There have been some great Christian witnesses throughout history—people who have stood up for what they believed, whatever the consequences, and despite the risks to their own safety, and their own quality of life.
There have been people like Martin Luther, who in the 16th century had his own struggles with faith, but then had the audacity to stand up against the abuses of the Church of Rome. There have been people like David Livingstone, who in the 19th century was known for being a great African explorer, but among other things was influential in stamping out the slave trade in Africa. And there have been people like Corrie ten Boom, who during the Second World War, lived in war-torn Holland, but risked her life, by hiding Jews from the Germans.
Now I guess we all have our own favourites in history. But without a doubt, none of these three set out to be heroes. Yes, they were people of faith, but it was the circumstances they found themselves in, together with the leading of God, that made all the difference in their lives.
But of course, all of that is in the past—that’s history—and it’s good to look back at others. But what about us? And what role should we play in making difference in the world today?
B. SALT AND LIGHT
Well today I want to look at some of the basics of the Christian faith, and in particular the expectation of Jesus of his followers. Because when Jesus talked to his disciples—as we read today—about being “salt” and “light,” Jesus was talking about the essential character that he expected of all of his disciples—and their influence for good in the world.
So today we have two basic statements to look at—statements that Jesus made to his disciples. We have “You are the salt of the earth.” and we have “You are the light of the world.”
2. Salt (5:13)
And with the first, “You are the salt of the earth,” his emphasis was principally on the negative.
Now salt has a variety of uses. Indeed it is often used as an agent of seasoning, purification, preservation, and fertilization. As a consequence in a world corrupted by greed, self-interest, hatred, prejudice—need I go on—the idea is that Christians are to be cleansers in the world. Now God may have set up certain institutions for the benefit of the whole world—institutions to curb man’s selfish tendencies, and to prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Institutions like “the state” and “the home.” But Jesus’s point was that the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society, was none other than his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people. Christians. You and me.
b). Being Salty
And lest we begin to think what can I—one person—do. Then this is where a second idea of salt comes in. Because you don’t need much salt to affect what it’s mixed with.
You know, these days, there’s a tendency to think that as individuals we can’t make a difference. “Life’s too complicated.” “It isn’t that easy anymore.” And even amongst older people we can hear, “We’re beyond that. That’s for younger people.” And of course the excuses go on. Yes, in our society we have heroes—people that are admired—and even put on pedestals. But the general attitude is more, “I can’t make a difference, I’m only one person.” “I haven’t got any authority, influence or power” “What can I do, I’m a nobody?” People feel useless, and ineffectual, and maybe even a little afraid. They feel they can’t or won’t make a difference. And, sometimes, people just don’t want to get involved. And, sadly, that’s an attitude that seems to have permeated through into the church today.
And yet, Martin Luther became a novice monk, because of a rash vow he made in a moment of terror, after being thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning. David Livingstone left school at 10 years of age, and worked incredibly long hours at a mill, before becoming a Christian at the age of seventeen. And Corrie ten Boom helped her father run a watchmaking and watch repair business. Three great Christians, who were just normal people. But who ended up making a difference.
Being the salt of the earth, then is a powerful image, and clearly illustrates the effect that even a faithful few would have on the world, to purify, to preserve, and to flavour the world, with Christian values. To make this world a better place.
c). Losing our Saltiness
Being salt in the world, then, is quite a responsibility. But it is not an optional extra.
But being “salt” does come with a warning. Because Jesus continued to say, that if we lose our saltiness—if we become contaminated with worldly ways—we effectively become useless.
In other words, Jesus’ point was that as Christians, we must retain our Christlikeness. We must not become assimilated to non-Christian thinking, or contaminated by the impurities of the world. Because if we do, we will make ourselves indistinguishable from non-Christians, and therefore useless for his purposes. Indeed, failure to persevere in good works, will effectively falsify whatever profession of faith that we might have.
The function of being salt, then, is largely negative—it is our role to help prevent decay in the world. And if we refuse that role … then what does that say about our faith, let alone the damage that will continue on unchecked?
3. Light (5:14-16)
But that’s “salt.” However, Jesus’s second statement “You are the light of the world,” is much more positive.
Because the function of light—for the believer—is a means to illuminate the darkness. What Jesus is getting at, then, is that as Christians we have the responsibility to share the light we have received with others. So if we have received the saving love of Jesus Christ, then that is what we are to share. If we have received the light of Christ, then we are not to conceal the truth that we know. Rather we are to share it with the world, no matter where that takes us, and no matter what the consequences will be.
