Is it really possible to be salt and light? Part 1

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October 27, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

This past summer, the worship theme at my church, Toronto United Mennonite, was about how the church is or can be salt and light, as per Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16. The following is part 1 of a sermon I preached in September on this theme, with slight revisions.

Scripture passages: Matt. 5:13-16, 1 Cor. 1:1-7 (NRSV)

Did you know that there is a cathedral in Colombia made almost entirely out of salt and light? It’s true. About 50 kilometres north of the capital, Bogota, in the town of Zipaquira, a former salt mine has been converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral. As you enter, the arching passage takes you 200 metres underground, where coloured lights glance off of the crystals in the salt-streaked rock, creating a stunning, iridescent glow. As you move along the passage, there are a number of chapels representing Jesus’ life as well as the stations of the cross, complete with sculptures and crosses carved out of the salty rock (see picture, found here). And at the end of the passage, you find the cavernous sanctuary, with its huge, jagged walls lit in various colours. The site is a destination for Christian pilgrimages and thousands of people flock there to worship on Sundays, finding sacred space in the striking combination of salt and light.

Was this what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of salt and light? Probably not. But what a beautiful and profoundly inspiring symbol for the calling of the church – that is, the people of God, the church community – to be the salt of the earth and light for the world!

Whenever I try to think about what the church is called to be, I remember a line from this book by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder: “The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” Even after a summer of sermons on our theme of salt and light, you might not recognize this alternate articulation. It’s admittedly less vivid and imagination-grabbing than Jesus’ rich metaphors of salt and light, but I think it’s a kind of distillation of the same idea: the church is called to lend its flavour to the earth and its light to the world, to be a foretaste of the Reign of God, to light the way toward its coming in full. In other words, the church is a taste or glimpse of what’s to come as God’s way is followed on earth.

I remember first learning about this theological concept as a fresh-faced undergraduate, and being so inspired by it! Yoder paints an idyllic picture of the church as an exemplary community “before the watching world,” a community in which believers forgive one another, hold one another accountable in love, share what they have with one another, overcome divisions of ethnicity, gender, and class, and contribute to the life of the community, each according to his or her gifts. It’s a beautiful image! I also remember learning that in the Christian debates about whether it’s actually possible to follow Jesus and live according to God’s will, our Mennonite tradition comes out firmly on the optimistic side. No, we argued, sin does not completely taint human existence, making it impossible to truly live out our faith in the here and now. No, we don’t have to wait until the kingdom or kindom of God comes in full. It is possible to live as God wants us to, to follow the peaceful way of Jesus, because God makes us into a holy community, the church “without spot or wrinkle.” Sin doesn’t have the last word, but God’s work in us sanctifies us, makes us holy.

This is what the apostle Paul speaks about in the opening of his 1st Letter to the Corinthians which we heard read this morning. He speaks of the Corinthians as those who have been “sanctified,” even going so far as to call them “saints”! He speaks about the grace of God which has “enriched” the Corinthians with “spiritual gifts,” saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind […] so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 4-5, 7). In other words, even in waiting for God’s Reign to come in full, the early church understood that it “was not lacking in any spiritual gift” – it was already sanctified, already a community of saints or holy ones. Isn’t that a powerful, empowering, and encouraging notion?

But, you might be thinking, isn’t this a rather tall order? At the same time as I was being inspired by theological ideas of the church as a sanctified community, I remember looking at the real, flesh-and-blood church and being disappointed with what I saw. Disunity, division, and a slowness to forgive seemed just as evident within the church as outside of it. And when it came to alleviating suffering or standing up for peace and justice, too often the church is just as hesitant to act as other communities. I was left wondering, so why doesn’t the church act like the sanctified community it supposedly is?! Why doesn’t it make use of the power and gifts it has been given? In other words, why does it squander its flavour and hide its light away?

Of course there are instances when I do see the church acting as salt and light, but even in those instances, it’s never pure. Let me explain what I mean by that. Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian and peace activist, experienced the same tension I’m talking about. She speaks of the church as traitor and the church as sister. While I always find myself wincing at this statement, and wondering whether it’s really appropriate to call the church a “traitor,” it’s important to look at her context. Soelle grew up in Nazi Germany, and she applauds the churches that resisted the Nazis, often at great risk to themselves. Her own family hid a Jewish woman in their attic for a time, as did other Christians; this form of the church is the church as sister, the church which remains faithful to its difficult calling. But she also notes that for all of those churches which resisted the Nazis, many more supported or at least remained silent in the face of the Nazi agenda. In this light, the language of the church as “traitor” doesn’t seem too strong after all. And according to Soelle, there are modern-day versions of this manifestation of the church, anytime it forges alliances with “money and military power.” In her memoir, she writes, “again and again [it] betrays its own truth. In a biblical image, the church is often like Judas, who delivered Jesus to the established religious authorities. Or is it more like the male disciples, who discouraged and defeated, left Jesus alone and fled? And then there are times when the thought overtakes me that the church is like Peter, who denied that he had ever known anything at all about peace and justice. Very rarely do I see the church, like him, weeping bitter tears.”

See my next post for the rest of the sermon.

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