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The Salt of the Earth
Fr Dennis Smith, February 9th, 2014
     


Being a light to the world isnít always as straightforward as we might like it to be. For one thing, when a stranger learns that youíre  a religious person itís often the cue for a long apologetic explanation of why they donít go to church. Alternatively it can be a rigorous questioning along the lines of ďsurely you donít believe in the Virgin Birth?Ē or ďWhy does a good God allow disasters and suffering?Ē Rarely does it turn into an encouraging conversation with a fellow-believer. You, as representative of Christianity have to answer for the whole history and beliefs of the Church from the day of Pentecost onwards. This wouldnít be so bad if the questioner hadnít already decided what it is you believe, and fails to listen to your personal testimony.

Behind all this lies the mismatch between what the faith is and the life of the Church, imperfect as it is. Thereís also an assumption that church attendance and the observance of religious ritual constitutes true religion.

As he called us to bear witness in the world like salt and light, Jesus also said we had to be better than the religious people he saw around him. The paradox he unfolds is that the law of God set out in the first five books of the Bible together with the commentary of the prophets, is eternal.

It is the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

However, the experts in its interpretation, the Pharisees and Doctors of the Law, are poor examples of what the law requires. Jesus calls his disciples to observe and teach the law of God as the way into the Kingdom. They have to succeed where the people who make their living out of religion have failed. Itís a daunting proposition. Jesus has in mind a strand of teaching found in both the law and the prophets, the strand that says true religion isnít about what rituals you perform, but how you live your life. Rituals are valuable, but only so far as they discipline you in living a truly religious life. Isaiah is quite clear on the point. Even the apparent self-denial of fasting can be ultimately selfish. The master fasting may be driving his servants to ever hasrder work to make up for his absence.

Different religious groups may have rancorous argument ts over what constitutes proper fasting. This isnít an Old Testament matter alone. The history of the Christian Church is littered with such arguments. Christians havenít only fought each other, but killed each other in the arguments over what is the orthodox faith. The prophet argues that true self-denial is to put oneself at the service of others. Fighting injustice is one example he gives.

Another is the personal service you can give to the hungry and homeless. Doing our duty by our family can be irksome, but thatís a proper act of self-denial. But if we want to speak with God, thatís the way weíll get an answer. Itís not just saying the right words which put us in touch with the divine; itís being in the right frame of mind, a frame of mind formed out of our concern for the other children of God who are around us.  In other words what we believe should shape who we are. Faith isnít a disguise we can adopt; faith goes to the core of our being.

Philip Doddridge is celebrated for his academy in Northampton where, in the eighteenth century, he trained nonconformist ministers. He wrote a popular Bible commentary for lay people. But his concerns went well beyond academic theology. He was one of the chief movers in giving Northampton an infirmary. 
He took a keen interest in politics and was involved in raising a local volunteer force when Bonnie Prince Charlieís march south seemed to threaten Northampton and London.
He had friends well beyond his own denomination and a wide correspondence.

Doddridge was a creature of his own time, but wherever you look in history, and in the present day, you may see people for whom faith is inseparable from their personal kindnesses and public advocacy of Christian principle. St Paul, who in his earlier life was a religious teacher and had known what it was to attempt to shape your life entirely by the law of God, came to emphasise the need for behaving in obedience to the Spirit of God as well as the law.  He spoke of the obedience he owed to the vision of Christ he had received on the road to Damascus, as if it were obvious how anyone can be obedient to a vision.
He is clearly a subtle wrier and debater, yet he constantly returns to the theme that rational argument is not the clue to faith. The ability to explain faith to other people is a gift of the Spirit.  The Christ who spoke to him on the road to Damascus was the one he had persecuted. He now realises that until you have made sense of the cross of Christ you will not make sense of anything else.

Thatís the key to receiving the Spirit. Once you have the Spirit then other things become plain. Itís another way of saying that being a Christian isnít simply a matter of faithfully following the instructions. Behaving in a Christian way has to be something almost instinctive, rising from inner personal depths The traditional ways of devotion nurture those inner depths but are not a substitute for them.

The Lectionary Psalm prescribed for today is Psalm 112, which is a celebration of a person of faith. The one who fears the Lord is gracious and compassionate as a result. The mistake people make is to take the psalm as a rcipe rather than a celebration. Giving to the poor may arise from a range of motives, including guilt or self-importance. Real goodness and generosity have their origins in a proper self-assessment of our place in Godís world.

ďWho am I?Ē may be treated as simply a rhetorical question or, at best, an invitation to a philosophic reflection. The testimony of scripture is that people find the answer to that question when they know themselves to be in the presence of God.

In his book ďCreation and FallĒ Dietrich Bonhoeffor writes, ďWe do not rule because we do not know the world as Godís creation and because we do not receive our dominion as God-given but grasp it for ourselves.Ē The knowledge of the presence of God is a humbling experience. True wisdom and power flow from that humility. There lies the key to Christian people being salt to the world.





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