What are we here for?
February 6, 2011
(Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5, 13-20)
Over the past year, the Deanery has been doing a Deanery Review and drawing up a Deanery Plan which has just been sent off to be considered by a meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Committee in 10 days time. It contains a vision statement, and a list of action points, grouped around the three priorities of ‘Vision for Action’ the latest diocesan initiative, launched at the cathedral in January.
‘Vision for Action’ also encourages parishes to take a good look at what they are doing, and to plan for the future through a process called ‘Mission Action Planning’. This involves looking at the local community, both through observation and statistics, to discover its needs; and looking at the church community, to discover its strengths, weaknesses and values. Then it involves developing a plan about what the church thinks it is being called to be and to do at the present time, and prioritising that vision into an action plan which states how, when and by whom the plan will be implemented.
Both the Deanery Plan and Mission Action Planning are trying to answer the question,”What are we here for?”
Over the last couple of weeks the Gospel readings have been telling us about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and the calling of his first disciples. And now, as we approach Lent, we turn to readings which set out the programme of action for his disciples, passages which answer that same question: “What are we here for?”
The programme of action is based on the covenant with Israel’s God set out in the Old Testament. Matthew says Jesus has not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it. His programme, he says, asks his followers to go beyond what was previously demanded, to meet a higher standard of righteousness (which, as we learnt previously, encompasses not just acting in accordance with the law, but also justice, integrity, charity and a particular concern for the weak and vulnerable members of society). Unless they do even more than the teachers of the Law and the ultra-religious Pharisees, he tells, them, they won’t really be under the rule of God (which is what entering the Kingdom of Heaven means).
The reading from Isaiah expands on what sort of religious action Jesus is asking his followers to undertake. It is from the prophecy of Third Isaiah, writing to the Jews who have returned to Judea after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah observes that they are trying to earn God’s approval by being ultra scrupulous about ritual and fasting and making a great fuss about being seen to follow all the ritual rules. But, Isaiah tells them, this is not what God actually wants. The sort of ‘discipline’ God actually wants them to follow is not about worship, but about their everyday lives. It’s about what we now call ‘social justice’ – feeding the hungry and poor, providing shelter for the homeless, freeing those who are oppressed by the structures of society, ensuring justice for all.
When we hear this passage, it raises echoes of the agenda for his ministry which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue, recorded in Luke 4; and with the story of the Last Judgement, the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. This confirms that the gospel of social justice is not a trendy modern invention. It is what Third Isaiah said discipleship was all about in the 8th century BC; it is what Jesus said discipleship was all about in the 1st century AD. It is still what Christian discipleship is all about. It is the answer to the question “What are we here for?”
We are often told there is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world. These passages tell us Christian spirituality is not to be discovered in withdrawal from the world, but in daily engagement with its realities. Christian discipleship is about politics, economics, healing and housing human bodies, removing the ‘yoke’ from the shoulders of the oppressed, whether that yoke be poverty, sickness or prejudice. It means working to oppose anything which prevents human flourishing.
So, our discipleship is to be lived out in service to the community. But how are we to carry out that service?
Jesus answers using two metaphors – light and salt. Both are ordinary common substances, both are God-given, not of human manufacture, both can be used to transform what surrounds them.
We have heard a lot about light in the readings over the last couple of months. It is a major theme of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. Light stands for vision, direction and reflecting the values of God. As a metaphor it says that the Christian disciple must be at work in the public dimension. This seems obvious to us, but we need to remember that in the verses that come before this Gospel passage, The Beatitudes, Jesus has concluded by saying you are blessed when others persecute, revile and slander you. That, he indicates, is the normal state of affairs for the Christian disciple. In those circumstances, it might be tempting for the disciples to retreat into private religious observance, rather than continuing to ensure that the light of God shines on those who need it.
Our attitude towards light hasn’t changed much towards light in the years since these words were spoken by Jesus, but our attitude to salt may have done. In a world before refrigerators and antibiotics, salt was important for flavouring food, and preserving it, and for purification and healing. Salt was a common substance, but so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it. Nowadays it is still a common substance, but with little value, and we are very much aware that too much of it can not only spoil the taste of food, but also damage our health.
Nevertheless, the metaphor of salt warns Christian disciples to keep their faith sharp and alive, and to follow a faith whose values contrast with those of the world around, so they continue to make a difference in their communities. For us today, that might mean that Christians value the small rather than the big, the spiritual as well as the material, but also value community cohesion above individual satisfaction, and watch out for the vulnerable rather than having increasing personal wealth as their highest ambition. Two illustrations of this. First, a comment made on the last day of the football transfer window : “I live in a world where £35 million is paid for a footballer, yet 60 disabled people lose their day centre because it costs £200K to run”. That is not a picture of a world where Christian salt is being effective. But another picture shows Christians being salt and light in their communities. Yesterday in Luton there were marches by the EDL and the AFL. Police were drafted in from all over the country, at a cost of £800,000. But on duty also were many Christian ministers, there to counter misleading rumours and to act as community mediators; and St Mary’s the parish church in the centre of Luton, was open all day as a refuge for anyone who needed it.
The salt metaphor also warns Christian disciples that their values should permeate society, rather than dominating it. Too much salt makes food inedible. Christian dominance of society has not always proved beneficial either for society or for Christian discipleship. Particularly in today’s world, to insist that so called Christian values should be the only guide to law making and enforcement, to the exclusion of other values which people think are important, actually damages the Kingdom of Heaven rather than helping it to grow. Just as in cooking the balance between adding to little salt and adding too much is a difficult judgement, so in social life, we need much prayer and wisdom to decide how far our Christian beliefs and practices need to be defended by law, or whether their best defence is the difference they make to society.
Diocesan and Deanery Plans may give us some guidance about how we can co-operate to be salt and light in our world. But ultimately it is up to each of us as individuals to decide how we can best be disciples of Jesus who bring the salt and light of God’s rule to our communities.
Because that, today’s readings tell us, is what we are here for.