The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      9th February 2020
Salt, Light, Law
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 5. 13 - 20


Last week, for Candlemas, after demonstrating our lighting system, I prayed that we might shine with that light outside as well as in. I mentioned that we have made a planning application to enable this church to shine with literal light on the outside. What I didn’t say is that there is a formal objection to the application on the basis that some people would prefer the church not to be lit but to be a “dark, brooding presence”. 


In replying to this I was initially tempted to write, simply, “Matthew 5. 16”. That verse, which we’ve just heard, says “Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven”. I use it in its traditional language form every week during the Book of Common Prayer Communion service, where it is cunningly placed to sting the consciences of those about to contribute to the collection. Clever thing, liturgy…


Of course we need to use energy wisely, and our external scheme will be super-efficient and allow some lights to be switched off in the middle of the night. But lighting the church to show people it is here is a spiritual as well as practical thing: it illustrates that the living stones of the church, you and me, are here to bring light and life and hope to the whole community.  The last thing I want us to be is a “dark brooding presence”. This good news is not to be hidden.


Immediately after the Beatitudes, the great manifesto of the Kingdom of God, when Christ turns upside down the values of the world where the weak and meek and humble and poor and hopeless are the ones who are blessed…immediately after this Jesus tells his hearers what they are. Not what they will be, what they are. This is not something we aspire to. It describes us now. 


Chosen and adopted as God’s children we are marked by the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. Saved through faith by grace we are called to live as Christ’s faithful followers, Christ’s disciples. This is what we are, and the only question is how well we can do this, how effective we can be. The Christian faith is not a goal to be desired. It is a life to live. 


Jesus offers us two illustrations of being faithful, of following, of living the Christian life. Salt and light are two ways of being church and doing mission. Salt and light both have an effect, and both need to be ‘out there’ to do their job. Jesus asks us to reflect on the ways in which we might reduce the effectiveness of this mission, and on how we can make our saltiness, our iridescence, effective again. 


In Jesus’s day salt was a key ingredient in agriculture and basic domestic life, as well as cooking. Salt was for flavour, but it also preserved food, it purified, and on the land it added nutrients as a basic fertiliser. Salt was so vital that Roman solders were paid in it – hence ‘salary’. You couldn’t escape its influence. Today we try not to overdo the salt. But even here we know a little goes a long way. 


Think of salt as the church’s mission. It may be unseen, but our influence, our involvement, should pervade all aspects of our community. To be salty is to do what we can with what we have, and in such a way that it is an expression of our belief in God and our love for our neighbour. And we all do this, in every action, in every word. The only question is how salty we are. I know that chemistry tells us that salt cannot lose its saltiness. An explanation is that in Jesus’s day it was often combined with other things, and when they faded the overall effect was lost. But this is a picture not a scientific theory. Think of it as keeping salt in the cellar, not letting it out. We are salt. But we can refuse to be salty.


Light says that we should be doing all we can to point the way, to let people know that we have the good news here, that something fabulous has discovered us. It is a reminder that we, in whatever way we can, should preach and be the good news. Not all will welcome it, that’s true, but a lighthouse has no choice than to shine. Light is light, and it is up to others as to how they receive it. 


And of course we should be careful and wise and generous in how we share. Lasers are light, and they can do huge damage. This isn’t about tying someone to a chair and shining a powerful torch at them until they submit. Jesus extends the image: we are a city on a hill – a place in relationship, a community. You go to some places and you just know they are healthy and wholesome and life affirming. Our spire is a beacon for people all around. It encourages me to work to make sure that who we are is as attractive as how we look.  


“Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven”. There’s a complex relationship between this and what Jesus says subsequently about not getting rid of one iota of the law. It sounds like it might be all about what we do, not who we are. But listen to Jesus talking about fulfilling the law and the prophets. It’s not about affirming every one of the countless bits of legalism which followed from a desire to do what God wants and to get it right. It’s about enabling our hearts and minds and souls and bodies to be the place of love and obedience and gratitude and service.


When people encounter us being salty, when they see us shining, then, however falteringly we do this, we draw attention to the purity and perfection and glory of God. Jesus asks us to be more public than Jerusalem, to be a light for the nations, to be holy, active and purer than the Pharisees, to make a difference.


Our prayer, each day, is then to ask God to show us where to be light, to show us how to be salt, to do that together as well as individuals, so that people may see and feel what we do, and glorify our father in heaven. 


I’ll take that over being a brooding presence any day. And I hope that Camden’s planners do the same. 

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