Disciple: Being Salt and Light
By the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman
Adapted from a sermon preached at St. Philip’s, Durham, on February 5
I spent a recent weekend at Bishops’ Ball, an annual event attended this year by about 100 young people from across our diocese. It was the first time in three years we were able to be together for an overnight gathering, and it was energizing, joyful and fun.
At lunch on Saturday, I sat next to one of our priests who has been involved in youth ministry for 15 years. As we were eating and talking, I noticed that he had stopped eating and was playing with a Rubik’s Cube. I said, “Matt, I am very impressed you can do one of those.” He half-smiled, nodded and kept manipulating the different sides.
A few minutes later he handed it back to one of the youth from his church. I said something like, “Wow, that was really fast.” He then laughed and said, “Bishop, you don’t understand. My job was simply to mix up the colors and the different sides so that they can solve it.”
Sometimes it feels like this is how Jesus is operating in his teachings. He mixes things up to see how we will react, and then he invites us to sort it out.
[Images throughout: Scenes from Bishops’ Ball, an annual diocesan youth event full of salt and light. Photos by Lisa Aycock and Leah Dail]
THE GIFT WE RECEIVE
Jesus’ teachings are often in the form of parables and metaphors. He favors poetry over prose and seems able to inspire and provoke at the same time. In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is focused on two metaphors: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.”
We have our own associations with the salt of the earth image. When we say a person is “the salt of the earth,” we mean they are grounded, approachable, kind, reliable, trustworthy and honest. While these are admirable qualities, this interpretation is a slightly different understanding of what Jesus is trying to convey in his teaching when he uses this metaphor.
In ancient times, salt had at least two main functions: adding taste or seasoning and as a preservative. For Jesus, the image of “salt of the earth” was intended as an invitation for us to bring freshness and flavor to the world around us. Our responsibility, as disciples and followers, is to engage with people, to bring energy and life to our relationships and conversations, and to be willing to pour ourselves out for others as part of our offering as Jesus’ disciples.
But there’s more, as there often is with Jesus. We are not only invited to be salt; we also are invited to be light. We are expected not simply to show up in life but to shine, to allow our lives to be lights that point to Jesus, that celebrate God’s love, that magnify the gifts of God’s abundant grace and mercy, not just for us, but for all people.
The concept here is not original to Jesus. As William Barclay noted in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, there was a common saying in ancient Rome, a phrase that in Latin is a kind of jingle the Romans used: “Nil utilius sole et sale.” “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.”*
Jesus picks up on this notion and expands it. He gives new meaning and life to the familiar Roman proverb. He says we are called to be salt and be light. In other words, we are useful. We have a purpose. Jesus actually infuses these words with a new understanding, just as his spirit infuses us with God’s grace and mercy and love.
This is not something we earn. It is a gift we receive.
But there’s one more important detail in this passage that is our puzzle to solve. “You are the salt, you are the light,” does not mean you, personally, or you as an individual. The Greek word “you” is used here in the plural, not the singular. In other words, Jesus is saying—y’all are the salt of the earth, y’all are the light of the world. This is not a message that we, by ourselves, become salt and light. Jesus’ teaching is that, together, we are salt and light. The invitation and call to us is as a community, as a congregation.
And this is good news, especially for us as Episcopalians.
LET OUR LIGHT SHINE
Way back when, before I went to seminary and got ordained, I worked for the Office of Evangelism in The Episcopal Church. As a church, we have always had a somewhat strained relationship with the concept of evangelism. Historically, we have not always been noted for sharing our faith, talking about Jesus or even inviting people to church. Some would say Episcopalians are too polite to be effective evangelists.
We had a saying back in those days that the congregation, not the individual, was the evangelizing unit. To put it another way, it was the community, not the individual Christian, who was primarily responsible for sharing the good news of the Gospel.
In a way, this kind of let us off the hook as individual disciples, but it also highlighted a truth that Jesus lifts up in this passage. It is the community whose voice and witness helps spread the word and embodies the gospel promise. This is not something you or I do alone; it’s something we do together.
Of course, ultimately, it isn’t an “either/or” situation. It is a “both/and.” We need to bear witness to the love of Jesus as a body and as a congregation. AND one of the ways we do that as the congregation is as individuals when we share with others our own journeys of faith and talk about the ways the love God revealed in Jesus has transformed our lives.
The truth is, as a church, this is still one of our growing edges. We have a way to go to live into the fullness of Jesus’ invitation to be salt, to be light.
The Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany reads, in part, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” Abundant life: This is the gift. This is our message. This is what we celebrate: that the love of God, revealed in Jesus, is at the center of our lives and at the heart of our beloved community.
Let’s tell these stories. Let’s share God’s love. Let’s be salt and light, to our neighbors and to one another. Let’s keep the message fresh. Let’s not be afraid to spice it up. Let’s be bold and not too polite. Or in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift up your voice like a trumpet.” (Isaiah 58:1) And in the words of Jesus, “Let our lights shine before others, that they may see our actions...and glorify our Father in heaven.”
* William Barclay – Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount
The Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman is the XII Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple