Many years ago, a well-known Anglican wrote a book about mission in rural areas in which his main point was based upon the words of Jesus to his disciples about being salt and light. While there was much in the book that I was pleased to read, I was unhappy that he presented the two similes as possible alternatives. Jesus did not say, “You can be light or salt”. He said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5: 13-16).
The point that he was making was that rural contexts are such that the subtler influence of salt is probably preferable to the challenge of light. Salt is absorbed into the context which it then changes. It is what is sometimes referred to in a missional sense as ‘presence evangelism’. On the other hand, light is a contrast to darkness and can sometimes be uncomfortable. There are two aspects of his argument that I wish to challenge. The first is the premise that salt is less disturbing.
To an observer, the introduction of salt when cooking might seem to be having a subtle affect, but that is not the case as far as the other elements are concerned. Salt has a chemical and mechanical effect on the other ingredients. The presence of a holy and righteous person (such as a Christian?) into a group of ungodly people, will always be disturbing, even if they say nothing.
The second aspect of his argument is the one about which I feel more strongly. He presented it is two possible approaches to mission. But we need to be clear that there is no sense in which there is any option. Jesus said, “You ARE the salt… You ARE the light…”. When we become Christians, being salt and light are not optional extras to which we can sign up if we wish. Whether we are effective salt and light is another matter, however.
In the days when Jesus spoke these words, salt was almost certainly used for preservation of food and for bringing out flavour in cooking (rather than adding flavour). As a preservative, it inhibits the development of harmful microorganisms. There is much in the world that is harmful to individuals and society. Living with such values and saying nothing is unlikely to do much good. God expects us to challenge injustice and sin. Salt is added during cooking, primarily because it has a wonderful way of bringing out flavours. Similarly, even among the worst of people there are some good qualities, and Christian influence can bring these out.
But too much salt added has a less than pleasant effect. In this sense the analogy of salt when considering mission can be every bit as disturbing as light. The challenge of what Jesus said was to ensure that we do not lose our salty properties. In 21st Century UK we need to ask whether Christians are not impacting the world around because the salt is too often in the salt pot rather than spread around.
The presence of light brings benefits. I once took a school assembly with a dirty mark on my forehead. The children stared but politely said nothing. Eventually I got a child to tell me what was wrong, and then suggested that a lack of light in the bathroom meant that I failed to see myself as I was. Of course, this was a set up and that was explained to the children. They took the point. Light can help us see what is wrong, as well as journey through life safely. If we are the light of the world, then we need to be shining appropriately inti the world for the benefit of others.
I inherited a torch from the previous owners of our house. It has a rechargeable battery. Charged up it emits a light that can be quite blinding if shone into someone’s face. That would be an inappropriate use of the torch. On the other hand, it has annoying habit of the battery running down just when it is needed it. Some Christians are like that. Charged up by attendance at a conference or a poor course on evangelism, they dazzle others they might wish to win for Jesus. But then as the influence that charged them up begins to wane, the light grows dim.
Some Christians are like some power-saving lamps. They take time to warm up and give a poor light at the start. Others are like fluorescent tubes with faulty starters. The flick on and off all the time instead of giving out a steady light. Still others are more like the lights on Christmas trees, very attractive and drawing attention to themselves, but otherwise not much use!
So, the challenge is not to be too bright and dazzling, not so dim as to be no use, to shine consistently, and to ensure that the light shed is helpful to others and does not simply draw attention to ourselves. And we need to remember what Jesus said about not hiding our light.
Salt can only loose its saltiness if it becomes contaminated or overly diluted. Lights in Jesus’ day depended upon a steady flow of fuel and a clean wick. In our day, light powered by electricity can become dim because of dust and dirt, or poor contact with the power source. Effectiveness in both similes can only be determined by good outcomes it has on those around us.
Remember these are not alternatives and it is not optional. Christian disciples ARE both salt and light. The question we need to ask ourselves is how effective are we? Often the benefit of salt and light is not recognised until they are absent. I ask myself, if I were not present, or if my church did not exist, would it make much difference to those around?
Dear Lord, you called me to yourself so that I might be a light to help others. You know that I do not always shine as brightly as I should. Sometimes the circumstances around me cause my light to grow dim just when it is needed to be bright. Sometimes I neglect to seek to be constantly filled by you, and my own neglect causes my light to fail. Fill me afresh, Holy Spirit. Help me to shine as brightly as needed to give light to others without dazzling the.
Lord, you have declared that I am the salt of the earth. Help me to be effective, driving back corruptive influences, bringing healing, and influencing others to bring the best of taste into your world.
You know, Lord, that I cannot be in my own strength what I am meant to be. Please take me as I am, and make me all you would want me to be. Amen
From the Diary
Give thanks for the blessing of the past week, for moments of inspiration, and the opportunities to open up God’s word to bless others. Especially give thanks for an effective day of teaching at the Salvation Army’s William Booth College, on the Safeguarding Course
Sunday 22nd – Nottingham Congregational Church
Tuesday 24th – HMP Gartree
Thursday 26th – Country Way Magazine Editorial Team
Saturday 28th – East Midlands Area (Congregational Federation) Meeting
Sunday 29th – HMP Gartree
Please do not underestimate the value of your prayers day by day. Please keep us in your prayers asking God to keep us walking close with him and faithful each day in living out the ministry with which he has entrusted us. Your prayers and support are vital.
May God bless you and make you a blessing to many through the coming week.