The question of whether or not to follow Jesus is ultimately not that important for us. That woke some people up, didn’t it? It may sound controversial, but hear me out. If you were to poll the congregation or even interview random Christians just walking down the street, many of them would say that they are followers of Jesus because of their upbringing. I have a hunch that most of us, and most of the Christians that we know would say something like, “My family has always gone to church,” or “I’m a Christian because I grew up in a Christian family.” For a lot of people, practicing your faith is something that you do, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it, and even if you never really had to think a whole lot about why you do it the way that you do.
If I think back on my own faith journey, it’s pretty clear that a large part of my faith was not my own choice. I grew up in a family that did not attend church regularly. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I went to church before I graduated from high school. Though my family was not a churchgoing family, we were a religious family. Every Sunday we would sit down together in the living room and read from the Bible, say prayers together, and talk about how we could apply what we read in scripture to our everyday lives. I like to tell people that just like a lot of children were home-schooled, I was “home-churched”, and it’s because I was home-churched that my faith seems to have always just been there. It’s always just been a part of who I am.
As I got older the question that I really struggled with wasn’t whether or not to follow Jesus – my upbringing had more or less already decided that. My major challenge was how to follow Jesus, how to live out the faith that had been instilled in me, and how to be present in a world that oftentimes doesn’t reflect the values that are so important to me. I imagine that plenty of you can identify with that challenge, so the most important question for us isn’t whether or not to follow Jesus. It’s how. How do we put our faith into practice?
For centuries Christians have tried to live out their faith in different ways. Some have decided that the world is so sinful and so far-gone that the best course of action for Christians is to withdraw from it and have as little to do with the affairs of culture as possible. This leads to cloistered Christian communities of like-minded people who are following the same rules and holding the same values, but who are completely cut off from society. At other times in our history, Christians have chosen to attack the surrounding culture with a more militant mindset. This has led to Christian communities with a clear identity but no promise for ministry.
Those are just two extremes at which Christians have tried to answer the question of how to practice their faith, and it’s important to point out that the question isn’t a new one. The truth of scripture is that every disciple who said ‘yes’ to following Jesus, every one who quickly dropped his nets or left his family behind, struggled from that day forward with how to be a disciple. They struggled with how to understand Jesus and how to carry out his ministry. Jesus saw this daily struggle and a great deal of what he taught was aimed right at the heart of that challenge, that long and difficult walk of the disciple.
This morning’s New Testament reading is one example of that, and in it Jesus comes as close as he ever does to answering the question of ‘how’ to follow him. He uses the images of salt and light, which aren’t the most powerful images. But Jesus wasn’t concerned with power. He was concerned with discipleship. He was talking about how to relate to the world, and on that count salt and light were striking images.
Both salt and light have extremely unique qualities. Salt was one of the more common substances of the ancient world, but it was also incredibly valuable. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, and they would revolt if they didn’t get it. Our English word salary comes from a Latin word meaning “salt-money”, and our English idiom “not worth your salt” is derived from the same period in history. Salt is so valuable because of its ability to change things. It’s able to preserve things that are going bad, and make food taste better, and as we all know, it’s able to melt an icy road so that you can drive to work in the morning.
Similarly, light has the ability to change people, places, and things. The difference between an average photograph and a breathtaking one is often the lighting. Light makes the difference between a pleasant bedtime and a frightening one. Light reveals things, attracts things, and points the way almost everywhere you go. Before anything else ever existed, there was God and there was light. And now Jesus uses that word to describe his disciples, to describe us and how we are to relate to the world. Eugene Peterson’s translation of this text in The Message says it like this:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand-shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:13-13).
By opening up to others, by letting our light shine, by letting those around us “taste and see that the Lord is good” through our words and our actions, we follow Jesus in the way that he describes. Jesus doesn’t expect us to withdraw from the world and cut ourselves off from society. Neither does he ask us to go to war with all that is not Christian. Rather, Jesus asks us to be participants in his transformation of the world. We are to be a part of Christ transforming culture, and that requires us to converse with it, to develop relationships with it, and to participate in it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after he joined the resistance and spoke out against the atrocities perpetrated by Adolf Hitler and his government, was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed. Before his death he wrote a number of letters from prison. One of them, dated July 21, 1944, was addressed to a friend of his and he wrote it as he was realizing that he would never be a free man. A part of the letter reads:
“During the past year or so I have come to appreciate the worldliness of Christianity as never before. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life or something like it. Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in the world that one learns to believe.”
It’s only by living completely in the world that we truly will come to believe. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? The decision to follow Jesus, which is a decision that many of us never really consciously make, can happen in solitude. You can decide to follow Jesus in the privacy of your own shelter, in the confines of your own solitude, in individual disconnectedness. But the living out of that faith, the learning to believe, the how of your discipleship, has to take place publicly. It needs to be done in the presence of others, at the same table as homeless neighbors, at eye-level with the child who has holes in her shoes, in conversation with the alcoholic, the drug addict, the struggling immigrant. We cannot transform the world by escaping from it. We cannot let others taste the God-flavors of the gospel without sprinkling ourselves around the community. We cannot be light to the world if we hide ourselves inside a church building!
I wonder sometimes what people in this community think of Philadelphia Presbyterian Church. I wonder how we are seen in this, our home community. Oftentimes we are commended for our long history, adequately described as being traditional, and commended for our beautiful campus. But is that all? Is there more? Where’s the salt, the taste of God’s kingdom here? Where’s the light, the beacon of good news that reaches out into the dark? Would people in this community be surprised to find out that we host our homeless neighbors every Wednesday night and provide them with food, shelter, and fellowship? Do people know that we host five different AA groups on our campus? Have people heard that we’ve built three Habitat Houses, sent ten mission teams to New Orleans, one to New York, and two to Guatemala? How many families have homes because of what God has done through Philadelphia Presbyterian Church? Do people know that Bright Blessings, a national ministry to homeless children and their families, began right here? We are a church family that is trying in some remarkable ways to not just exist for our own selves but to exist for the sake of this community, and this city, and this world. We are trying to be a church that is the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
There’s a story about Robert Louis Stevenson, who as a child was often in very poor health. One night, when he was quite sick, his nurse found him with his nose pressed against his bedroom window, looking down at the world below. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she said, but Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat mesmerized as he watched an old lamplighter slowly work his way through the darkness, lighting each street lamp along his route. “Look there,” Robert pointed. “There’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”
When you join this church, when you love it and support it with your prayers, when you invest your energy and skills, when you give your tithe, you become a part of the many ways in which we are poking holes in the darkness. There may be times when you feel inadequate, or you find it hard to muster the enthusiasm for church. But deep down God has given each of us light to shine somewhere, a gift, or a skill maybe as simple as our ability to love a child, or a neighbor, or a stranger, but ultimately it’s a gift that is yours. It’s your light that Jesus asks us to shine in the world for him.
“You are the salt of the earth,” he said.
“You are the light of the world.”
“Let it shine.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.