helpers. We employ the fruits of the Spirit to extend our help. These are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
According to Jesus in this text, we help as we serve as an example. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
We shine through our good works. That is our calling.
And note, too, that “good works” includes more than just doing acts of kindness. Even unbelievers know about these kinds of good works. “Good works” as Jesus teaches also include our good observance of God’s laws, and our good proclaiming of His Word. Our good work is letting Christ, the true light, shine through us.
As we think about our shining of Christ’s light, we also need to hear the words he says in warning. He warns us against hiding our light—putting it under a basket, so to speak. This is done when we hide the fact that we are a Christian. Or when we insist on acting in non-Christian ways.
It’s hard to always let our light shine. Sometimes we get angry. Sometimes we get grumpy. Sometimes we’re sad. Sometimes our faith isn’t very strong.
And sometimes we do bad things. Yes, all of us. Sometimes we’re just not a very good light at all.
It’s frustrating. We want to tell people at the office we’re a Christian, and we want to be the salt of the earth and let Christ’s light shine, but we know we won’t always do these things so well. And we hesitate.
It’s important for us to note that these statements from Jesus – “you are salt” and “you are light” – are both job descriptions and just simple descriptions. As job descriptions, they call us to preserve and flavor the world, and let our let shine. They tell us what we’re to do. As simple descriptions, they tell us that we are salt and light simply because of our identity in Christ, regardless of how well we do our job. We’re salt and light because Jesus has called us to faith.
The next words of Jesus in our text help make this clear. After the part where Jesus describes us as salt and light, he goes on to tell us what he has come to do for us. And here we learn what makes our identity in Christ possible. Here we learn why imperfect people such as us can still be called salt and light.
“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;” said Jesus. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Jesus fulfilled the Law and Prophets in two ways. He fulfilled their predictions about his coming, and he fulfilled their requirements for God’s people.
Jesus was and is the promised one of God. As such, he is the light of the world. His light is like the great light of Creation—when God first said “let there be light.” Jesus is the true light of God that has come into the world.
And Jesus, in his great light, fulfilled the Law’s requirements when he offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sin. He did this upon the cross, where he said in regards to sin’s curse: “It is finished.”
Those who have heard the call of Jesus to discipleship, and followed him in life and faith, now have their identity in him. They are the salt of the earth. They are the light of the world. And their greatest witness will not be how well they do their good works – even if they are done very well – but it will be the faith they place in Jesus as their Savior, the one who forgives their sins.
Jesus goes on to say about the Law and Prophets: “Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” With these words he is encouraging us in our discipleship. He wants us to be great. But these words can also be used to describe his own work. Jesus followed the Law. And Jesus teaches the Law. He is the truly great one in the kingdom.
Jesus has called us to faith, and he continues to teach us. He teaches us through his word, and he helps us to shine. His teachings give us direction, encouragement and inspiration. His teachings help us to grow in our discipleship, so that we keep our saltiness and our light.
One final thought from this text. As was just noted, Jesus urges his disciples toward greatness. And he adds that those who relax God’s standards will be called least. Here Jesus is pushing us to follow God’s Word, and not abandon it for what others consider to be better ideas.
Later, you recall, Jesus would use this language of greater and least in a different way – when breaking up arguments between his disciples about who among them was the greatest. Once he even lifted up the example of a child and said, “he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48).
We certainly need to be careful with our striving for greatness. But in today’s text, that is the goal. We must remember this too. Our greatness will be in lifting up the wisdom of God in Christ Jesus, and doing our best to shine its light.
We are salt and light people, by God’s grace. May we live according to our calling. In the name of Jesus. Amen.