What I said this Sunday

Here’s what I said in church this week. If you missed it and would like one of the bookmarks I mention at the end (and you live near St John’s and are reading this around or not long after 6th February) then you’ll find some at the back of church.

Matthew 5.13

In the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So – what did the Romans ever do for us?

Well, if you’ve ever wondered who came up with the idea of putting a whole load of unpalatable green leaves in a bowl and eating them, let me tell you. It was the Romans!  Yes, the Romans invented green salad! And it was the Romans who then had the bright idea that, to disguise the fact that most green leaves are not that tasty, you could put salt on them. That’s where salad gets its name – the word ‘salad’ comes from the Latin for ‘salt.’ Salt, in the ancient world, was a valuable commodity, and had many uses. It was so valuable that Greek aristocrats had a custom of buying their slaves with salt. If the slave did not meet the buyer’s expectation, that slave “was not worth his salt,” which is where we get  the expression from.  Salt was found in great quantities in the Dead Sea, and Jews also bought it from traders in the North.

It was used to season food for both people and animals and, because they had no fridges and lived in a hot climate, it was used as a preservative, to stop food – especially meat – from rotting. It was used in worship – some of the Temple sacrifices required the use of salt, particularly the grain and burnt offerings. It had medicinal properties, so much so that new-born babies were washed in it and even rubbed with it. It was held to be so important that it was included with wine and oil as the basic staples of life. Salt – in the ancient world – was a valuable and indispensible commodity. Perhaps as valuable and indispensible in its own way as electricity is to us today. You couldn’t get by without it.

So – when Jesus said to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth,” he wasn’t just using something innocuous that he had in his store at home. He was telling them that they were of supreme value, indispensible to the world around them, needed to make the world what God wanted it to be.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Let’s think about those words for a moment. ‘Salt of the earth’ is one of those phrases from the Bible that’s become a part of our language. We’ve been hearing a lot about the Bible recently – particularly if you’re a Radio 4 listener – because this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible, often called the King James Version. And one of the things that we are being reminded of is just how many common English phrases and sayings come from the Authorised Version. In fact, many go back further still, for much of the authorised Version is actually taken straight from the translation made by John Wyclif in 1382, and it was Wyclif who came up with so many of these sayings. And ‘salt of the earth’ is one of them.

Almost all modern English translations use the same words. The problem is, the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ doesn’t quite convey what Jesus is trying to say. The New English Bible gets the meaning clearer: You are salt to the world. This is an active and not a passive relationship. We are not simply salt in the world, we are expected to make a difference, just as putting salt on your green salad makes a difference to how it tastes and makes it more palatable. And then, Jesus goes on to talk about salt losing its taste and becoming useless. The thing is that salt doesn’t lose its taste. Salt that is used for food, however long you leave it unused, simply does not lose its taste, its saltiness. Put some salt in a bowl, forget what it is and leave it in a cupboard for months, and then bring it out because yours truly asks for some sugar in his coffee at a team staff meeting – it still tastes like salt! Believe me, it really does!

So what did Jesus mean? In fact, the original Greek word doesn’t mean ‘tasteless’ and Jesus probably was talking about salt losing its strength as a preservative. The Good News version puts this well, translating this as “When salt loses its strength…”

Jesus may have had in mind salt from the Dead Sea. It wasn’t always pure, sometimes being found mixed with other substances and therefore of inferior quality. It could become less effective as a preservative and sometimes quite useless. Jesus’ point is that when salt becomes weakened, diluted with other things, it becomes good for nothing. He is warning his disciples against a useless discipleship – one that is so weak or diluted that it has become ineffective and no longer of any use. If that happens it is no longer good for anything!

A dire warning indeed! You are to be salt, Jesus tells us, to the world – but beware that you do not become so watered down so as to become useless. Think of Jesus as meaning that his followers are to act as a preservative for the world that God created – a world where peace and truth and justice should prevail – a world where God reigns. And if his followers fail to do that then his warning is that failure brings with it a consequence – essentially that Jesus can no longer use them. So how can we be sure that we are being salt to the world? How, as followers of Jesus today, can we live lives that are salt to our world, making the difference to our world, God’s world, that we are expected to by Jesus. Jesus isn’t giving us any option – this is how we are to be as his followers, or we become useless, like salt that is no longer useful and is trampled underfoot. Sometimes Jesus simply didn’t mince his words.

I’d like to suggest to you this morning four aspects of Christian living that I believe to be essential if we are to be the salt to the world that Jesus wants us to be. And to help you remember, they begin with the letters S A L T. So, four words to remember. This is how Christians are to live if they would be salt.

One. S is for Saved.
Christians need to live lives that are saved. By that, I mean that each Christian needs to know – and I mean ‘know’ – that because of what Jesus did on a cross their lives are changed. To know that our relationship with him is eternal. To know, as Fanny Crosby put it in her wonderful hymn:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine.

So many Christians in the West today seem uncertain about their faith, about their ultimate destiny. Jesus didn’t die to give us uncertainty. He died to take way our sin, to free us from guilt, to open the gateway to eternal life. We need to live as people who know they are redeemed, who know they are saved, who know their lives are changed. For if we aren’t really sure ourselves, how can we ever be used to change the lives of others?

Of course, we don’t really like certainty in the Church of England. And there’s a tendency to regard the question, “Are you saved?” with some amusement and only to be used by extreme fundamentalist Christians. But what would your response be if asked the question. Would you say “It depends what you mean by ‘saved’?”, or would you say “Absolutely!”

Two. A is for Adoring. Christians need to live lives that are adoring. Lives where we simply adore God because he is first in our lives. Charles de Foucauld, the desert hermit, spoke of adoration as ‘thinking of God with love’. When did you last think of God with love. Take some time out – just sit, not to pray and ask for things, but just to think of God with love. That is adoration. But it really needs to be a central part of our relationship with our heavenly Father. Do we truly adore him before all else?

Three. L is for Loving.
Christians need to live lives that are loving.

Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ We all know those words, but do we really live them? People said of the early Christians, ‘see how these people love one another.’ People crave for meaningful relationships. Do people look at us and think, ‘There’s a group of people who’ve got it right.’ And do we show our love by giving our time and our resources to help others – giving sacrificially. We, and our worshipping community, must have love at the heart of all we are and do.

Four. T is for Trusting.
Christians need to live lives that are trusting. At the end of the day, where do you put your trust? Is it in the security of your bank account? Or the security of owning your own house? Or is it in the security of knowing that no matter what life may bring your heavenly Father is taking care of you. Do you trust God before all else. Do you trust him to speak to you through the Scriptures and to be your guide in life, because you are now safe in the hands of Jesus? When you’ve got a decision to make, a problem to solve, do you press on regardless? Or do you seek the Father’s guidance?

As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” Col 3.3 New Living Translation

Followers of Jesus, called to be salt to the world, are people who are saved, adoring of their God, loving of others, and trusting God to be their guide in life.

Now don’t worry about remembering all that. As you leave I’ll be giving you a bookmark. On one side you’ll find the words of Jesus, ‘You are salt to the world,” and on the other a reminder of what the letters S A L T stand for.

If we are to be salt to the world, then we need to have the assurance that comes from knowing we are saved and are going to spend eternity in our God’s presence. Our God needs to be the focus of our adoration. We need to reach out in love to one another, showing God’s love to the world. And we need to trust in God to be our guide in life. For this is how Jesus calls us to live as his people, and how he expects us to make a difference to our world.