Summer School

Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount- Discourse 4 - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 24 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley
By: Michael Roberts

Matthew 5:13-16, Salt and Light

The beauty of holiness is so apparent to all who have spiritual eyes opened by God. The light that shines from a meek, humble, gentle, patient, loving spirit will brighten the life of anyone who is capable, to any degree, of discerning spiritual good and evil. This transforming light is so beautiful in those moments when it is seen. But then we are moved to ask, “Why is this light dimmed by so many other things?” What is the purpose of loading this blessing with doing and suffering? Why does religion have to be encumbered with so many outward rituals and practices?”

Throughout history, some Church leaders have advised that we “cease from all outward action,” and “wholly withdraw from the world,” with no concern for outward religion, but to work all virtues solely from within. This, it is said, is the more excellent way. I say that this is delusion! It can even be considered a device of Satan, taking some aspect of truth and perverting it. It is true that “retreat” is necessary for spiritual well-being, even every day. We all need time to converse with God in private and to rest the body and spirit. But to allow “retreat” to become the end rather than the mean is to destroy, not advance, true religion.

Our Lord calls us all to “active religion,” where we are directly involved in the world. Jesus says so clearly, “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” With these direct statements it is made clear that Christianity is a “social religion,” and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” Our faith is cultivated by worshipping, conversing, and serving with others. To be Christian is to grow in humility, patience, and gentleness. These virtues have no place outside of interaction with others. In short, our calling in this world is to learn how to love one another and to engage in peace-making, as we have seen. This cannot happen except by intentionally joining together with others.

Some advocate for conversation only with those deemed “good,” or those who are “holy of heart.” Yes, there are scriptures that advise Christians to avoid “keeping company” with fornicators, idolaters, “railers” (or party zealots), drunkards, extortioners, and the like (I Corinthians 5:9). There are other scriptures, however, from the same author, who advise us to not count those who do such things as enemies but to admonish them as a brother or sister (2 Thessalonians 3:15). There is tension in these pieces of advice, and we must weigh them in the light of key scriptures, and evaluate them in the light of the circumstances in which we might find ourselves.

A place to start would be these words of our Lord, found in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Here we clearly see that we cannot be Christian by breaking off all commerce and conversation with the world. Interaction is essential in order to grow in, and reveal, the temperaments required for living in God’s kingdom, which is in our midst. Relationship with others, especially those who are different from us, is the only way to exercise “poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, peace-making, and every other disposition that marks the genuine religion of Jesus Christ.” How could we ever practice turning the other check, or resisting evil or loving enemies, apart from these virtues?

So, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” It is your very nature to season whatever is around you. You are called to spread the way of Christ to whatever is touched, to be diffused within the community. This is the reason for mingling with others. If the salt has lost its ability to flavor and purify, what purpose could it have? It is good for nothing. If your love has grown flat, if you have become careless of your own soul and useless to the souls of others, how shall you recover? Where is your hope? Only in the One who can transform! Your calling is to season the world around you with the love of Christ.

Next, know this. It is impossible for any who have the true religion of Jesus Christ to hide it, or keep it to ourselves. “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. The love that comes to us through Christ is meant to shine through us as meekness and mercy, purity of heart, and peace-making. To conceal these blessings, or hold them in private, is not the way of Christ. Light is meant to shine.

It has been objected that religion does not consist in outward things, but only in the heart, and that all outward rituals and service are distractions and pollutions to purity of heart. I answer that there is truth here. True religion is not rooted in anything external to the heart. It is rooted in the inmost soul. But if this root is truly planted in the heart then it will put forth branches. It will bear fruit through acts that partake of the same nature as the root. God is pleased with all outward service which flows from the heart. We are to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1). In spirit and truth, we are called to make our daily outward work a living sacrifice to God. In everything we do – and buy and sell and eat and drink -- we are to ask, “Does this glorify God?” And yes, if outward practices – even of worship and prayer -- become the end rather than means, then we are in trouble, and the light we are called to shine is dimmed.

For one more objection that we hear. It comes from those who claim that the light did shine, that they did attend to the ordinances of God; but were no better off, or those who serve experience no change. This is possible, especially if the means were mistaken for the end, if it was believed that true religion was rooted in the outward works of worship, prayer, and service. I say, let this abuse be taken away, and the blessings of such practices remain. As we fulfill our calling, we can trust that God will guide, that God will work for good, and that God will give growth, in God’s time, and in ways that we can only begin to imagine.

Therefore, let your light shine – illuminating your humility of heart, your gentleness, your meekness, your sincere concern for the things of eternity, your sorrow for the sins and miseries of humanity, your fervent love for God and your tender goodwill for all people. Let your light shine so that others can see your good works, but give glory, not to you, but to God. Let the light in your heart shine through all works of piety and all works of mercy. In order to enlarge your ability, renounce all superfluities. Cut off all unnecessary expense in food, in furniture, in apparel. Be good stewards of every gift of God. Cut off all unnecessary expense of time, of needless activities. Do good; suffer evil; abound in the works of the Lord; and know that your labor is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58).

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Amen.