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Jesus said:
“You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world…”
Mt.5.13,14

I went to London last Thursday – for a meeting with a General Synod working party – about the formation of a “professional association” for clergy in the CofE – pretty boring stuff for ordinary mortals.

The meeting was in the Covent Garden area, not far from Trafalgar Square, and an area with quite a lot of theatres – I arrived there a bit early for the meeting so I popped into St Paul’s Church (Covent Garden – the ‘Actor’s’ Church!) – a pretty unremarkable church.

But when I went in I was hit by the smell of incense!  It was the morning after Candlemas, and I guess they’d had a service there the evening before, so the smell was still quite strong.  I love the smell of church incense – and I was instantly transported to somewhere wonderful!

I find that many smells have a similar effect on me.  They transport me somewhere.

I remember my first trip the other way round: from London to Manchester – interview for my first curate’s job – and when I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, the smell of hot oil and diesel hit me – and I was transported back to the steel works in my home town – transported back by smell alone!

I think that our sense of smell is connected directly to our memories – hardwired in our brains.

So I think that it is significant that Jesus, in today’s gospel, when he tells us what we are, he tells us that we are to be two things that impact directly upon the senses: salt and light!

You will note that he does not tell us to be preachers, or teachers, or philosophers – people who make their impact upon the minds of others – instead we are to make our impact upon others’ senses (specifically taste and sight).

Both salt and light are pretty hearty things as far as our senses are concerned.

Salt – both in deficiency and in excess – can either make, or totally ruin, a meal.
(Some Christians can be so lacking in ‘salt’ that they make no impact upon us at all, while some can be so over-salted with the gospel that they make us run a mile!)

And light – a vital component for all sight – without light we are all in the dark – and there is no sight, nor colour, nor vision.

We, as followers of Jesus, are to be salt and light – giving flavour and colour to the world – and hitting people where they know they’ve been hit (as it were) – without, of course, getting up their noses!

We are, in other words, to by-pass their minds, and aim for something deeper, something much more visceral within them – to be something that tickles their taste-buds and lights up their lives.

Notice that in this Gospel account, Jesus goes straight on from telling us that we are salt and light, to talking about the Law (the OT Law, the Law of Moses).

The Law was a preoccupation for the Jews of Jesus’ day (as indeed it is for those of today, of course), and it was a particular problem for Matthew (the writer of the Gospel).

Matthew is writing (particularly) for Jewish converts to Christianity – who might be a bit loath to tinker with what has hitherto been at the heart of their faith – The Law.

The problem with the Law was that it did not work.
It did not create good and holy people.  It created lawyers!

And the task of the lawyers was to find ways of getting around the law (in both senses of ‘getting around’!).

And it all became a kind of game.  The Law says this, the Law says that – but this bit maybe affects that bit – so you can do this, but not that – but if you do that, then maybe you don’t need to do this.  The Law became the subject to interpretation.  It became an intellectual exercise – a mind game.

Jesus knew that the Law would not (could not) save anyone – but he also knew that it was a gift from God – a gift that was to draw us closer to Him – something to be lived, rather than obeyed.

The Law was a collection of ‘pointers’ – commandments that pointed us to something greater:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt.5.20)

The real law lives in our guts, rather than in our heads.

It is all about ‘sensing’ the ‘rightness’ of the written law – and translating that into our everyday thoughts and actions – it’s about seeing the light and tasting the truth.

We are salt for the earth!   We are light for the world!

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Last Tuesday evening there was a documentary on BBC 3 entitled: ‘Deborah 13 – Servant of God’

Deborah is a 13 year old girl living in the depths of Dorset, on a remote farm, educated at home by her parents, with 8 other brothers and sisters (two others were living away from home) – and is a very fundamentalist evangelical Christian.

 

She has no tv or mobile phone (indeed if we are to believe the documentary, she has never ever watched tv!).  She has no idea who Victoria Beckham or Britany Spears are (lucky girl!), and she has never shopped in Top Shop (nor, I have to confess, have I!).  More significantly, perhaps, she has no friends of her own age in the locality.

 

Early in the interview she turned the tables on the interviewer, looked her in the eye, and said ‘Would you consider yourself to be a good person?’  To which the interviewer replied, ‘yes’.  Deborah continued,

‘Have you ever told a lie?’  

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you ever stolen anything?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you every used God’s name in vain?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you ever coveted anything?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘So you’re a lying, thieving, coveting, blasphemous person!  Do you still think you are a good person?’

 

She goes on, later in the programme, to make it quite clear that anyone who breaks any of the Ten Commandments, even a well-meant ‘white’ lie, is destined to hell!  This sets the tone for the whole of the documentary.

 

I found the whole programme to be deeply disturbing.  Disturbing to see someone so constrained by such rigorous religious views.  Disturbing to see someone so out of touch with the rest of the world.  But disturbing most of all because I felt there was something deeper within me that was disturbed, something I couldn’t quite properly pin down.  I think it was something to do with her attitude to the Bible.

 

She says, in the course of the programme, that “the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired word of the living God”.  Inspired’ I would agree with (although probably not interpreted in the same way as Deborah would have done so), but ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ I could not accept.  We won’t find either of those descriptions in Scripture itself – they are rather products of 16 century Reformation theology.

 

It is something about that ‘absolutist’, extreme ‘black & white’ attitude to Scripture that I find so difficult, and so disturbing – and so at odds with Jesus’ own attitude!

 

Compare, for instance, Deborah’s insistence that every single lie, no matter how small, no matter how well-meant, is a ticket to hell.  This is law ‘out of context’, law applied without reference to circumstance or situation.  Compare this to Jesus’ treatment of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel – a judgement tempered with compassion and love.

 

The teaching in the New Testament leads us, in the main, to seek the deeper source of the Law of God, rather than being almost sidetracked by its individual precepts.  St Paul even goes as far as to say that Christ “has abolished the law with its commands and ordinances…”  (Eph.2.15a nrsv).  He’s not advocating no law – just a deeper, less definable, law.

 

We can see this in today’s gospel reading, where Jesus drives out the moneychangers and the animal dealers from the Temple.  They were there because the Law required sacrifice and taxes, and that needed sheep and shekels: sacrificial victims and Hebrew money (rather than the Greek and Roman stuff.).  But all that trapping had seemingly become a distraction that deflected the participants in temple worship from its truer, deeper, more spiritual aspects.  Hence Jesus’ ‘zeal’!

 

All this, of course, means that we have to enter unchartered territory, that we have to leave behind the comfortable constraints of certainty – as expressed in the written law – and enter the, sometimes less sure, realms of the spirit.

 

Adherence to the law can never make us good – it just makes us compliant.  And God wants more from us than that!  In Jesus he expands and deepens our understanding of what it is that he requires of us,  but doesn’t, thereby, make it any easier.

 

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrestles with the implications of all this – it’s one of his major preoccupations (see Romans chapters 5-8, for example).  He writes there (7.6)                                                                                      

“…the Law no longer rules over us.

Now we can serve God in a new way by obeying his Spirit,

and not in the old way by obeying the written Law.

 

…and again in 2 Corinthians (3.6)…

 

“[God] makes us worthy to be the servants of his new agreement

that comes from the Spirit and not from a written Law.

After all, the Law brings death, but the Spirit bring life.”

 

We are called to reach beyond and beneath the letter of the law, to discover the Spirit, to discover life in all its richness.

 

Deborah is clearly a bright, faithful, committed young girl, and, despite her own protestations to the contrary, a good person.  But somehow I just can’t shake off the feeling that something is not quite right…

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