2023 02 12: Salt and Light

Posted on 13 Feb 2023

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There is a legend first told by the Christians in Rome which pictured the day Jesus returned to heaven. The angel Gabriel met him and welcomed him home. “Lord,” he said, “Who have you left behind to carry on your work?”  Jesus told him about the disciples, the little band of fishermen he had called to follow him. “But Lord,” Gabriel said, “what if they lose heart, or drop out? What if things get too rough for them, and they let you down?”  Jesus answered, “Well, then all I’ve done will come to nothing!” Gabriel was shocked, “But isn’t there something else to keep it going, to finish your work?” Jesus shook his head, “No, the Church is it. There’s nothing else.” Gabriel questioned, “But what if they fail?”  The early Christians knew Jesus’ answer. “They won’t fail, Gabriel. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world!  They will make a difference.”

Surprisingly, Jesus’ call for the church to be the salt and the light is just as poignant and powerful today as it was 2000 years ago.  After all, his words are more than simply a humbling and honorable compliment. The future of the Church is dependent on the faithfulness of his followers to complete his work.  That is the message I wish to share with you today.

From Egypt to Rome, there was a well-known saying in the ancient civilizations which circled the Mediterranean Sea, “There’s nothing more useful than the sun and salt. Now, this may seem difficult to believe in our low-salt, post-Thomas Edisonian times, but in the ancient world there would be no meaningful life whatsoever without God’s treasured gifts of salt and light. In Rome, the soldiers of Emperor were paid with weights of salt.  Our English word for wages, salary, actually derives from the Latin for salt.  But regardless of its monetary value, salt also had its own intrinsic value.  Salt was a symbol of purity.  Its color was that of brilliant, shining white.  It was the fitting gift to the gods.  Second, salt was an important preservative.  Even our ancestors who sailed from Northern Europe knew the preservative qualities of salt.  Salted pork, beef and fish were often the staple foods they ate as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In the ancient Mediterranean world, where food without preservatives could spoil overnight, salt was essential. Finally, salt as it is still used today, added flavor.  Food without salt simply lacked the pizazz needed for eating.

Light, had equally important qualities.  Light, first and foremost, was for seeing and could not be taken for granted.  The New Testament records moments of men and women who did not tend to their lamps, and the light disappeared.  The ancient world did not know of light bulbs, electric lamps or battery powered flashlights.  They knew of only one source of light, the sun, and the rather imperfect alternative….  A boat shaped, oil burning lamp.  When such a lamp went out, when the oil had been consumed or the wick disappeared, it was considered a major catastrophe. There was no simple way of relighting a lamp.  There were no matches, nor lighters.  So a lamp offered light.  It also provided a source for direction, and like our modern, yellow flashing lights on our streets, it served as a form of warning.  Yes, the ancient Latin verse summed up these characteristics well, “There’s nothing more useful than the sun and salt.”

It is, however, joked by scientists, that Jesus was actually a better preacher than chemist, but maybe that’s point.  Salt doesn’t ever actually lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is one of the most stable compounds in the whole universe. It doesn’t often change or lose its character, unless diluted or mixed with water.  Much of the salt used in Jesus’ time came from the Dead Sea the lowest land area in the world. The waters of the Sea of Galilee flowed into the Jordan River and then ran down to the Dead Sea where the hot desert sun evaporated the water and left behind a chunky white powder made up of a combination of salts and minerals.  Even that powder contained enough salt to season meat or to add a little flavor to soup. But it was not pure sodium chloride. Indeed, it was possible with a little dampness in the air, for the salts to be dissolved first and leached away.

Therein lies, the comparison that Jesus is making between his followers and salt and light is this. There is a strength to be found in a pure, undiluted community of faith.  A single grain of salt can make a slight difference, but a concentration of salt makes a real impact.  One disciple with a sense of purpose may make a statement in the world, but it’s when the whole community of faith gathers together that the church can make a real difference and turn the world upside down.

Regretfully, there are men and woman today who like the title of Christian, but do not recognize the responsibility that goes with it and the role they play with other believers.  They like to say they are personally religious, and yet choose to live publicly in a non-religious way.  They love to point out the failings of others while overlooking their own misdirected ways.  Jesus understood that tendency. That’s why the tone of the second half of the lesson is so strong and critical.  What Jesus needed from his followers was a righteousness that exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees.  So where does the responsibility of Jesus’ disciples begin?

It may seem to be enough for a church to be socially active, spiritually responsible, morally concerned.   But Jesus has one more task and challenge for his disciples.  He says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven!”  That is ultimately, the task that God had set before his followers 2000 years ago, and it is still the challenge today. Jesus’ followers are called to live responsible, faithful lives which will turn others people’s thoughts toward God.  No mind is truly enlightened until it is flooded with the glory of heaven. No person if truly healed and whole until they have been touched by the power of the Creator. And no one is truly free until there is freedom in Christ.

As God’s light in the world you have to be willing to be a public witness.  Your light has to shine for all to see.  There is no such thing as a joyfully warm, “secret Christian hiding under a bushel basket.”   Either the secrecy destroys the joyful warmth and excitement of the faith, or the warmth and excitement of the faith destroys the secret of the bushel basket. Your Christian faith should be visible for all to see, and more importantly, your faith should be visible for all to see beyond the walls of the Church.  After all, you have been called to be the Light of the World and not simply the Light of the Church. For those who extinguish their light as they leave the doors on a Sunday morning, they are often likened to the hypocrites who make a public confession of repentance for what they did on Saturday evening but are planning on doing it again on Monday morning.  Jesus expects more from his disciples.

My friends, Jesus calls you and me to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world for this generation.  But you cannot do God’s work alone. By yourself, you may not shine too brightly, and sometimes “this little light of mine” may only be a glimmer of what God intended you to be, but together with the company of the saints, your light will shine before others, so that they can see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven!  So do not be afraid of letting your light shine, like the that first generation of Christians in Rome, Jesus knows that you will not fail. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.