February 5, 2017 – Salt and light, fulfilled and fulfilling

Epiphany 5   February 5, 2016   Psalm 111, Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-21; Leviticus 14:1-4; 15:8-12; Matthew 5:13-20   Salt and light, fulfilled and fulfilling


We’re back on the mountain, listening, as Jesus continues his Sermon on the mount, telling us: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world…”

Notice he doesn’t say ‘you’re about to become salt of the earth,’ or ‘pretty you’re soon going to be light of the world.’ He says we’re already salt for the earth, light for the world…

Salt, the main preservative and prime flavoring for food in those days. Light, the first thing God creates in the beginning. The one thing we need most to be able to see. (Along with eyes to see.)  If salt should lose its flavor its good for nothing. (If salt should lose its flavor, its not salt anymore, anyway…)

Don’t be hiding your light under a bushel basket. Let your light of faith, hope, and love shine like a city on a hill… Let your good works be visible, so all will give glory to our Father in heaven. Jesus is mixing metaphors a little, but I think we’re with him, so far. (Am I right?)

But what does Jesus mean by, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven?”

If Jesus means we’ve got to beat the super bowl champions of religion at their own game, we could be in trouble. It’s game time, and I’m not sure we know all the play book yet…

But as we read on in Matthew’s gospel we learn–even though scribes and Pharisees are thought to be stars in the religion league–they’re missing the whole point of the gospels. Later, in Matthew (ch 23), Jesus says “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says “woe to you scribes and Pharisees” six more times, building his point by point critique and letting us know these guys really don’t understand at all.

But doesn’t “righteousness” mean doing everything by the book? And aren’t the scribes and Pharisees experts on The Book?

Righteousness does mean living right by God’s word. But anyone who is absolutely sure they themselves are the leading experts… are by definition not nearly as expert as they think.

Biblical righteousness gets it root meaning from the righteousness of God – the justice, integrity, faithfulness, steadfast love, and overall rightness-beyond-measure that’s all part of who God is. Jesus more than anyone on earth knows the meaning of righteousness – knows our Father has fixed the game in advance for the poor in Spirit, the broken-hearted, the meek, the merciful… the blessings he told us about last week… It’s God’s own righteousness that defines who God wants us to be… Meaning, most of all, in right relationship with God and neighbor. God doesn’t expect us to be star athletes. But God does expect that like good athletes, we show up for every practice, every game, all God asks us to do.

I think we know this. Like the Patriots or any good team, I think we know our need for daily practice of our faith.

And thanks be to God, the kingdom of heaven is not a contest between us and the Patriots or Falcons.  Thanks God, our struggle, our conflict is against the powers of darkness, within us and around us. And thanks God, we always have Jesus with us all the way.. Coaching us on how to let our light shine for the world – like lights burning in the temple of old, we too are to be temples of light for the world. Coaching us how to enter the kingdom properly – like a little child in faith and as spiritually mature adults… (Which I think we understand…)

The harder question this week for me has been “what does Jesus mean by fulfilling all the law and prophets?”

Some Christians (and most Jews) through the ages have been happy to hear Jesus affirm all the law of Moses. Some Christians actually prefer the Ten Commandments and other parts of the law of Moses to most of the gospel. Some people just like clear rules about what we should and should not do. Some find Jesus’ teachings harder to understand objectively.  There are also some who tend to interpret even the freest of free grace sayings of Jesus (like–  “whomsoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”) – as if believing in Jesus was a law. (Perhaps this is a type of faith some need to go through before they can believe in free grace?)

There are also many Christians who, from reading the apostle Paul’s letters (much more so than from Jesus) have come to believe the law was given by God mostly or entirely to convict us of sin – and convince us of our need for forgiveness – correctly noting – no one is saved by the law. Which is true – but not the whole truth.