Now, of course, for many that may all sounds a little scary. As a consequence over the years there have been many attempts to redefine “being the light of the word” and “doing good works” in terms of what people are comfortable with. Some have even suggested it simply means immersing ourselves in teaching, and encouraging and building ourselves up in the faith, rather than getting our hands dirty.
However this is a very narrow way of looking at what Jesus said. And if it sounds like it’s a way of trying to avoid contact with non-believers, you would be perfectly correct. But God’s works are not just works of faith, but works of love too. So Jesus’s expectation of his followers is that we will not only express our loyalty to God, but we will care for our fellows as well.
So “good works,” in this context, is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says or does—every outward and visible manifestation of his or her Christian faith. And again it’s not an optional extra. It’s the expectation of Jesus of all of his followers.
Salt and Light then: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” That’s quite a responsibility we have. From the negative side of being salt, part of our role is to be active in trying to prevent decay, to help preserve, season, purify and fertilize the world. And from the positive side of being light, part of our role is to share what we have received for ourselves, and bring light to the world.
1. The Basic Issues
Two very powerful images. But images that tell us that reflect two great truths:
Firstly, that there is something terrible wrong with the world in which we live. It has become contaminated and corrupt. In general terms, people either reject God, or they twist everything he stands for so that it becomes unrecognisable. And secondly, even though we are not perfect, Christians have a role in showing the way, restoring God’s values, and being the messengers of hope to the world.
Now that’s quite a contrast. And yet how easily we confuse the two. Because when we refuse to be salt, and when we refuse to be light—when we don’t do what Jesus says we must do—it becomes so difficult to distinguish between the two.
2. Examples of being Salt and Light
After all, how often do we hear of people being dehumanised; people who are being treated as second class citizens—or not even human—because they are different? People who come from a different culture, a different race, a different religion; people who are not valued as highly as others might be. And how often do we shake our heads thinking there is nothing we can do about it?
And yet, David Livingstone went to Africa as a missionary taking both salt and light. He wanted to do something about the slave trade, and he wanted to share the gospel. And he tried.
How often do we hear of people being persecuted because they are different? Again, people who are from different cultures, different races, and different religions? And how often again do we recognise the problem, but feel helpless to help them?
Yet, Corrie ten Boom responded to the call to be salt and light. She provided sanctuary for Jews being persecuted by the Germans during the Second World War—at the risk of her own life—but within the context of a very openly Christian family.
And how often do we hear of people being taken advantage of and abused? And I guess the recent history of the church is one such example. It also demonstrates how much easier it is to turn a blind eye, than to stand up and deal with the problem.
And yet, Martin Luther stood up to the abuses of the church. He was the salt and light. He pointed out how the church was using the people to gain revenue, whilst at the same time he corrected the beliefs of the church. The sad thing, of course, was that he was kicked out of the church for his pains.
3. Salt and Light
Now I’m hoping that at this point that you can see that each of the people I have chosen—Martin Luther, David Livingstone and Corrie ten Boon—each of them, I have described as being both salt and light. In other words they haven’t just done good deeds, and they haven’t just told people about Jesus. And that’s for good reason. Because Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they could be one or the other, but that they needed to be both.
The implication for us, then, is that there is a problem with having a charity mentality, if the Christian faith is not part and parcel of the whole thing. As a consequence whilst non-Christian charities have their value, they are substantially deficient. Similarly there is a problem with telling someone about Jesus, without taking into account their situation. We are supposed to be salt and light. Not salt or light.
But we don’t all have to go to Africa, we don’t all have to deal with the problem of a war, and we don’t all have to get into deep theological debates with the leaders of the church. Even though some of us do. Nevertheless we are still expected to be both salt and light to the world.
So where does all this leave us? Are we salt? Are we light? Are we one of them, or are we both? Or are we struggling with the whole idea? Indeed, have we become so contaminated with the world that we have become useless to God?
Being salt and light is not always easy, and in sense, some contamination with the world is unavoidable—after all, we are only human. Nevertheless we do need to try hard to see the distinction between the world and the ways of God, and to play our role, regardless of where it takes us.
So, today, are we God’s “salt”? And are we God’s “light,”? What are we doing, and how are we making a difference?
Now we’re not all going to be Martin Luther’s, David Livingstone’s or even Corrie ten Boom’s. In a hundred years’ time, our names may not even be in the history books. But that shouldn’t stop us making a difference.
Remember that Jesus’s words were spoken to a group of nobodies. And he not only expected them to take their part, but he expected them to make a difference. And it’s no different for us today.
So are we being the salt of the earth? Are we being the light of the world? What difference are we making today?
Posted: 4th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis