"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.
"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way , let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16, NRSV).
As we come to the end of another liturgical year its good to take time for some the church to do some self examination. How is it with our covenantal relationships with God and with one another? How are we living Christ’s vision for his church to be salt of the earth and light of the world? Are we striving to become what God created the church to become: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?
To be “one” is the first mark of the church. Are we one with each other? Are we a community that is united in faith, hope, and love? This one-ness is expressed most powerfully by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
“… make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Paul also makes clear the necessity of diversity within this unity. There is a diversity of gifts and callings and personalities, all of which work together to compose the church as the “body of Christ.”
Holiness is the second mark of the church. To be holy is to be set apart; to be in but not of the world. To be holy is to be different, to be a community that reflects the reign of God and not the values and character of the culture of the world. John Wesley had a very simple and straightforward definition of holiness: It is loving the Lord your God with all the heart, all the soul, all the mind, and all the strength, and loving the neighbor. And the neighbor is anyone, near or far, who is in need; especially the poor. In other words a church that is holy is a community that directs all of itself in loving God. Its love for God is lived out in the world through loving all in the world that God loves, including the enemy. Also, loving God is expressed through loving one another. Holiness is seen through the ways we care for, encourage, and admonish one another. Do we watch over one another in love? Do we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, and care for the sick? Do we seek reconciliation with those who hate and persecute us?
The third mark of the church is to be “catholic.” This is not to be confused with being “Roman Catholic.” When we say we are a “catholic” church we say we are ecumenical. In other words, we affirm the doctrines and creeds of historic Christianity. We affirm the distinctives of our own tradition while also affirming and accepting other traditions. To be catholic is to acknowledge and celebrate all that we hold in common:
- Faith in God who is one and triune; whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Faith in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
- Trust in the saving power of God active in the world in the Holy Spirit
- The forgiveness of sins
- The resurrection of the body
- and life in the world to come, the coming reign of God
A church that is catholic sees itself and lives in the world as an outpost, an embassy, of the reign of God. It understands itself to be not an independent community but part and representative of the universal Church of Jesus Christ.
Finally the church is apostolic. To be apostolic means we are sent by God into the world as agents of love and justice; as ambassadors of the coming reign of God. This simply means that the church exists for the world. It does not exist to serve itself. The mission and ministry of an apostolic church is directed outward with Jesus in, with, and for the world. An apostolic church is a pilgrim people of God moving toward the coming reign of God. The members are formed and equipped to be missionaries in the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In the lesson we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus gives us his vision for the community of disciples; the community we know today as the church. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” and “You are the light of the world.” When he says “You” here he means “y’all” or “all y’all”. He’s referring to the community of disciples. We, together, are salt and light for the world. Jesus is telling us here that his community exists for the world, not for itself.
Salt and light are common and essential elements of life. They are “down-to-earth,” ordinary, and everywhere. Which is to say the church is to be “down-to-earth”, ordinary, and everywhere. In other words, the church is not to be so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. It must connect the lives of real people with the real, living God who has become one with us in Jesus Christ.
Let’s think a little about what it means to be salt and light for the world. Salt and light bring out the best in all they touch. Jesus knew that salt makes food taste better. It brings out the flavors and helps us to savor its goodness. Light brings out the colors and beauty of creation. Light allows us to see the world and to see the faces of our neighbors.
The church that is salt and light reveals to the world all that life can be, and will be when the reign of God comes. It seasons the world with the flavor of God’s reign that we can know and experience now in the person of Jesus Christ: who is good news for the poor, who gives recovery of sight for the blind, who gives release to the captives, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11:5).
When the church is “light of the world” it gives a glimpse of the reign of God present now and awakens us to the reign of love and justice that is coming. The apostle Paul describes this in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And the prophet Isaiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoner from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:6b-7). Light means hope and faith. Light means we have a future.
Salt and light do not derive their character from themselves. Nor do they exist for themselves. The purpose of salt is to season and preserve. Its character comes from the combining of its elements, sodium and chloride. Its important for the church to always remember it, like salt, does not exist for its own benefit. The church of Jesus Christ exists for the world—to season the world with the love and justice of God. Its “salt” character does not come from itself. It comes from God. Salty churches are those congregations that intentionally center their lives and ministry on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They strive to attend to all of the historic marks of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
The church that seeks to be “light of the world” must always remember the source of the light, and that they are not it. The love of God is the light of the world. The church is to be the window through which the light of God shines. Part of the church’s task is to keep the window clean and free of debris and distractions that may diffuse or distort the light of God.
The church is salt and light when it keeps its eyes, ears, and heart on Jesus Christ. The church is salt and light when it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We do this when all that we do and say witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world. We do this when we follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As you prepare for Advent and Christmas I invite you to re-commit yourself to the mission Christ has given you. Do all in your power to be one in Christ and one in mission for the world. Do all in your power to be holy as you are good news for the poor and channels of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Do all in your power to be catholic as you reach out in mission and ministry with your many and diverse sisters and brothers in Christ. Do all in your power to be apostolic as you witness and serve with Christ in the world to be good news to the poor, release to captives, open the eyes of the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. Watch over one another in love and do all in your power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect one another in love. Live in the world as Christ’s ambassadors of the good news of his coming kingdom of love, righteousness and justice.
"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 not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a lamp stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand--shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God,k this generous Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16, The Message
by Eugene Peterson).