Salt & Light: It's All About Relationships
Salt & Light: It’s All About Relationships
February 5, 2017
Before he was the bishop of Alabama, Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University, where part of his job was to have conversations with students about faith and religion and life. One student told him that he and his roommate weren’t getting along well. “Why not?” Willimon asked. “Because he’s a Muslim and I’m not,” the student said. Willimon asked why that made a difference.
“When we moved in together, he asked me what my religion was,” the student replied. “I told him that I was a sort of Christian. A Lutheran. I told him up front that my family and I weren’t the very best Christians, that we only went to church occasionally, and it wasn’t that big a deal to me. But my roommate has this nasty habit of asking embarrassing questions.”
“Like after we had roomed together a few weeks, he asked me, ‘Why do you Christians never pray?’ I told him, ‘We pray all the time. We just sort of keep it to ourselves.’”
“He said, ‘I’ll say you do! I’ve never seen you pray.’ He prays, like, a half dozen times a day on his prayer rug in our room.
“The last straw was Saturday morning, when I came in from a date, and he asked me, “Doesn’t your Bible talk about avoiding dissolute living?”
“I told him, ‘Look, it’s not dissolute living; it was just a party at the Tri Delt house. I told you I’m not the best Christian in the world. You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me!”1
You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me . . . I sympathize with that student; I’m not eager for the Christian faith to be judged by everything I do and say either. But it begs the question: what should people judge the Christian faith by? Well, Jesus answers that question in the Gospel reading today. And no, it’s not how often or where we pray or even whether or not we party with the Tri Delts. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And “You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” What should people judge the Christian faith by? Well, according to Jesus, by us, by how we engage with others and shine on those around us, by our relationships with one another and with other people. And surely our salt will be saltier, surely our light will shine brighter, if we keep God’s love at the heart of all those relationships.
So in part, the way we are salt and light, how people will judge the Christian faith, has to do with our internal relationships, the way we love one another in the church. In the Greek of the New Testament, when Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world,” the word ‘you’ is not singular, but plural. In the South it would be “y’all are the salt of the earth,” or back in Kansas we’d say, “you guys are the light of the world.” In other words, I am not the light, and you and you and you are not the light individually. We are the light of the world, together.
One way the world will judge the Christian faith is by our internal relationships. That’s why in John 13:35 Jesus tells the Twelve, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” You might expect him to say that other people will know we’re his disciples if we love them; but instead he says people will know we’re his disciples if we love one another. I’ve heard it put this way: the church’s greatest witness to the world is the quality of our life together.
Now, admittedly, that’s harder than it might seem. The truth is, it can be easier to love a perfect stranger than someone who lives in your own home. And sometimes, the better you get to know a person, the harder they are to love! The rapid pace of change in our culture and the current passion in our politics makes simply loving one another especially challenging right now. I know I’ve said some things that didn’t help others feel loved. And I’m aware that there are times when I'm quicker to look for reasons to criticize people I disagree with than I am to find reasons to be kind to them. Maybe you’ve been like that too?
As salt of the earth and light of the world, I’d like to take a deep breath, take a step back, and make a fresh start at this loving one another. Why? Because the witness of the gospel depends on it. Because not just me and you and you, but "y'all"--we all—are the salt of the earth and the light of the word, together. People will, and are, judging the Christian faith by how we love one another.
So being salt and light is partly about our internal relationships, how we love one another in the church; but being salt and light is also about our external relationships, how we treat our neighbors well beyond the church. Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works.” And New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, points out that both salt and light are important not just in and of themselves, but because of their impact on something else—salt impacts food, light impacts darkness. 2 And Christians impact our neighbors and the world.
Being salt of the earth and light of the world means that our relationships will give us away. Clarence Jordan was a civil rights leader in the 1940s and 50s and was also helped found Habitat for Humanity. He notes that “Jesus isn’t saying here that you shouldn’t hide your light [under a basket. What Jesus is saying is] that nobody ever does that.”3 We can’t do that. Our light is shining, whether we mean it to or not. So when we feed the hungry, when we welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we visit the sick and the elderly, our light is shining. And when we do not feed the hungry, when we do not welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we neglect the sick and the elderly, our light is shining then as well.
Again, Scot McKnight describes what it looks like when a church lives out Jesus’ call to be salt and light. He visited a church called New Covenant Fellowship in Champaign, Illinois. “The only way I can describe this church,” he says, is that “the boundaries between church and community are porous. The church is an offering to the community and the community seeps into the church.” Do you feel how this church’s relationships with those around them are like salt and light? There is no “in” or “out” at New Covenant, just people in relationship with each other. McKnight says that the day he was there he “experienced some homeless folks, a middle-aged woman who showed signs of schizophrenia, some Jewish neighbors who thought the topic of [the day’s] teaching was of interest to them. . . “The salt and light metaphors,” McKnight concludes, “reveal that the church’s fundamental task is to mediate God’s presence.”4 In other words, it’s all about relationships.
Y’all are the salt of the earth, Jesus said. Y’all are the light of the world, together. You’ll remember that student who told his Muslim roommate: “You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me.” But people do judge the Christian faith by us, by how we love one another, and by how we welcome and include and love our neighbors near and far. I, for one, have heard this scripture this week. I repent of ways that God’s love has not been at the heart of my relationships and I am committed to putting God’s love back at the heart of all my relationships. I wonder who will join me on that journey?
1Adapted from William H. Willimon, “Árguing with Muslims: God-Talk on Campus,” The Christian Century (November 16, 2004), 34.
2 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 56.
3 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970, Koinonia Edition), 42.
4 McKnight, 61.