If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be any evidence against you?

Mary Copping, 5 February 2017

Isaiah 58: 1–9a; Matthew 5: 13–20

Last week I went to a meeting of youth workers in the diocese who were gathered to be introduced to the new National Evangelism Officer. He’s been meeting youth workers around the country to find out what good work is being done for and by Christian young people. It was good for me to be with those mainly young youth workers who shared what they’d been doing in their parishes. Some were running youth clubs and considering how much Christian input there should be without putting the young people off. Others said they were running groups mainly to talk about Jesus and read the Bible with some who were not Christians. Some had groups for their young people on Sunday mornings, as we do. It was great to hear all that was going on.

I often feel at these meetings that I’m there to put across the more traditional church perspective. We don’t have a big youth club; we don’t have big mission events here at St Paul’s. What I tried to explain is that our young people learn at church about their Christian faith and discuss how it relates to their own lives, and then they talk with others – or not – about it. I described it as very gentle friendship evangelism; sometimes they don’t even talk about their faith with their friends, but the friends know that they go to church and may ask questions. I think this phrase – gentle friendship evangelism – could describe what we as adults do each week as we go out from here on a Sunday.

This seemed to tie in very much with the gospel reading this morning, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus, first to his disciples and then to the many others who gathered to hear it. His sermon, the longest piece of the teachings of Jesus, gives guidance on how Christians should live. It is sometimes called Jesus’ manifesto, showing us what Jesus was like and what he expects of his followers. It’s often the part of the Bible that people are pointed to first when they want to know more about the Christian journey. What a fascinating and engaging preacher Jesus must have been! I would love to have heard him preach, especially this sermon – and it’s thanks to Matthew that we have it written down.

When Christ preached he always used imagery that would mean a lot to his listeners (preachers of today can learn much from him!). And in this part of the Sermon on the Mount he tells his listeners, and us, that they, we, are the salt of the earth. In those days salt was a valuable commodity (nowadays of course we have too much of it and have to be careful how much we eat). But then it was used to preserve food, to add flavour and to prevent infections from setting in – and also as a unit of exchange.

On initial reading, salt seems quite an odd thing to compare us to. Yet in the light of Jesus wanting to show us how to live, we can see some similarities. As we go out to our daily lives from here, can we be a preserving influence with all those we meet, keeping to what is right and refusing to do what we feel is wrong? Do we add flavour to people’s lives, making people feel better for having been with us? Do we prevent infection spreading: do we stop the gossip before it spreads, speaking out to stop wrongdoing? Such good things to live by as we live as Christians in the world. And the description of ‘salt of the earth’ does apply even now – someone who is thoroughly decent. We hope and pray that we are those people.

On initial reading, salt seems quite an odd thing to compare us to.

The second comparison that Jesus makes is being the ‘light of the world’. He urges his listeners not to hide their light under a bushel (‘bushel’ being an obsolete word for a bowl). Again the comparison with our lives: light dispels darkness, and the darkness can’t put out the light. Are we light in the world or is the light hidden? Do people know that we are Christians by our behaviour? There is the old saying – ‘if you were accused of being a Christian, would there be any evidence against you?’ The darkness cannot put out the light, but it can hide it. There is more and more darkness in this world. More and more need of the light of Christ to dispel the darkness.

As we receive the light of Christ in our hearts in this place through the hymns, the readings, the talks and in the receiving of communion, how do we go out into the world? Leaving all this behind and just getting on with things? Or do we consciously take Christ’s light into the world? There are many, many difficulties and problems, especially in the context of recent events, and ours is to make a difference in whatever way we can, to be God’s light and his peace wherever we go.

As we watch the news and think that nothing can be done, we must listen to the words of Pope Francis (quoted in the parish magazine), as he urges us to ‘dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and to building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.’ Yes, it starts with us and how we live, how we act and how we relate to others.

Gentle friendship evangelism: in various studies it has been proved that friendship evangelism is the most effective way that people come to know about Jesus and experience the Christian faith. Through relating to those people day by day, week by week, with them knowing that you go to church, perhaps they may start asking questions. Friendship evangelism: asking someone if they would like to come with you to a parish lunch or a church service or a homegroup. How much do we pray for our neighbours, for the people we will be meeting that week? Asking God to give us ‘divine appointments’, as I call them – those unexpected meetings that you feel are inspired by God. Asking God to give us the words to say. And sometimes people are touched if we say that we’ll pray for them.

We can and do make a difference in this world, often when we are least aware of it. We are light and salt. Though perhaps we think that nothing we do can make a difference in world affairs, who knows how our Christian actions, our being salt and light, our friendship evangelism, can and will ripple out from us into the world, as God uses us as his ambassadors? As it says in Matthew 5: 16: ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’. We receive light as we meet here in God’s name; we go out with his light and his peace to change the world.

Some words from a children’s song that we sang in church last week:

I am a city on a hill
I am a light in the darkness
Jesus living in me can change the world.