Tonight in our series on Christian Discipleship we have reached CHANGING BRITAIN and CARING FOR NEEDS. To focus our attention tonight, I want us to look together at that passage in Matthew’s Gospel we read as our Gospel Reading, Matthew 5.13-16. And I am going to be talking about, first, THE CHURCH BEING GOD’S AGENT FOR CHANGING THE WORLD; then secondly, HOW IT CHANGES THE WORLD; and thirdly, THE RESULT OF THESE CHANGES.
By way of introduction I only need to say this. Our passage is from what is commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. In this ‘sermon’ Jesus is addressing his disciples. Look back to Matthew 5.1-2:
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them...”
Our passage is, therefore, a key element in Jesus’ discipleship training. So,
First, THE CHURCH IS GOD'S AGENT FOR CHANGING THE WORLD
Look again at our passage (verses 13-16):
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Jesus has just been teaching the Beatitudes. These make it clear that true happiness does not come from where many in the world expect it to come from – from human pleasures. Rather it comes from being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being pure in heart, being a peacemaker, being persecuted because of righteousness and being insulted. Having said all that, Jesus then says: “You are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world.” You say, ‘but how can such a little band of disciples – poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and persecuted – have any influence at all? What lasting good can they achieve in the wider world?’
Jesus had no doubt. He saw and knew that this little band of disciples would be opposed. But he still saw them and their followers down the ages influencing the whole earth and influencing the whole world. History has proved Jesus so right. The social influence of the early Christians through their caring for needs was proverbial. Here is Tertullian writing in the 2nd century:
“What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.’ ” (Apology 39)
Here’s how another writer described what happened in the 3rd century during a terrible epidemic before, of course, the age of antibiotics:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, to their every need and ministering to them in Christ... Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead... The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead.”
Skipping the centuries there was the great Evangelical Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries with, for example, Robert Raikes and the birth of universal education. Then there was William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, and Lord Shaftesbury and all his humanitarian reforms. Today in the 21st century it is the same. An honest atheist, a former cabinet minister, writing in the Guardian says it is Christians who show compassion for the needy not unbelievers like himself. Referring to Christians in the relief effort in America following Hurricane Katrina, he says this:
“Notable by their absence were teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs, and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity.”
He comes to the unavoidable conclusion that Christians, I quote, “are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others.” So Jesus said to this little band of disciples, and he says to us tonight, a little band of disciples in this church, “you are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world.” He is saying your influence can be great. In the same way as a tiny pinch of salt can affect a whole dish, so can even a few Christians bring about great change. These are indeed very powerful metaphors.
The need for salt and light was obvious in the ancient world. Today we need to remember that in the ancient world salt was not only used for seasoning but also for preserving food. Before fridges salt was used to stop meat from going bad. It was a basic preservative. Strictly speaking salt cannot lose its saltiness. So how do we understand Jesus’ remark about salt losing its saltiness? We need also to remember that in the ancient world often salt was not obtained by evaporating salt water and having pure salt. It came instead from, for example, salt marshes. It, therefore, could contain many impurities. Such poor quality salt would be ‘thrown out’ as Jesus said.
With that in mind we can see that Jesus is saying that true disciples are – or the church is – not only to make the world more pleasant, but also to prevent decay in a spiritually and morally decaying world. And they are to be shining lights in a spiritually and morally dark world.
So the first point to take from this passage is that Jesus is teaching his disciples that they are God’s agents for changing the world. But, as we will see, such change is not automatic. It is “if the salt does not lose its saltiness” (verse 13); and it is so long as the disciples let their “light shine before men” (verse 16).
The question then is “how?” And that is our second heading.
Secondly, HOW DO CHRIST'S DISCIPLES CHANGE THE WORLD?
There are at least three simple answers to this question.
