Sermon for Epiphany 5
TEXTS: Matthew 5:13-20 and 1 Corinthians 2:1-13
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” (Matthew 5:13)
Some of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century interpreted those words of Jesus very literally. At the end of their worship service, they would single out the Christians among them that had “lost their saltiness.” Then they would make these hapless folks lay at the threshold of the door. And then, the rest of the congregation—as they were leaving the church—would walk over them … trampling them under foot!
I don’t know how they decided who would trample and who would be trampled—and maybe I don’t want to know! But Jesus does use this imagery. He says that Christians who have lost their saltiness are … well … useless!
“You are the salt of the earth.” This is not a command or a suggestion from Jesus; it is a statement of fact. “You are the salt of the earth.” He goes on to say that we can be good salt or bad salt, but either way, we’re it!
We, the people of God, are the salt of the earth. If we fail to have the effect that salt is supposed to have, there’s no back-up plan. We are the salt of the earth.
Similarly, Jesus says: “You are the light of the world.” Again, we are it! If our light is hidden under a bushel basket, we’re just wasted light—we’re merely consuming fuel for no benefit. But we are still the only light. We are the light of the world.
Remember the beatitudes from last week’s gospel lesson? “Blessed are the poor in spirit … the meek … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers …”
Remember all of that? Well, today’s gospel lesson—especially the part about salt and light—today’s sayings form a bridge between two parts of the Sermon on the Mount. They are the link between the beatitudes and the Law.
In the beatitudes, Jesus tries to illustrate for us the kind of characteristics God really values in people; and when he speaks about us being “salt” and “light,” he’s leading us into his discussion of the Law of Israel, which takes up the rest of chapter five. Today, we heard Jesus begin that discussion by saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.”
Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 5:13-14 this way:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” *
God is present and active in the world all the time; we know that. But we also know that God acts through us. The whole world is full of the presence of God—but if nobody is acting on that, then his presence will go unnoticed.
You know how it is with salt. The flavours in our food can be kind of muted and flat unless there’s some salt to bring them out. In just the same way, the Godliness of life will be almost undetectable unless we are living it out—boldly!
We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. The purpose of our life together is to bring out the flavour, the colour, the zest of life—in other words, to bring out the Godliness of Creation.
Sometimes our saltiness will enrich the good that is already present. Sometimes it will enable the preservation of the good that might otherwise be lost. And sometimes it will sting in the open wounds of the world; a healing sting—but painful, nevertheless.
If we lose our saltiness, how will anyone taste Godliness? If we do not mourn the hurts of the world, if we are not humble, merciful and pure of heart, if we do not hunger and thirst for justice and strive for peace, how will anyone see beyond the callous, “me first,” “winner-takes-all” culture of this present day?
The Law alone—the written Word—cannot be salt for the earth. The Word must take flesh in us.
The Good News is not “fake news” and pedantic law-keeping is not life. If we continue to live without mercy, compassion, or integrity, God will not be the least bit impressed by our religious observances—or by the “lofty words” of human wisdom to which the apostle Paul referred.
And yet, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The point is this: we do not fulfill the law by counting each commandment and ticking them off religiously. We fulfill the law as we live out of the mind of Christ that is being formed in us. We fulfill the law as we live in gratitude for God’s grace in us.
By all means, read the Scriptures. Every Christian ought to do that. The psalmist gives good advice when he urges us to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2), and to contemplate the God revealed therein.
So read your Bibles, my friends. Read your Bibles! But don’t do it to memorize “proof texts” or lists of “do’s” and “don’ts” to be rigidly executed. Do it so that—as the apostle Paul said—the Holy Spirit can speak to you “in words not taught by human wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:13). Do it so that the mind of Christ may be more and more formed in you (see Philippians 2:5-6). Do it so that the life of Christ may be shown in your life—bursting forth in joyous living, in full-flavoured passion for life and compassion for all your neighbours.
By doing that, you will be living out the Law. That’s how you can be the salt of the earth. And through doing that, you will indeed become light for the world, shining God’s brilliance into the very darkest places of this earth.
Believers, remember this: “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God” (1 Cor. 2:12).
There is no greater blessing.
*(The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)