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Salt, Light, and Role Models

Matthew 5:13-20

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Role Models is a 2008 comedy starring Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott. It’s a story about two men who get arrested and need to do community service as a way to avoid prison time. One of their girlfriends happens to be a lawyer and arranges their community service as “big brothers” to two wayward boys. One boy is a super misbehaved kid who has made all his previous mentors quit on him. The other is much more of an awkward type struggling to fit in. I won’t give away the movie, but as you might imagine they get into some trouble, but eventually it all works out and both the boys and the men learn valuable lessons about life, friendship, and what it means to be role models.

Being a role model is essentially what Jesus is encouraging his listeners to be in this week’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard the Beatitudes and learned about the blessed perspective of the poor and suffering, and how giving priority to such a perspective is the way to the kingdom that is at the center of Jesus’ teaching. This week Jesus tells his followers what they are called to do. Or perhaps what they already are: He tells them “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” In the ancient world salt was extremely important. It was an ancient preservative. How people kept food from spoiling. It kept mold and bacteria away before modern refrigeration. It kept food clean, healthy, and edible. So when Jesus says his followers are salt, he’s saying that we should be what keeps the world healthy and whole. What works behind the scenes to preserve everything else.

And then there’s the metaphor of light. Light continues to be a powerful image today: the thing that provides clarity and vision, the thing that enables us to see the world in all its beauty and fullness. We are called to shine in the world like a city on a hill, not hide our light like a lamp in a basket. Jesus’ followers are called to shine with the light of peace and justice and love, so much so that when people see all the good the church is doing, they give glory to God.

To put it simply, Jesus is saying is that his followers are to be role models for the rest of the world. Hopefully we’re a bit better than Rudd and Scott were in the movie. In addition to being our savior, Jesus came to be the ultimate role model and to teach how to model and manifest God’s will on earth. And now the church is called to be a model for the world of the kingdom.

And keep in mind, the Greek word kingdom “Basileia” or the Aramaic version “Malkut” which Jesus spoke, are the words we would also translate Empire. Like Roman Empire. The phrase Empire of God, or Kingdom of God, was a direct challenge to the worldly way of doing things. The fact that Jesus consistently used this phrase is a big reason why the Romans were convinced he was a threat. Jesus proclaimed an alternative kingdom and taught his disciples how to manifest it in the world. A world of peace and justice. A world without war. A world of forgiveness and mercy. A world where women and slaves and the poor were treated as equals. A world that was totally different is what Jesus proclaimed had come in him, and what he taught his followers to live into.

So the church—this community of Jesus’ followers—has an important mission. The church is called to love and serve the world. To be salt for the earth and light for the world. The church is not called to judge the world, but to love it. To care for it. To be light and salt for the people of this world God so loves. We are called to model and manifest the kingdom in our personal lives and in our community life together. In fact, theologians across Christian traditions understand the gathering of the church for worship as the embodiment of the kingdom in the here and now, a foretaste of the feast to come.

Unfortunately the church hasn’t always lived up to our Lord’s call. Historically the church has done a pretty poor job of being salt and light for the world. After Christianity became the official religion of Rome (the same empire that executed Jesus) it was almost inevitable that the church would become tied up in the power structure that it initially challenged. In a way the church did help keep the world together after the fall of the Roman Empire. But in doing so, the church did seem to lose its saltiness and put its light under a bushel basket. Not everywhere, of course. Jesus’ promising vision of the kingdom and spiritual transformation survived in monasteries and some dedicated churches. But it was centuries before the church started to understand her mission again. And even after Martin Luther shed light on so many of the church’s sins and brought much needed reform, we were still a long way off from the type of world-transforming community Jesus envisioned.

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will the kingdom be established as quickly as the early church once hoped. Nevertheless, what Jesus called the kingdom and what the Old Testament prophets called the new earth and what Paul called the new creation all describe humanity evolving or transforming into the image of God we were created to be. Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit is transforming each of us individually and communally, and empowering us to truly be light and salt for a world in need. Paul calls this mission of the church “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5). This ministry is still going on and the church is called to lead the way in the co-creation of the human family’s future, as we continue to refresh and enlighten the world like the light and salt that we are.

Jesus closes this part of the Sermon on the Mount essentially saying that unless you’re more righteous than the most righteous people you know, then you won’t be able to have this kingdom. He’s not saying you’ll be damned to hell. He’s saying that without such righteousness we won’t embody this promised kingdom.

But it’s also important to know that while we are called to be engaged and involved in this ministry of reconciliation, this manifestation of the kingdom, it is the work of God’s love and grace that transforms the world. We’ll fail over and over again, but God will keep empowering us and inviting us to restart, and as the Spirit heals and transforms us, God’s will will be accomplished. Love will reign. Creatures will be in union with Creator. All will enter the divine flow. The world will be filled with peace and justice and righteousness. That’s the biblical promise.

And until then, the church is called to be a microcosm of all that. To be a role model for the world. To be a community where we live into the kingdom by loving the best we can, by serving the best we can, by praying the best we can, by maturing in the Spirit the best we can. Already forgiven and assured of eternal life with God, we are called to focus on living out God’s will in this world, in this life, and being a beacon of light for the rest of the world.

That is our calling as the church, as modern-day followers of Jesus. To share the light. To be the light. To let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

And with the help of God, may it be so. Amen.

Pastor Brian, 2/5/23

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