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 2 of a sermon I preached in September on this theme, with slight revisions. Part 1 can be found here.
Scripture passages: Matt. 5:13-16, 1 Cor. 1:1-7 (NRSV)
I see these two faces of the church – church as sister, church as traitor – in relation to other issues, as well. One of the instances in which the church is salt and light for me is in its overcoming of gender divisions and discrimination, and valuing of women’s voices and theological reflections and experiences. There are many churches that live out the conviction that men and women and all people are created in the image of the divine, that in Christ there is no male and female, as it says in Galatians, and that as per Jesus’ egalitarian ministry, we are to refuse to allow gender to limit the discernment of gifts. That I, a woman, am able to stand before you and preach this morning seems ordinary in our context – we have only female pastors at Toronto United Mennonite Church, after all – but it’s no small thing. There are still churches in which women are forbidden even from reading Scripture during worship, never mind preaching or being ordained to pastoral ministry. Even in my parents’ lifetime, when they were Mennonite Church Eastern Canada youth workers in the 1980s, my mom remembers being asked to speak from beside the pulpit, because some churches were uncomfortable with having a woman speak from the actual pulpit! And even Yoder, who speaks so hopefully of gender relations in the church, was guilty of mistreating female students of his. In these ways, the church betrays the holy egalitarianism to which it’s called, and thereby denies its saltiness and hides its light.
Another instance in which the church is salt and light for me is in its peace stance. From Jesus’ ministry of peacemaking and nonviolence to the examples of the early Christians and early Anabaptists who faced their deaths rather than resort to violence, Christian history is full of courageous people who trusted in God instead of in the power of violence, and I grew up hearing and being inspired by their stories. And in the present day, there are many Christians working to end violence and build peace through mediation, reconciliation and restorative justice; just development and the redistribution of economic resources; conscientious objection and the call for disarmament; and the active creation of communities of peace and right relation, such as Yoder envisioned. Organizations like Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams give me profound hope for the church and challenge me to take risks for the sake of peace. But for each Christian who is committed to Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies, there are many more who see war and violence as part of their Christian duty, as well as those who, not wanting to cause trouble, don’t do or say anything to combat violence or promote peace. And even our peace tradition has its own shameful legacy which we haven’t yet dealt with sufficiently: our complicity in the colonization of the First Peoples of this country, particularly through our participation in the horrific system of residential schools. Mennonite history is hardly “without spot or wrinkle.” In all of these ways, then, the church is both faithful sister and heartless traitor of its call to peacemaking.
So what does this duplicity mean for the church’s ability to be salt and light? Is it ultimately impossible? Is it naïve to expect the church to be a taste and glimpse of the coming Reign of God, given its glaring failures? This is a common response to hopeful talk about the church. Yoder faced accusations of naivete for speaking about the church as a community which exemplifies the peace of Christ, and Soelle recounts in her memoir that she was also asked, “But you do not really mean the church when you talk like this?” She would reply, “‘Yes indeed, that is how I imagine the church, and occasionally, that is how I experience it.’ . . . I pray that this is what the church might be.”
Interestingly, this kind of prayer actually resonates with today’s Scripture passages. Turning again to the lofty opening of 1st Corinthians, we might expect to find a correspondingly saintly description of the activities of the community in the rest of the letter. Well, no such luck! As you may recall, it actually reads more like a long list of scandals: believers are divided on whether they follow Jesus or Paul, someone has moved in with his step-mother and they are in a sexual relationship, believers are suing one another in court, people are eating food offered to idols, people are either going hungry or getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, and so on. This is hardly an exemplary community! And yet THESE are the people whom Paul calls saints?! There must be some mistake!
But, remarkably, Paul does call them saints, and he speaks about it in the present tense. He doesn’t stipulate that once they work out these numerous serious issues, then they’ll be worthy to be called saints or holy ones. Instead, at the very beginning of the letter, he already calls them saints, and says they’re not lacking in any spiritual gifts. The implication is that they’ve already been sanctified by God, they’re already saints, so they might as well start acting like it! There’s nothing holding them back from living as a holy community right now.
The immediacy of it is striking, and it’s mirrored elsewhere. Looking again at the salt and light passage in Matthew, we find that Jesus uses the present tense as well: “You are the salt of the earth,” he states. “You are the light of the world.” He doesn’t say, “you will be” salt or “you will be” light. He doesn’t even say, “you used to be salt and light, and have to recover that.” No, we already are salt and light, right now, in the present. So in that sense, it’s not naïve to expect us to behave as such, as Jesus and Paul encourage us to do. In fact, it’s ridiculous to waste our saltiness and squander our light! We are the salt of the earth, so why would we live as though we’ve lost our salty taste? That would make our gifts worthless! And we are the light of the world, as bright as a city on a hill, so why would we try to hide our light? The problem isn’t that we’re not good enough to be called salt and light, or that we’re unworthy to be called saints. We, the church, are salt and light, and are sanctified. Even our shortcomings and downright betrayals of our calling can’t undo its hold on us: we’re still called and enabled to do the good work of being salt and light.
I think the Colombian salt cathedral has one final insight to offer. It’s remarkable that such a hidden place draws so many people to its doors; in other words, even though it’s hidden deep underground, it’s still a beacon of faith; from a place of darkness, it still shines and inspires believers through God’s grace. That’s how it is with us as well. Even though we may try to hide our light and deny our flavour, God finds a way for them to come through, for the church today to take the shape of things to come.
So let’s live out our indelible identity. Nothing is holding us back, so let’s go be salt and light or, in Jesus’ words, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your [divine Parent] in heaven.” AMEN