The first is that Christ’s disciples change the world “by being both negative and positive.” Salt, if you like, when acting as a preservative is negative. It is to stop something getting worse rather than making it get better. In his providence God has provided a fallen world with institutions that negatively restrain sinful men and women – the chief being the State. Paul explains that in Romans 13. The married family is another such institution, where one man and one woman are committed to each other exclusively for life. And the church – the body of Christ’s disciples – is a third institution that acts as a restraining force in society.
Light, on the other hand, is more positive. Light, according to verse 16, stands for a Christian’s ‘good deeds’. Good deeds are what you do. But as ‘speaking’ is part of doing, ‘good deeds’ will cover what you say as well. So the church – the body of Christ’s disciples – has to be both negative and positive.
Let’s now be specific. It is important being specific when you are thinking about ‘changing the world’. That is why we, here in Jesmond, talk about ‘changing Britain’ – you can focus more easily on the sorts of things needed if you are specific. So if you are in Beijing, or Nairobi, or Brussels, you can think of ‘changing China’ or ‘Kenya’ or ‘Belgium’. And to see how we must be both negative and positive practically, let’s think about one particular set of needs. I want us to think about the needs people have as a result of the breakdown of marriage and the married family in the Western World.
Politicians, educators, doctors, nurses, social workers and sadly some church people can be ostrich-like and too often have their heads in the sand over these needs. They are blind to connections. They not only ignore the clear teaching of the Bible on marriage and sex – that sexual intercourse is exclusively for one man and one woman committed together for life in marriage. They also ignore the social consequences that have followed the sexual revolution of the 1960’s with the consequent break down of the married family. It took 30 years for reality to dawn in the academic world. But then in the 1990’s study after study emerged showing the great social harms from this new sexual free-for-all.
Today divorce, separation, remarriage, homosexual partnerships, birth outside marriage, cohabitation, pre-marital and extra-marital intercourse are common and applauded by many. If a bill is passed that is going through the House of Lords tomorrow, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, a child born by IVF from a male sperm donor to a lesbian woman in a lesbian relationship, can no longer have a father, but two mothers legally for life. But research shows that all this damages children. Only two months ago an important study showed that, I quote, “children of a broken home are more likely to be in poverty and poor health but they are also more likely to go on to become teenage parents, offend, truant, face exclusion, leave school early and be unemployed.” Evidence also suggests that children in married families do best, children in cohabiting families less well, and in homosexual families least well on a number of counts.
Of course, these are averages and many disrupted families do well and many from intact traditional families do badly. But on average this is not the case. Britain now has the worst record in Europe of children growing up in broken homes with no father figure. Yes, many Christians who themselves experience these realities and who do not pretend these realities are wonderful and to be celebrated as alternative lifestyles - these Christians seek forgiveness and wisely take remedial action as soon as possible. And God answers their prayers. But it is still true that on average ‘what you sow you reap’ as we heard in our Epistle reading. Sexual morality is not just a private matter. The state and wider society have to be concerned. For the sexual revolution has imposed a huge cost on every tax-payer. We are talking about billions of pounds as a result of crime, health and benefit costs. No civilized society can hold together for long without a measure of sexual restraint and the institution of married families.
A Soviet Union experiment at total sexual freedom in the early part of the 20th century was an utter disaster and soon had to be reversed. And that is why Christians in this modern sexual chaos have to be both negative and positive. Christians from this church negatively have set up an organization for teaching sexual abstinence until marriage in local schools. It is called Lovewise. Another organization called Foundation for Life is seeking to stem the tide of abortions.
So one very important way of caring for needs today is negatively for Christians to have a peaceful, polite, but firm attack on all that undermines marriage, and positively for Christians to do all that supports marriage and the married family.
The metaphor of ‘Salt and light’ teaches that as Christ’s disciples you have to be both negative and positive in your care for needs.
