Being salt to help the world see it for what it is

A couple of years ago I attended the inaugural Anglican Summer School, open to both lay and ordained, at Trinity Theological College, Melbourne University. The theme for this Summer School was The Place of Theology in Ministry. This seems redundant, except that we don’t do it. We seem to think theology is the domain of theological colleges and clergy rather than fundamental to being a disciple of Jesus.

The keynote speaker was theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Growing up in Texas, USA, apprenticed to his father as a bricklayer, Methodist by background, studied at Yale University, influenced by Catholicism while teaching at Notre Dame University, presently serving as the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, and now worshipping within the Episcopal (read Anglican) Church. In 2001 he was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine and is considered one of the world’s most influential living theologians. When I saw his name on the programme for this Summer School I knew I had to go.

During his three lectures Stanley Hauerwas repeated this extraordinary sentence, “The task for the Church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.”

Toward the end of our time, I had decided I was going to ask him to explain what he meant by ‘to make the world the world,’ with much fear and trepidation that he had already explained it and I had missed the explanation. For my understanding was our task to turn the world into the kingdom of God. I was stuck in my own understanding of our task to make the world more just.

Clearly I was not the only one who had this problem, to quote Stanley himself,
My claim, so offensive to some, that the first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just, is a correlative of this theological metaphysics. The world simply cannot be narrated – the world cannot have a story – unless a people exist who make the world the world. That is an eschatological claim that presupposes we know there was a beginning only because we have seen the end … [C]reation names God’s continuing action, God’s unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

I know! Words like ‘theological metaphysics’ and ‘eschatological claim’; what this means is, just as we cannot really know who we are until we are in the presence of others, so the world cannot know what the world is unless it has an alternative to compare itself to – we, the Church, need to help the world see what it is, but we need to do this by being distinct from the world and we need to comprehend ‘God’s continuing action, God’s unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection’ ourselves, first.

In the end, therefore, I didn’t need to ask the question. It became apparent and, may I claim, is not contradictory to the outcome of my desire. We ‘make the world the world’ as we grow more and more to be the kingdom of God and not the world.

This is what, I think, Jesus is getting at when Matthew records him saying in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount,
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.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Remember, Jesus is speaking specifically to his disciples; this is not an evangelical sermon.

Assuming that Jesus intention is not to create a new religion, but to be a Jew and promote good Judaism, he is not teaching his disciples to change the world; he is calling them to be good Jews. We can analogise what salt represents, but simply it relates to ‘something that is vitally important’. To lose saltiness ‘would be in effect to lose their identity’, to be bland, insipid, diluted, with little distinction from the world.

I am purposeful in using the word, ‘world’. It can mean, as we normally use it to describe the whole of creation, ‘for God so loved the world,’ or it can mean that which is not the kingdom of God. The latter is the intention of its use.

A part of this distinctive, savouring identity of those who are disciples, Jesus the Christ is the ‘Light of the world’, and Jesus disciples are ‘in Christ’, and Israel’s mission was to be a ‘light to the Gentiles’, so his disciples are to be the Light that is God, present to the world.

An important point needs to be made here. Not that it is a new one to you. The ‘you’ who is to be salt and light isn’t the second person singular, ‘each and every one of you’, but the second person plural, ‘you all’. It isn’t the responsibility of any one of us as an individual to be the salt and light to the world. It is the responsibility of our collective identity as Church, and by that I do not mean the institution, I mean the grassroots disciples. In our western culture, this un-individualistic understanding is hard to grasp, but, it also takes some pressure off us as individuals. If we are not being salt and light, it is not my fault or your fault; it is our fault. The key to all this is being the kingdom of God. There is a challenge to process for me and, I think, for all of us. As disciples of Jesus we need to put first things first.

Jesus indeed began a religious and social revolution. However, unlike most other revolutions which attempt to change those they were opposed to, Jesus revolution was an internal one. It was bring about restoration within Israel. The first task is to make the world the world is by becoming what we are distinctly meant to be.

I suspect, from the perspective of those outside the church, the only real significant difference between the Church and the world is that we ‘go to church’ (as much as I dislike that saying). Even those outside the church would say they believe in God and live good lives and ‘don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’. We need to move beyond simply saying we believe in God and attending church and learn to talk about God again. We all need to be theologians and do theology. To put it in the words of Hauerwas, we need to learn ‘to speak Christian.’ We should not be ashamed of our unique language, our jargon, for it carries our understanding of God, but we need to be able to explain what it is we mean and, if we are really doing that, it will transform our life as Church and individuals. Theology, then, is not an intellectual and scholastic task, it is discipleship; being students of Jesus, it is an exercise of relationship and it is a work of prayer.

The first task is not to try to turn the world into the kingdom of God, but in order that it may become the kingdom of God, we need to be people of that kingdom and talking about the One who raised Jesus from the dead and reigns in that kingdom. Then we will be the kingdom of God and the world will be the world and see the darkness for itself. Then the world will want what we have, because we already know it and have seen it.

The danger is that this task can become a narcissistic, navel gazing. Of course we must speak out about issues which we see as unjust or destructive to the wellbeing of people and community. But in the face of child sexual abuse within the church, it is clear that there is a loss of respect by the world for the Church when it speaks. How can we call for reconciliation when the world sees a lack of it between members of the church? How can we seek justice when the church witnesses to its discrimination against women? Although we are to be good citizens of the nation to which we belong, as Christians we are to be more than just good citizens. We need to learn how to do theology; learn again to speak Christian and bear witness to the kingdom of God. Saltiness is about distinction and it is also about integrity.

One of the important aspects of our small groups, particularly our house groups, is this work of exploring our experience of life and world into an understanding of God. Through sharing our own thinking supported by scripture we can grow in our understanding of God and what that might mean for our action as an individual, as a small group or as a church. Our small groups are not bible study groups, they are discipleship groups.

Our task is to be what God has called us to be, as a church and as individuals. Our task is to grow into being the kingdom of God by first focussing on our self; understanding who God is and being able to speak it to one another so that our life as individuals and church is transformed. Let the world be what it is, the world, and see itself for what it is as it looks upon us. May we be salt to the earth and a light to the world as we continue to do the work that will enable us to grow a Christian community for all.

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