A SERMON PREACHED ON BBC RADIO 4 IN THE OCTAVE OF PRAYER FOR FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY 2016
Given by The Revd Dr Jane Leach on 24th January 2016 in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge and broadcast live on BBC Radio 4.
Salt of the Earth. This is the phrase chosen from Matthew 5.13 as the theme for this week of Prayer for Christian unity.
‘You are the salt of the earth’ is the whole sentence, and, according to Matthew’s gospel, it was first addressed by Jesus to his disciples at the conclusion of the Beatitudes we’ve just heard.
And yet this is no pat on the back for the chosen few for it comes with a warning: ‘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 underfoot.’
Anyone who watches Masterchef knows that, however good your dish; however well-chosen the ingredients; however well the food is presented on the plate, if you have forgotten the seasoning there’s likely to be disaster because it’s the seasoning that brings out the flavour.
Salt was used in the world that Jesus knew, for seasoning and for all kinds of other purposes – for preserving food and as an antiseptic; it was a metaphor for eating together and it was associated with sacrifices and unbreakable bonds. And these many associations have led people to reflect on the possible meanings of this passage from many different angles – are we called to preserve Christ’s teaching? Are we to consecrate ourselves as holy to the Lord? Are we to be a salve for the wounds of the world?
In the text as we have it though, Jesus refers only to the taste of salt and not to its other properties. And in this lies a puzzle because any chemist will tell you that salt is salt. Its taste is one of its essential properties and it cannot, by definition, lose its savour.
So what is Jesus meaning by suggesting that salt can lose its saltiness? Some have argued that whilst salt is always salt, it can become so contaminated by other substances that it ceases to be useful. And if you keep a salt pig, rather than a salt cellar, then you will be familiar with the point at which you realise that the salt has got so many foreign bodies in it that you want to throw it away.
Is Jesus meaning that his followers should keep themselves separate from contaminating elements? Separate from the world with all its confusions and complications and compromises or they will lose their essential identity?
If this was Jesus’ meaning, then the verse about salt is very oddly coupled with the verse about light: ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’. There is no sense here that the light can be for itself. By definition, it is for the darkness.
Coffee is drunk a lot in student life. And, if anyone has ever given you a cup of coffee and put salt in it instead of sugar, you will know from bitter experience (as I know from having been the one who made that cup of coffee for an unsuspecting visitor), that salt is not for use in high concentrations but is for sparing use to enhance the taste of other things. Kept separate, salt cannot do its job – in fact it is literally unpalatable.
So perhaps Jesus is saying here that disciples all concentrated together on internal matters and not focusing on their role in the wider world are likely to be pretty toxic. Even if this is not what Jesus meant – I guess many of us have experience of what happens when we turn in on each other, fighting over things to which we attach huge importance, whilst losing sight of God’s vision for the whole inhabited earth, where there is so much work to do: where people die in their hundreds of thousands of malnutrition; where people live in war zones and under regimes of terror in fear of their lives for who they are; where whole countries will disappear as sea levels rise… if we were really being salt and light would we not be known for our radical interventions to tackle these ills – is it not when we retreat from political and social realities that we lose our essential identity becoming bland and useless?
For if we look back only a few verses in Matthew’s gospel it is the expansive horizon of God’s compassion and justice that is laid out before us in the beatitudes: the word used is blessed or in the Greek – happy – but can we also say, ‘like salt’ are the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those persecuted for seeking justice?
Yet we are not likely to be persecuted if we keep to ourselves. We are more likely to be ignored: our light not shining; the seasoning we might bring, untasted.
Yet, even if this version of what Jesus was saying appeals to us: ‘don’t get bogged down in the minutiae, concentrate on the big picture’; ‘don’t huddle together, be engaged in the life of the world…’ there is still a problem with his words – for we all know that even if salt cannot cease to be salty, a Christian presence doesn’t necessarily promote peace. In fact, sometimes Christians are at the heart of the problem. And in this Theological Federation here in Cambridge, as we struggle sometimes to communicate as Christians, let alone to work together with the Jewish and Muslim members of our community; we of all people ought to be aware of the pain of our fractured and often destructive common history and present.
So how can Jesus say to us: You are salt (which doesn’t lose its saltiness) but if you do lose your essential character, you are good for nothing. Surely Jesus, of all people, knew the fallibility of his disciples and of all human beings… what impossible standard was he setting for us, only to see us fail, whether in Cambridge or in Canterbury or in the Balkans or in the Middle East or in Rwanda?
What use are these words of Jesus to us?
I have two thoughts to offer:
The first comes from the logic of St Paul who is always saying to his flawed new converts: ‘you are God’s people, become who you are’; it’s an appeal to us to claim our deep identity and live it well. ‘You are salt; be salt for the sake of the whole inhabited earth.’
And the second thought comes from the letter of Peter that we heard earlier: ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’
‘A holy nation.’ Again, the temptation here is to think about separateness. Yet holiness, is not about being ‘holy than thou’ and looking down on others, but being conformed to the character of the God whose name, as Pope Francis has reminded us, is mercy:
‘Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.’
Who is God but the one who shows mercy to us, flawed as we are? What does it mean to be salt and light except amid all the confusions and complications and compromises of life as it is to seek justice and peace, and to be merciful to one another?
Imagine a world salted with people who are not afraid to speak out for justice and peace in the name of God, nor to show mercy to others. Imagine a world without.
You are salt, says Jesus, because your essential identity is as people to whom mercy has been shown. Live in this knowledge and the earth will be blessed and the character of the God whose name is mercy, will shine from you, causing praise to rise from earth to heaven.