Who in the world are we?


Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 9 February 2020

Readings were Matthew 5:13-16 and 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5

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If there is one consolation I feel about all the work going on with the roads outside – with all the disruption, inconvenience, noise (and smell!) – I’m just really glad WE aren’t having to pay for it all! It must be costing a lot, and we know about the cost of getting things sorted and future-proofed!

There has been anxiety for us, however. The streets closest to us are closed; the disruption is massive. And there is still uncertainty about when it will all be put right. It compromises access to Church, and there is a risk that for some they are simply unable to physically gather for worship and other activities here.

We know it is necessary work, but at times, it feels all this disruption is a metaphor for the Church in New Zealand. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the Church is being directly targeted or attacked, but the Church in New Zealand increasingly finds itself cut-off, isolated and marginalised.

The Church in New Zealand used to have a more central and influential role in society. But we can no longer assume this, and sometimes it may feel like the Church has been ‘fenced off’, or that there are increasing obstacles that have to be overcome for connection with church communities.

This week it has been unusual to hear, in the media coverage of the Southland floods, the Presbyterian Church communities mentioned as they assist in the disaster recovery. And, let’s be honest, maybe we don’t hear much about Church communities in the media simply because Church communities aren’t often involved in key events. Increasingly, Churches do not have the resources they once had to offer practical assistance. As church communities lose their social influence, they can correspondingly lose their ability to be involved – the lack of capacity follows the lack of having any significant role in the eyes of the surrounding culture.

Phew! This is a pretty gloomy picture, huh?

But for those of us who’ve been around for the last 2, 3, …4(?) decades, the decline of the social role of the mainstream church is familiar. We have observed people’s decreasing involvement in churches – along with rugby clubs, Girl Guides, Rotary, and other volunteer organisations.

Many of us are still processing this lack of influence related to involvement stemming from a perceived lack of relevance in society. Some yearn for the ‘good old days’. Others see that the current picture isn’t all gloomy.

What is it that really matters for Christian faith? If dominance in the public square is the most important thing, then we can concede the Church has lost a great deal. The Church is no longer wields significant power in politics, setting the moral agenda and social reform – in ways it once did.

However, is Christian faith something more than dominating power? The Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warned the Christians of his day not to assume their Christian faith was assimilated into the national culture. He was worried about a prevailing attitude that reasoned to ‘be Danish’ meant to ‘be Christian’. For him Christian faith necessarily has a distinctive factor; Christianity must always retain a critical distance from the culture around it, in order to be faithful to God – first and foremost.

I think Kierkegaard is on to something! Does this match what Jesus says…? Jesus says,

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

What does this mean? Well, Jesus uses salt and light as images of change. They are nouns, but Jesus uses them to describe action. They bring difference (even transformation) from the bland; from the everyday gloom.

Jesus says,

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. (vv13,14)

Remember, this is still early on in Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus’ own ministry is beginning. And he’s laying out expectations about the mission of God, and people’s part in it.

I’ve been preaching a consistent point this year so far: that, as followers of Jesus, we are invited to pray to God: ‘your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven’.

We are implicated in the activity of God’s reign, and the further realisation of God’s reign. Jesus came in person, to reveal who God is, and how to be human. He blazes the trail and calls us to follow him.

What does this mean for Christians today…? Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says:

Jesus Christ is still the most interesting thing that the church has to say or to do in the world, the truth about us and God. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world is a crucified Jew who lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly, and even now makes life more difficult and out of our control—but so much more interesting than flaccid sociological analysis.

…The church has trouble in the world because of Jesus. For God so loved the world that the Son was sent to the world, but the world has [not accepted him].

We wouldn’t know, that self-sacrificial, nonviolent love is the point of it all, without him.[1]

Jesus says

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

This seems extraordinary, that we would be thrust into the spotlight (almost literally!) It sounds like it’s about us, but we know this is ‘derived identity’ – we are salt and light because we are identified with Jesus.

We get to have the enormous privilege to live as ambassadors of God:

let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (v16)

In the reading today from 1 Corinthians Paul makes clear to the Church, the most interesting thing that the church has to say or to do is Jesus Christ:

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
… your faith rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (vv2 and 5)

Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves, as we are completing a significant strengthening project on this building, where we recognise power. We are investing in this building as a place for us to retain a presence in this city. We want to be among the world, the culture.

And, having a recognisable place to stand together, allows us to be salt and light in the city. The building isn’t the salt and light – we are!

In fact, do you notice Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.’…? He doesn’t say “You should be the salt of the earth.” As though we have responsibility to be useful. Neither does he say “You will be the light of the world”, as though this is something saved up for a heavenly future.

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

Already. Right now.

If Jesus says this is what we are, do we need to earn this identity? Do we need recognition from others? Does the world need to acknowledge our ‘saltiness and brightness’?

If we hear Jesus, and are willing to follow in The Way, we are on a mission. And this mission, although it centres on us (in Jesus’ words), its purpose is the glory of God.

Let’s take that in for a moment… our mission brings glory to God. 

There are needs everywhere in our world. Being salt and light in the world is to do God’s will and offer hope, offer purpose, offer meaning. By doing good, we do what we are made to do. And therefore, we become more who we truly are.

So if we find ourselves questioning our identity because the Church is cut-off, isolated and marginalised in our society, let’s be reminded we don’t matter because we’re powerful, in control, and wielding influence. We matter because we are still following the One who proclaims an upside-down Kingdom and invites us to do whatever good we can in the world, to the glory of God.

Let me finish with a quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

once-disheartened church people [have] gained new enthusiasm for the odd way that Christ takes up residency among us, people who are able to say to various disbelieving, deadly presumptuous empires: “we are not going anywhere”.

Let’s pray…

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[1] ‘A reply by Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon’ http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=11&sid=f6ab9bfa-080c-4692-9d45-1762d2963676%40pdc-v-sessmgr05

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