The light of the world

3rd Sunday before Lent (Proper 1), 5 Feb 2023, St James Colwall

Isaiah 58: 1-9a; Matthew 5: 13-20

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.
If, like me, you were brought up on the Book of Common Prayer, you will recognise those words as being the trigger for an almost Pavlovian response from the congregation as they fish in their pockets for some loose change to put in the collection bag as it comes around.

If you’re not familiar with the BCP then these are the words which are said at the Offertory, midway through the communion service just as the table is being prepared.

It's rather easy to reduce our thinking about the offertory to being only about the money we are putting in the collection, money which will go towards those good works. Of course it’s important for us to think about our financial contribution to the work of the church, and actually that does mean beyond what we happen to have in our purse today. But the offertory encompasses a great deal more than that. In a moment the deacon will probably introduce the third hymn as the offertory hymn, and that is the signal, not for us to delve in our pockets, but for a change in focus in the service as the priest presiding prepares the table for communion.

Since Covid, not only have we stopped passing the collection plate at this point, but we no longer have an offertory procession, when the bread and wine to be consecrated at communion is brought up to the table by members of the congregation. That symbolic act is a visual reminder of what we are expecting to happen when we come to communion. It represents an offering to God not just of our finances, but of ourselves, of the elements of creation and of the work of our hands, in order that God may transform them, transform us to be used for God’s purposes. It's the time when we come before God in all our ordinariness and brokenness, open and ready to receive God’s grace to make us holy and whole. We gather at the table to be united with Christ and with one another, in order that we may go out into the world as salt and light to do God’s work.

Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Though we don’t use those words in this more contemporary service, it’s a reminder that the offertory is the pivotal moment in the service when we seek to restore, to renew our Christian identity and our vocation as the church, as Christ’s body here on earth.

And what our Christian identity and our vocation as a church looks like is the essence of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount - which is where we find ourselves in the lectionary gospel for today. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out a vision of what life is like in God’s kingdom—and today we hear that the role of his followers is to be salt and light in the world. I think we all have an idea of what that means. Jesus is saying that his followers, his disciples and ultimately the church will be known for the difference their lives make in the world.

You are the salt of the earth.
Jesus gives his followers the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on earth, in the same way that the right amount of salt brings out the distinctive flavour in food. He has already spelled out what that looks like in the Beatitudes, which precede this passage: Christian disciples are to value the dispossessed, care for those who suffer loss, seek to do justice, show mercy, have integrity, be peacemakers and stand for what they believe to be right.

You are the light of the world.
The gathered community of Jesus’ disciples, now the church on earth, has the capacity to reflect Christ’s light, and just as light illuminates places of darkness and enables growth, so the church can be active in shining a light on situations of injustice, and be a positive force for the growth of healthy communities and societies.

These are the good works which glorify God. This is how God is calling and empowering us to live. This is what Jesus means by righteousness. It’s all there already in the scriptures, the law and the prophets– God’s longings for how God’s people should live haven’t changed with the coming of Jesus. Jesus has come to fulfil them, to show us in his teaching and in his actions what it means to live a righteous life. God is not so much interested in displays of religious piety as in lives which make God’s presence known in the world.

Isaiah has already spelt that out, as we heard in the first reading: The people he is addressing are apparently deeply religious, seeking God, delighting in God’s ways and drawing near to God in fasting and prayer. Yet God is not impressed with such displays of religiosity when the people making them are guilty of oppressing their workers and ignoring the needy in their community. God’s righteousness is displayed when the bonds of injustice are loosened and the oppressed are liberated; when the hungry are fed, the homeless given shelter and the naked clothed.

So when Jesus says that the righteousness of the disciples must exceed that of the Pharisees, he is calling them, not to greater moral rectitude, but to their vocation of making God’s presence known in the world through standing for justice and tending to those who suffer. It’s what it means to be salt and light in the world.

The theologian Sally McFague famously said: If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.
It’s our actions, big and small which can make a difference in our community and in the world and be part of the realisation of the vision of life in the kingdom of God which Jesus sets before us in the Sermon on the Mount.

So as we come to the communion table this morning and each week, we offer ourselves and open ourselves to receive once again the grace of God which nourishes and empowers us to be salt and light in the world. In this way God’s kingdom will grow and be a beacon of light and God’s glory will be seen within it.

Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.