God’s gift

Reflection given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 5th Feb , Revd Sue McCoan

Matthew 5. 13-20 

You are the gift of salt and light.

Do you remember those packets of crisps you use to get, years ago, with the little blue twist of salt in the packet? You had to undo it and sprinkle it on. If you ever tasted a crisp before you’d put the salt on – ugh – so the first thing to do when you opened the packet was to look for that salt. The advent of ready-salted crisps was a day a tiny little smidgeon of joy went out of the world. They tried to recreate the blue salt more recently, with a little sealed packet, but it wasn’t the same; we’d got spoiled.

And light. In urban areas like this, it’s very rarely completely dark – there’s so much  artificial light around, even in the middle of the night. But it is sometimes gloomy. When we came into church this morning, it was daylight – we could see to get around, and at a pinch you could just about see to read – but it was miserable. Putting the lights on made it look warm, and cheerful, a welcoming place to be. Having a bit of light cheers things up, and goodness knows the world is in need of cheering up.

You are salt and light: you make the world tasty and brighten it up. What a great mission! How exciting, to think of ourselves as called to be a bit of a treat to those around us!

This passage comes near the beginning of the first long chunk of teaching in Matthew’s gospel that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. It follows on from the beatitudes, the ‘Blessed are those who…’ sayings, that paint a picture of the values of God’s kingdom. The first teaching we hear from Jesus, according to Matthew, is all about who matters, and why we matter. And we need to hear this, before we go on to look at the rest of this teaching which is about how to work it out in practice.

Other gospels give us similar teaching in a different order, so it’s possible that Jesus didn’t say these things as one long narrative, and Matthew has arranged it this way on purpose, given that he is writing mainly for people of a Jewish background. Because, having given us this wonderful picture of recognition for the poor and the struggling, and this image of salt and light, Matthew shows us Jesus going on to speak about the Law. This is the Law with a capital L, the Law of Moses, given to God’s people as part of their covenant with God. Some people around Matthew’s time were saying, Jesus has set us free, we don’t need to keep the Law any more – wahey! Bring on the bacon sandwiches!

Jesus says, the Law is still valid in this world. The covenant holds. And those who keep, and teach, the Law will rank high in the kingdom of heaven.

Now that’s interesting. The people who keep and teach the Law are the scribes and Pharisees. That’s their role. And they do it very well. Yet Jesus elsewhere is very critical of them and their lawkeeping. What’s going on?

For the Pharisees, the Law had become all about separation.

There is the separation of the Jewish people, who had a covenant with God, from those who are outside the covenant, the Gentiles. So they don’t mix with the Gentiles, and they certainly don’t eat with them. They are very separate.

Within the Jewish people, within the covenant community, there were people who were regarded as unclean, perhaps because of their occupation, or illness, or  women at a time of menstruation or childbirth.

And even within the acceptable people, some were more acceptable than others, were able to keep to even higher standards of purity. The Pharisees were in this group. They were regarded as holy people – but their holiness was of being set apart, separated from the rest. You remember the sad beginning of the parable of the Good Samaritan, when the priest and the Levite are unable to go to the help of a wounded, possibly dying, man because it would compromise their ritual purity. This is holiness as separation.

Jesus, in what he says and does, blows apart this kind of holiness. For Jesus, the Law of Moses is all about community, how to live in God’s love, how to extend that love to the people around you. Jesus has no interest in keeping himself separate – he’s straight in there, mixing with the people no self-respecting Pharisee would touch. The holiness of Jesus is a holiness that brings the sacred right into everyday life, right into the places where it is most needed. When Jesus talks here about ‘completing’ the Law, he’s not adding anything to it – he’s completing it in the sense of making it whole, fulfilling its intended purpose, filling it with meaning and with love.

So when Jesus tells his followers to be far better than the scribes and Pharisees, he’s not asking them to be more pernickety in their keeping of the Law; he’s inviting them to grasp this sense of wholeness and fulfilment; he’s inviting them to be holy in the midst of life, as he is; to get in there, in the dull and the dark and the drab and liven it up: to be, as he said before, salt and light.

If we think about the church today – and I’m talking about the Christian church in general in this country, rather than this congregation – we know from surveys that a lot of people have an image of the church that is like the Pharisees: a group of people who think they are holy, who want to tell other people that they are not holy enough. And this image is not entirely without foundation. Let me read you some words from a little book by Rowan Williams This is a chapter on holiness.

The same goes for individuals. Truly holy people don’t point to their own holiness; they point to God. ‘You come away from them;, he says, ‘thinking not “what a wonderful person” but “ what a wonderful world”, “what a wonderful God”, or even, with surprise, “what a wonderful person I am too”.’

Holy people, holy churches, are not in the business of being holier than thou. They are in the business of being transformed by God, and bringing that transformation into the world. This is hard work – we have to take our own discipleship very seriously – but when we are serious with ourselves, then we can be light to others.

We will shortly be sharing in communion together. We’re not here to judge each other – we’re all welcome at this table, no matter who we are. We come to remember just how much God has done, is doing, and will do, for us and through us. May we delight in this gift, and be thrilled that we can share it: that we can be salt and light to the world.