Sunday, February 5, 2017
Salt for the Earth, Light for the World

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 hidden. 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 your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:13-20)

I don’t know exactly how scientifically grounded this is, but perhaps you’re familiar with the observation that about every 500 years, there is a time of great upheaval and institutional self-examination in the Church – the point being that the Church is once again on the cusp of great change, and the timing seems to be consistent with the aforementioned 500-year cycle; for as you may be aware, the Protestant Reformation was initiated exactly 500 years ago in 1517, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, touching off a revolution the likes of which the Church had never seen before. And to make matters even more interesting, this current upheaval within the Church is occurring in the context of a general global refugee crisis, destabilizing wars, populism and xenophobia, exemplified tragically for us in this past week by the shooting at the mosque in Quebec City, and the disheartening and polarizing executive order issued by the newly elected US President. If you’re wondering where respect for the time-honoured tenets of Old Testament and New Testament Scripture have gone – things like welcoming the stranger, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God – you’re not alone. This has been a tough week, and although many of us turned up in support of the local Muslim community on Monday at the Oxford Street mosque, or attended the Wednesday rally in Victoria Park, something tells me that the work of visible support and vocal protest against irrational discrimination and violence has only just begun.   Common human decency is on the line, and sorting out our faithful response is suddenly and urgently incumbent on all of us.

But back to history for a minute. At the same time that the Protestant Reformation was in full swing on mainland Europe, the English Church began its break with Rome and in 1534 became independent under Henry VIII – but over the centuries that followed it saw the rise of as many as 18 identifiable dissenting breakaway groups who evidently thought that the reforms enacted by the Church of England didn’t take things quite far enough. One such peculiarity was a mid-17th century group known to history as the Ranters. The Ranters were very excited by the central message of the Reformation, which was the idea that we are saved by grace, that is, by God’s own initiative, and not by anything that we do, such as good works, prayer, ritual and so on.  Well, the Ranters took this notion of being saved by grace, and ran with it. If by grace God loves and accepts us unconditionally, and if we really trust God and believe in God’s love for us, then, they thought, we ought to do whatever we like, however scandalous it is, just to show our faith in that love. The more outrageous our behaviour, the more we demonstrate our trust in God’s grace. (It sounds silly, but at some level, you have to admire the twisted logic behind this). Church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch paints a wonderful picture of this group: “The Ranters expressed their God-given freedom,” he says, “by ecstatic blasphemy, joyous tobacco smoking and running naked down the street.”  Well, fortunately the Ranters never really caught on as a mass movement, but they weren’t the first group to think like this and they probably won’t be the last. There have always been Christians who believe that if God’s love is a gift, not something we can earn or deserve, then the logical but extreme conclusion is that it doesn’t matter what we do at all. God accepts us whatever we do, so we might as well do as we like. But if you just happen to be feeling skeptical about this attitude, your instincts are probably on the right track. And to be fair to the Ranters, being Christian in name only isn’t unknown in our time either.

Balancing order and freedom, law and love, has always been a challenge for Christians, right from the start. In the Gospels Jesus seemed to be in almost constant conflict with the scribes and Pharisees who, in a nutshell, felt that he was playing fast and loose with the law of Moses, the cornerstone of their faith – and they were scandalized. But at the same time, the freedom that Jesus exercised to reinterpret and reevaluate the law was like water on thirsty ground to many who suffered varying degrees of exclusion based on its literal and rigid interpretation.  But that didn’t mean that the ancient commandments of God had no place, and that the law didn’t matter anymore, or that, as the Ranters proposed, you could just do whatever you wanted.

Jesus affirmed this when he said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” So if we want to see what the law looks like when it’s kept perfectly, in the way God intended it to be kept, the Gospel tells us to simply look at Jesus. There it is. Not a rigid, inflexible, uncompassionate blind adherence to rules, but a joyful, life-giving demonstration of how we are meant to be, the pattern of God’s desire for us. In Jesus God turned the dry unyielding words of the law into the living breathing Christ, the living Word, so we could see what holiness really looks like.  What Jesus does matters; through it he shows us God. And that means, by extension, that what we do matters too.  We are salt for the earth, and light for the world. There’s our commission right there, in a nutshell, poetically but unmistakably stated. The Kingdom happens when the bonds of injustice are loosed, the oppressed are freed, the hungry fed and the homeless housed.   The law of love calls us to compassionate action, and yes, even protest in the face of human irrationality. If nothing else, we learn from Jesus that there is never a wrong time to do what is right.

All of this might seem glaringly obvious I suppose, but sometimes it’s the obvious things which we miss most easily. The world is watching, and the example that we set as Christians (and as merely decent human beings) shapes us, our society, and our world for good or ill.  That’s why we need to take our moral judgments seriously. The Ranters, bless them, added colour and controversy to the Christian experience – but they got it wrong.  The notion of “anything goes” is a fallacy, because if are silent, if we fail to do what’s right, then people suffer and God weeps.

For the audacious faith to be salt and light we pray as together we say Amen.

The Venerable Nancy Adams