This simple saying of Jesus – that his disciples are salt and light of our earth and the world – has remarkable profundity and ethical resonance for all his followers, then and now. Jesus does not say that his followers will be salt and light, nor does he say that they have salt and light. But by virtue of his call upon them as disciples and his union with them, they are indeed salt and light.
Salt is a symbol and substance of purity, preservation, and enhanced flavor. Light is, well… we all know what light does and is, don’t we? Not only does Jesus emphasize his call upon his disciples through our irrevocable union with Christ, he also shows that the beauty of the Christian journey is found in our communion with the world in the name of Jesus. This communion provides flavor, antiseptic against decays of various kinds, dispels darkness, and enables the one in the dark to see the path one needs to take.
Yet there is something we often forget in this analogy of the followers of Jesus as salt and light, and it is this: in properly fulfilling their role as salt and light, they disappear. They are never really drawing attention upon themselves. As C.S. Lewis observed, Christianity is like the sun in that we don’t just see it, but by it we see everything else. Christian people reflect the source of our light, namely the Son who is the creator of the Sun and everything else radiant in the cosmos.
Therefore, it is our union with Christ that gives us the identity of salt and light. In that primary identity we can dare to enter into communion with the world in order to leave it better, and to allow it to shine in all its God-intended brilliance and beauty. In doing so, we give glory to the Father in heaven.
Yet there is also some irony in the Gospel in that the story of Christianity in the first three centuries was marked by the way it was seen as ill-disposed to imperial peace, and thus unfit and highly problematic for the good life envisioned within the Roman empire. The irony of the followers of Jesus being salt and light is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, found in the fact that the true embodiment of salt and light, namely Jesus himself, fulfilled his mission as salt and light in the state execution on a cross.
Thus, it comes as a valuable reminder to think about the relationship between Christian identity and confession and how it intersects with our being good neighbors and citizens. The answer requires much communal reflection, prayer for the welfare of the city, and true love of God and neighbor.
[This article was adapted from Dr. Paul Lim’s sermon titled Salt, Light, and City, delivered on January 29, 2017 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.]
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