If the law is only for teaching our need of forgiveness – why does Jesus tell us – not only that not even the smallest letter of the law will pass away – but why the overkill of telling us also – anyone who sets aside and teaches others to set aside any part of the law will be least in the kingdom? (A saying some have heard as a promise we’ll all get to heaven – just as long as we set aside only some – not all of the law? Wonderful if true. Though this kind of reminds me of the actor W.C. Fields, famous lover of whiskey and etc – who once surprised colleagues by reading the bible, apparently very seriously. People asked, “What’s up with you reading the bible now, W.C.?” “I’m looking for loopholes,” he replied.)

We know Jesus puzzled many in those days (as he still often does, today). On one end of the spectrum, some see Jesus as a prophet – a New Moses –  reviving the law, giving the definitive explanation of the law. Which on one level, is all true – though only a part of the much larger truth of Jesus.

On another side of the spectrum, not many years after his death and resurrection, some claimed Jesus put an end to all the law. Some even proposed Christians should get rid of the entire Old Testament. The heretical sect of Marcion took all the Old Testament out of their version of the bible, and some of them even changed the wording of the sermon on the mount to make Jesus say ‘I have come to abolish – not to fulfill the law.’ The ecumenical church councils of the early centuries decisively rejected these views.

The apostles and other church leaders who came after Jesus continued to have differences of opinion on many details, but the church reached consensus in believing all the law is still in play, though, for the most part, and to over-simplify, only the commandments reaffirmed in the New Testament are now considered as binding commandments. All the Old Testament is still the word of God for us, as Jesus says today on the mount. But now the law and prophets speak to us in the light of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and now the law is alive for us in a new way… As St Paul says, the letter kills – the Spirit gives life.

Time is short, today, and we do have to over-simplify and summarize. Which is alright – Jesus does this too, sometimes. Notice how later in this sermon on the mount (7:12) Jesus says “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the law and the prophets.” Later in Matthew (22) when a Pharisee asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus summarizes again, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment – and a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments (depend) all the law and the prophets.”

Which is not a bad way to sum-up Jesus’ teaching on the law and prophets if we’re in a hurry. But if we had only this ‘Readers’s Digest’ version of the law and prophets, we’d be missing so much of the vitality, variety and creativity of Jesus and his gospel. We’d miss the awe and wonder, the mystery, and yes, the grace and truth of the law and prophets…Which are now woven together into the fabric of the gospels – thanks to Jesus and the apostles, who quote and make reference to them so very frequently.

To abridge God’s story is to miss the positive life-giving applications of the law and prophets whom Jesus recalls – as he reworks the imagery of creation and exodus…God leading his people out of slavery in Egypt in the books of the Law. God leading us out of slavery now to sin and death in Christ. God, in the cloud of presence by day, the pillar of fire by night, leading us through the wilderness of this world…Teaching us to be salt and light for this world which God so loves…

God teaching a new nation of freed slaves the law of liberty through the precepts and ordinances given to Moses on Mt Sinai. Proclaiming the biblical Year of Jubilee, with the trumpet sounding… Declaring liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof… Words inscribed on that Liberty Bell our ancestors rang so hard it cracked. The bell of freedom Martin Luther King Jr reminded us of when he preached ‘let freedom ring, let freedom ring… Great God Almighty let freedom ring…’

Words of Jubilee, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the words of the Charles Wesley hymn we’ve sung this morning. (The year of Jubilee is come, the year of jubilee is come. Return ye ransomed sinners home.) Celebrating – in Christ all slaves freed, all debts canceled, our sacred heritage of grace and peace restored. The gift of salvation, liberation, healing – ours to receive by faith working through love – the sacred gift of law and gospel together…

Without the law – and the Spirit-filled-interpretation of law and prophets through the ages… our world of faith would be like salt without  savor, like light hidden under a bushel… Without the stirring stories of our ancestors in faith, our walk with God would be lacking color and passion… Lacking in understanding of God’s purposes and pathways…

So Jesus has promised – all the law and prophets will be with us, all the way…

As Jesus fulfills all the law and prophets in love, in power, in Spirit and truth.

By his grace we are already salt and light for the world…

By the mercies of God-with-us… we go from light into light…

Thanks be to God. Amen.