This is a copy of a talk I gave on Wednesday 8 February 2023 at the 10.00 am service at Saint Mary Magdalen, Billericay. The Bible Reading was Matthew 5:13-20.

When I was a young Christian, I remember being particularly challenged when a speaker asked:

If you were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

That’s a very interesting question to ask ourselves, isn’t it? ‘If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ What sort of evidence would be considered admissible?

Is it that the person has a nice character? Well, there are plenty of people who aren’t Christians who are nice – but at least you might expect that to be true of Christians. Is it that the person attends church? Well, again there are plenty of folk who attend church (maybe not as many as there used to be) or watch online. But you can attend church on high days and holy days and still not be a committed believer in the Lord Jesus.  But you would think it would count against someone if they claimed to be Christian but hardly ever darkened the doors of a church.

So, what is it about those who would be friends of Jesus that people could point to and say: ‘That shows they are a Christian and are serious about their faith?’ Does anyone have any suggestions? In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount we’re going to find the answer to that question.

Sermon on the mount

The problem we have is that we can be so familiar with these words we think we know what it means to be ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’. Those are the main two descriptions Jesus uses to describe his disciples and their relationship to the world: salt and light.

But we need to be aware of what we mean by someone being ‘salt of the earth’ is not necessarily what Jesus means by the term. We use salt for seasoning food or, in the days before refrigeration, as a preservative, and then assume that Jesus must be saying something like this: ‘Christians influence society by making it more wholesome, by changing it into a more pleasant place to live in and they arrest the moral and spiritual decline which otherwise would accelerate if they withdrew.

And since light exposes the dark and illuminates the good, we too are to be a force for social change. Now Christians may do all of those things, and they are good things, but that is not necessarily what Jesus is talking about.

To understand what Jesus is saying we need to remember who Jesus is talking to. Notice he says quite emphatically: ‘You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world.’ And the ‘you’ is the group of people gathered around him on that Galilean hillside. It is those who have come to  listen to his teaching. So when Jesus said ‘You are the salt of the earth’ they would have been dumbstruck. ‘What us? We’re just fishermen, tax collectors and political enthusiasts, Us?’ ‘Yes, you’- says Jesus.

So what would Jesus and his hearers have understood by the idea that this tiny, insignificant group was the ‘salt of the earth’?  Well, when we go to the Old Testament we find a very specific and unique use of salt and it has nothing to do with spicing up your fish and chips!

See if you can work out what the common theme is: Leviticus 2:13: ‘Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.’; 2 Chronicles 13:5: ‘Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants for ever by a covenant of salt?’

Salt is being associated with God’s covenant, which is a word meaning God’s promises. This includes the promise that Israel has a special relationship with God: He loves them, He cares for them and they in turn have certain privileges and obligations as a result, especially to listen to His Word and obey it and so be distinctively different from the surrounding nations.

So how might this special relationship between God and his people be preserved and conversely what might cause it to lose its saltiness?  Well, let me ask another question. Who in the Old Testament were commissioned by God to hold people to their covenant promises, to make sure they acted like God’s people and called them back when the didn’t? It was the prophets. People like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos brought God’s word to the people and often called them to repentance and warned them what would happen if they did not repent.

Interestingly enough we are told in Isaiah 10:6 that they will be ‘trampled down like mud in the streets’ – the same language Jesus uses in verse 13 about being trampled underfoot. And do you think the prophets were thanked for their message? Er … no! Look at what Jesus said happened to them in vs12, ‘they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ and Jesus warns that the same is going to happen to his disciples if they live as ‘salt of the earth’.

Salt and Light

So bringing these thoughts together means that in order to be the ‘salt of the earth’ we are to bring God’s Word to a perishing world. Salt is needed to preserve something which otherwise is rotting. Light is needed to illumine what is otherwise dark.

Friends that is our world – rotting away and living in darkness. Blinded by ignorance – ignorance of the God who made them and the judgement which is yet to come. So how is the rot to be arrested and reversed? How is the darkness of ignorance to be dispelled? Well, by the same way the prophet’s did it in the Old Testament but Jesus said the response of the world will be the same, v11, ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me, rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

Jesus is making a connection between his followers and the prophets, and it seems logical that it is to the same kind of activity he is referring to  –proclaiming God’s word and a word of judgement for those who do not believe. In other words, we change the world, we stop the rot, we act like salt if we speak the Gospel. The apostle Paul says something similar in Colossians 4: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone’. Here again the emphasis is on speaking the Gospel.

This is the way someone will produce enough evidence to convict us if we are we taking the opportunities that come our way to speak about Jesus. That will make us distinctive because if on a Monday morning at work or in the coffee shop at the school gates or on the train/tube we are not sharing the Gospel who will? And if we do, then you can be pretty sure people will know that we follow Jesus.

The same goes for the image of light and being a city on a hill. To be salt and light is to be prophetic. It means bringing God’s Word to bear in our world. If we keep on doing that we shall be like salt preserving the Gospel and preserving the world in which we live.

Good deeds

In the past I have tended to think the ‘light’ a Christian was to shine was the good deeds we are to perform vs6. But I now realise that doesn’t make sense because we read, ‘Let your light so shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’

The light is distinct from good deeds; it is the light which enables people to see our good deeds as Christian good deeds and so praise God for them. It seems to mean something like this: As we share the Gospel message we are being salt, we are keeping God’s promises alive and fresh. This message also brings light, it shows up the wayward, empty life of the unbeliever and also the different way of life of the believer, so people will say, ‘So that is what it means to live as a Christian?

It goes without saying that the world doesn’t like people who are different; they want everyone to conform to the same pattern of lifestyle. That is largely what the tyranny of Political Correctness or wokeness is all about; it creates a climate of fear – the fear of being different. Say something mildly questioning about same sex marriage or those who identify as LGBTQI+ and you are labelled homophobic. There can be no public debate about morals or ethics anymore.

But say something derogatory against Christians and you are exercising freedom of speech. It does seem that it’s always open season on Christians – but that is what Jesus said would happen. The world does not like to hear about the Kingdom of God because it makes people uncomfortable.

If we keep our saltiness and shine like lights on a lamp stand or a city on a hill by speaking God’s Word, and having lives as individuals and a Christian community which are lived out in the light of that Word, then how might we lose our saltiness? How might we become like lights hid under a bowel? Quite simply, by not living distinctively different and by not speaking the truth of Gospel in love and grace. May each one of us commit ourselves to being salt and light in our daily lives by sharing the Gospel with others.

If you were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

You might also be interested in reading the following articles

(Be) Attitudes To Follow

A Prayer based on the Beatitudes

The Devil’s Beatitudes