Filed under: Sermons | Tags: disciples, discipleship, Jesus, sermon on the mount
When I was in 5th grade, we lived a good distance from our school, and my parents couldn’t pick me up until they were finished at work. I would stay in the library and work on my homework until they arrived. Well, I was supposed to work on my homework. Sometimes I’d play games with the other kids. Sometimes I’d sit and pretend to be working on my homework, but would be distracted by the conversations around me. So I’d listen in. I know it’s not polite to eavesdrop, but when tables are close together in a silent library… and math homework gets a little too boring… can you really blame me? I wanted to hear what was going on. Maybe there’d be a way that I could get myself into the conversation. Maybe I could be a part of something more exciting than my mundane task at hand!
As we read scripture, we are eavesdroppers on conversations that happened long ago. Today, we listen in as Jesus talks to his disciples up on a mountain top. We’re not the only ones sitting around the edges. Crowds of people have been following Jesus. Some of them may have just heard of this new teacher. Others may have been following for a while, debating if this teacher speaks enough truth to commit their lives to his way. Maybe they’re hoping for an opening, an invitation, to be drawn in to something greater than themselves. We’re like the crowds of people around the mountain, straining to hear Jesus’ teachings. We trust that Jesus’ message is also for us today.
Last week’s lectionary introduced the scene and began what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” In these chapters of Matthew, Jesus will describe to his disciples the difficult life of discipleship for those who choose it. After it all, I wonder how many among the crowds choose to enter more deeply into following Jesus, and become his disciples, and how many are put off by the demands and upside-down nature of Jesus’ teaching and simply walk back to their normal lives.
The beginning of today’s pericope sounds mild enough. Jesus is talking about everyday things: salt and light.
Today, they’re things we probably take for granted. My pantry contains a variety of salts, and you can bet there’s plenty in the various cans lining the shelves. For people in Jesus’ time, salt was used as it is today: for seasoning and in preserving, but it was even more precious, because it was rarer and more necessary for preservation (remember, they don’t have refrigeration!). Salt also had symbolic and religious meaning, and could be a symbol of covenant and promise.
Light determined the length of the workday. We’re used to lights coming on with a simple flick of a switch, but people in Jesus’ time would have to use candles or likely oil lamps. Each source of light was precious and needed to be used to its greatest ability. Lights would be placed where they would best light the whole space. We might think of them as being more eco-friendly, trying to stretch their resources; their decorating plans simply had to consider how each light could best shine.
Jesus uses these two familiar and non-threatening elements: salt and light, to explain a less familiar and more difficult idea: the shape of following Jesus.
Jesus calls the disciples the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They are like these common, precious, necessary, everyday, life-giving things. They are something essential to life.
Jesus’ declaration also carries warning. Whatever it is about the disciples that makes them salt and light, life-giving necessities, is not meant to be diluted, nor is it meant to be just for themselves.
Jesus has some harsh words for salt that loses its saltiness. He warns:
13You 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.
The disciples are special, set apart, vital. They came from various walks of life, and we who hear their stories in the gospels know that they are not perfect, not at the time of their calling, nor during their lives as disciples with Jesus before and after his resurrection. Yet Jesus names these ordinary people as essential for the rest of the world. Jesus has made them into a new creation, a gift for the world. Jesus instructs them to hold fast to their calling, and to make the effect of their discipleship felt throughout the world.
14You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples they need to become salt or light, or better salt and light. It’s what they already are. Jesus declares: You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world.
The warning Jesus gives has to do with what the disciples will do with the fact that they are salt and light. It’s about how they live out being what they are and for whom they will live. What they are is to be shared with the whole world. Their lives of discipleship will bring them into conflict with the religious and political authorities, with the crowds, and with their own hometowns and families. Despite it all, they are called to serve, heal, baptize, and proclaim what God has done through Jesus Christ. They are to extend Jesus’ life-giving presence and promise to the whole world.
As Jesus and the disciples sit on the mountain, the world spreads out below them. They can see a slice of the world which Jesus calls them to serve. There are the uncertain crowds. There are the cities bustling with activity. There are the temples for the worship of other gods. There are the soldiers of the conquering empire. The world is not full of people readily worshipping the true God. The world is not full of people following the commandments or even of good people. Even so, Jesus calls the disciples to be salt and light for this world.
No matter if they believe the world deserves Jesus’ healing, forgiveness, and grace, the disciples are called to bring that to all people. Disciples are to witness to Jesus through word and action. They are to make clear their allegiance is to Jesus, who is the source of their life and their strength. They are to go wherever there is brokenness to bring, not judgment, but healing and reconciliation. They are to risk their own lives, their own livelihoods, for the sake of sharing the good news that Jesus has come with love, forgiveness, healing and welcome. They are to share that news in both word and action with even the most unworthy and undesirable of the world.
In our eavesdropping, we find Jesus inviting us to this life of discipleship. We do not simply listen in to Jesus’ instruction, it challenges us today. Through Jesus, we have been made salt and light for the world. When we are baptized, we are welcomed with word and sign that witness to the change Jesus has created in us. Jesus claims us as children of God. We are marked with the sign of the cross, and are sent out into the world, wet from the waters of promise.
When a new person is baptized, we present them with a candle lit from the Christ candle. As we present it, we say:
Let your light so shine before others
that they may see your good works
and glorify your Father in heaven.
This is to say that the Christ’s light is now also carried by this newly baptized person. He or she has been inaugurated into the great community of saints, whose role is to shine this gifted light onto all the world. As a whole congregation, we expand on this:
The presider invites: Let us welcome the newly baptized.
And the congregation responds:
We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share:
join us in giving thanks and praise to God
and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.
Even to an infant, we name the mission of the baptized: “giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” Jesus has made us salt of the earth and light for the world.
Even, or maybe especially, as adults, we struggle in deciphering what it means for us to be salt and light, disciples, for the world, bearing Christ to this world. We might shy away from being too forthright in our faith and faithful living. We don’t want to scare people off, or offend them by being too verbal about our religion. But in our politeness and our assumption that everyone knows about Jesus, we may run the risk of hiding the light the world needs.
Jesus challenges us who sometimes think of faith as a personal relationship between me and my God. Jesus’ whole point is that the disciples exist for the sake of the world. Their faith isn’t for their own salvation, but is to heal others. Our faith isn’t just for ourselves. It’s not about having a good force behind us, or a source of comfort, or an assurance of heaven. Discipleship, following Jesus, is a lifestyle that serves the whole world. It’s a difficult path that follows Jesus’ difficult path: to be among those who suffer, who are outcast, who betray, and who kill.
The world is eavesdropping on us. Will people hear the good news about Jesus as they listen in on you? Will your life invite others to join in and become a disciple themselves? The world is hoping for an opening, an invitation, to be drawn in to something greater than themselves. Jesus has already invited you.
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