Secondly, being salt means no wrong compromises. Jesus teaches that not only are you distinct if you are a disciple but you are to keep being distinct. The salt, verse 13, is not to loose its saltiness. Jesus has just been teaching that as a disciple you should expect insult, persecution and to have people say all sorts of false things against you because you follow Jesus Christ. The fact is that every Christian disciple finds themselves in a river – the world – which is flowing strongly in one direction – the wrong direction. Being salt and light they have to be going in the opposite direction. There will, therefore, be some degree of stress and pain. It is like swimming or rowing against the flow or the tide. It is exhausting. It is much easier going with the flow. So in saying that the salt is not to lose its saltiness, Jesus says you are to go against the flow when the world is going in the wrong direction. You are not to be conformed to the world where it is wrong. You are to stop the world’s decay and light up its darkness.
The simplest thing, however, is to turn round and simply go with the flow. Accept the worlds assumptions. On the specific area of sex and marriage – sleep with people before you are married to them, have sex with a same sex partner, be unfaithful when you are married, break your marriage vows and marry someone else and so on. Or if you are a Christian believer, marry someone who is not a believer – all those things the Bible teaches are wrong but the world likes to think are right. So go with the flow. It is much easier. That is the devil’s temptation.
However, it is a bit like the Tyne when I first came to Jesmond. At its sources, in lovely clear streams in the hills, all was fine. But as the water got to Hexham and certainly by the time it had passed the Scotswood Bridge, the water was so polluted and deadly that all fish died and there was even raw sewage. It is not always wise to go with the flow. You can end up in nasty places. Now, I may say everything has been cleared up, and there are salmon back in the Tyne and the beaches at Tynemouth are lovely and clean. So don’t worry about going with the Tyne’s flow. But do worry about the world’s flow. Paul says in Romans 12.2:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
So Jesus teaching about salt losing its saltiness warns us of going with the flow.
Thirdly, Jesus teaches that you must ‘let your light shine’; and that points to a third possibility. This is when you neither swim against the flow, nor do you compromise and go with the flow. Rather you simply get out of the river altogether and sit, or hide, on the river bank. In an instant that solves your problem of stress and tiredness from swimming against the flow. The only trouble is, it doesn’t get you to your destination up river. This is particularly serious because it doesn’t seem so bad as positively joining in with wrong doing.
But a failure to do good deeds and meet needs and care for others and do all it takes to help them, from a simple Good Samaritan Act to a political campaign, according to Jesus, is very serious. It has been well said that ‘evil prevails when good men do nothing.’ We will be hearing more about that Sunday week in the morning when I have to preach on Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus says, you are to let your light shine before men. But you can’t care for them or witness to them and generally do good for them, if you are not with them. You must be involved. You cannot get out of the world if you are the light of the world. Jesus said in John 17.15:
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”
So, how do changes come and what lessons can we learn from these metaphors of salt and light?
To recap, first, changes come when the disciple is both negative and positive – negative in arresting decay, positive in doing good. Secondly, changes come when disciples do not compromise and go with the flow but against the flow. Thirdly, changes come when disciples avoid the temptation to jump out of the river altogether and do nothing.
Finally and very briefly, what is THE RESULT OF CHANGES or of good deeds of whatever sort? And with this I close. Verse 16:
“… let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise [or literally, glorify] your Father in heaven.”
As you care and take action for needs both material and spiritual, others notice. But it is not to be that they notice you, but that they see your light as a reflection of the light of the world – Jesus Christ. So they praise and glorify God.
Caring for needs by being salt and light is, therefore, a way of witnessing to the goodness and greatness of God. Is there anyone here tonight has never yet truly ‘praised God’? You’ve not allowed the light of Christ to shine in your heart? Why not do that tonight?
This service is a reminder that Christ died for you. Why not, by faith, accept his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit. The evidence that your faith is genuine will then be that you too are salt arresting decay and light lighting up the dark world with good deeds. Good deeds do not save you, but they are evidence of true faith.
Perhaps you already are a disciple – and you have gone with the flow. In some measure all of us have done that – it is called sin and sinning. But this communion service, to repeat, reminds us that Christ died for our sins. Believers, also, need to seek forgiveness. And no sin is too big to be forgiven or too small to need to be forgiven. So later on when you hear those words as you receive the cup, ‘Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you,’ be thankful for his forgiveness and by faith receive it.