A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Matthew 5:13-20
One of the distortions in certain Christian circles is a sense that there is a finality in one’s faith journey upon the acceptance of Christ and self-identifying as a believer and follower of the Son of God. That, somehow, the journey of faith reaches its destination point in becoming a believer, a follower, a baptized member of the Church.
This sense of finality has always stood apart for me as something uneasy and dangerous.
This was especially common in campus ministry circles. I watched students engage with predatory campus ministry groups that used bait-and-switch tactics, abused rules and regulations for accessing students, who welcomed students in with talk of Jesus’ love, and then quickly dumped them when any adversity arose in their lives. These groups were so solely focused on providing only one very narrow answer, they were unable to help students who needed a deeper maturity of faith.
These groups, not to mention many Christian churches across our country, offer an answer that is supposedly enough of an answer for any question or doubt, but there is no work done to put any substance or understanding, depth or maturity, into what this answer means for us in our daily lives as we practice this faith that we have professed. And, because of this lack of development, the answer becomes both a weapon and a shield.
Jesus becomes a weapon to justify any number of decisions that create division, allow otherness, encourage separation.
Jesus becomes a weapon to separate “us” from “them.”
“Real Christians” from “Fake Christians.”
Jesus also becomes a shield. A shielding cloak thrown over one’s shoulders to protect them from facing the hard questions, the harsh realities that their actions support and create for others. A shield that deflects criticism unto others for perceived slights against people of faith, while those abusing the shield continue to uphold and support injustice, abuse, dehumanization, and more.
What concerns me in this distortion of what it means to follow Christ, is the harm that has clearly been done because of an unwillingness to ask what it really means to have Christ as the answer.
What frustrates me is that Christ makes it pretty clear, time and again, that he has not come to be the answer in and of itself, but to provide the path towards finding the answer, which is a relationship with God that understands and lives into the expectations that are before us in this creation.
In today’s gospel reading we hear from Christ:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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.”
The first thing that leaped out to me and stuck with me this week was Christ’s declaration that he came not to abolish but to fulfill. He came not to be the answer in an of itself but to show how we can achieve the answer in this creation. Through his example, we can fulfill the law that is left for us. And, in that, we do not throw away that which has come before. Rather, we are formed and shaped and influenced by our past, by our history, by our tradition, by the received tradition of the prophets, and from that influence we draw our inspiration and guidance as we continue to grow and evolve in this journey of faith. As Christians then, it is not simply enough to be a follower of Christ. We must rise to that level of expectation that is set in the law. For if Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, then we too must work at fulfilling the law of God.
I can’t help but feel that this is what the dig about salt is all about.
You cannot call yourself salt and not by salty.
You cannot call yourself worthy, capable of flavoring and releasing complexities of flavor, capable of preserving and sustaining, valuable to the point of currency, if you’ve lost all of your saltiness, being salt but in name only.
And, what good is it if we as Christians aren’t a little salty about the state of creation today…
I was struck too by the phrase “until all is accomplished.”
This is the forward looking Christ at work. This is the Christ who knows that his life and ministry and presence and salvific act are not the end of our journey as creation. They are not the end of our journey in relationship with our creator. They certainly should not be the end point of our understanding of faith, but rather they are a launching off point, an entry into discovering what it means to fulfill the law, to accomplish all that God has laid before creation.
The celebration of the Epiphany gives us a launching off point for our understanding of how faith grows and evolves and changes over time. We enter into this season that is fully encased in the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere, with the entrance of light in the world. Light in the form of a star. Light in the form of a child that will change everything.
We have this deep understanding of Christ as the light of the world. It is firmly held in our tradition, it is a foundational piece of Christ’s identity.
And today, Christ passes on that mantle.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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.”
YOU are the light.
Not Christ, YOU.
Christ is of course the light of the world, but his light must fill us and move us and inspire us to follow in his footsteps to fulfill the law.
Christ is not here on earth, walking among creation, today.
But, we are.
And, we have received the mantle from Christ.
Our light shines through the good works that we do in fulfilling the law that has been left for us. Our light shines and through that light the glory is given to God. We do not do good works for praise. We do not do good works for our own sense of self, for praise and adulation, for awards or formal recognition, we do good works so that others may see and know God at work in our world. We do good works so that others may know that the light of Christ is still with us, here and now, present within each and every one of us, as we are called to fulfill the law, to accomplish all that has been laid before us.
This passing of the mantle must then also shift the expectation we have for ourselves and our places of worship in the call to live into the identity of being Christian.
If we are to be Christ followers, it is not enough to call ourselves that by name alone.
If we are to be Christ followers, we must bring flavor and light into this world.
If we are to be Christ followers, we must begin our journey with Christ as our savior, not end it there.
We do this, you do this, by letting your light shine. By putting it on the lamp stand, not hiding it under a bushel.
We do this, you do this, every time you move deeper in your journey of faith, wrestling with the call that is before us to follow Christ and see the law of God fulfilled, even here and now, when barriers and salt that has lost its saltiness stand in the way.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Go and share that with the world so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.