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On Being the Church: Responding to the World

May 16, 2010
Sermon:  On Being the Church:  Responding to the World
Text:  Matthew 5:1-16


When we started the series of sermons On Being the Church, I knew that we would come to the difficult issues that face us today.  How do we respond to the world?  From the very beginning, the followers of Christ have struggled with this same issue.  We must look to our relationship with Jesus, who set the example, to find the answers to this very important question.  Jesus says that we are not to let our response be business as usual.  We are not to take action in the ways generally accepted by society.  We are to find a different way to respond to the world through contemplation and prayer. 

You notice that Jesus started turning the world upside down from the very beginning of his ministry.  In the passage that serves as our text for today, Matthew presents the Sermon on the Mount as the body of Jesus’ first instruction.  Some have called this the Great Reversal because it becomes very clear here that Jesus is not teaching the same old way of thinking.  He is offering a new way to consider society and the way it is structured.  He says that the meek, the mourners, and the merciful – those generally considered on the bottom rung of the social ladder – now take a place of importance.  Here, the weak are presented as people of strength who should become examples for all the rest of us, exemplary models we should strive to emulate.  That notion is a great reversal from previous thought.  Certainly those who heard Jesus must have been astounded. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes further and topples some of the other cultural norms.  He teaches that we are not to hate our enemies.  Instead, we are to pray for them.  He even dares to say that we should love them.  Jesus advocates avoiding the sins delineated in the Ten Commandments, but he proposes that those laws do not go far enough:  “I have come, not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus offers a revised set of standards, one that encompasses the Ten Commandments but also suggests a better way to live.  We are not to murder, but we are not to persist in anger either.  Doing so is tantamount to murder.  Not only are we not to commit adultery, but we are also not to engage in lust.  Seeking revenge for wrongdoing is unacceptable.  Granting forgiveness and treating those who offend you with kindness is his proposal.  Jesus also sets new standards in the way we are to regard money, in the way we are to worry, and in the way we are to pray. 

Jesus falls into that great line of prophets who were known as troublers.  You remember that King Ahab called Elijah the “troubler of Israel” (I Kings 18:17).  Some would even say Jesus was a troublemaker because he turned cultural norms on their head.  The very truth of the incarnation – the truth that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine – created a dilemma for him from the outset.  Jesus was the God-man.  He was both human and divine.  One way to state this truth is that Jesus had a foot in both worlds – on earth and in heaven. 

How are we supposed to respond to the world in which we live?  This is an ethical question that we all face.  This is the pivotal point on which we have to make moral decisions.  Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pulls no punches as he speaks to his disciples.  He leaves them with a similar dilemma of how they are to respond to the world. 

Let me give you an example of some thorny decisions we must make.  I must hasten to say that no one can decide for you.  Each Christian has to choose where he or she takes a stand on these particular ethical issues.  Consider the life-and-death issues, the ones that seem to be the most problematic for us.  What is your stand on the issue of abortion, for example?  God does not want someone to take the life of an unborn child.  Consider another question:  How do we relate to a woman who has had an abortion?  How do we respond to a woman who, as a teenager, made an impetuous, perhaps emergency decision, a private decision, to terminate a pregnancy?  How do we as a church help those women so that they do not have to endure a lifetime of guilt? 

We declare that we have a reverence for life; but on this very day, thousands of people will die around this world from starvation.  At the same time, thousands of Americans are dying because they eat too much.  It is an ethical problem.  How are we to understand the way the resources of the earth are apportioned so that many die from hunger while others die from overeating? 

Most of us abhor war.  We may think of war as a necessary evil.  When it comes to civilian casualties, they are often spoken of as “collateral damage.”  We basically are numb to the frequent shootings and stabbings in Spartanburg County unless we happen to know the individuals involved.  We have a reverence for life, we say, but we give little thought to the loss of life, even within our own communities.

Let me raise an even more difficult issue:  capital punishment.  Think about the execution of a human being.  Very few people approach that issue by asking W.W.J.D.  What would Jesus do? 

Every Christian has to struggle and make tough decisions about these life-and-death issues.  It does not become any clearer to us than when we stand at the bedside of somebody we love dearly and realize that decisions must be made.  Do we or do we not allow the person we love to have a feeding tube?  Do we or do we not put our loved one on a ventilator?  How do we decide about these life-sustaining procedures?  Having gone through the necessity of making choices for these questions with a number of families, I can honestly think of no better way to decide than by considering the Golden Rule.  If I were in that bed, how would I want other people to treat me?  If my life were on the line, what decision would I want them to make?  When we face such ethical dilemmas and make decisions following the Golden Rule, we are more likely to find that we are on solid ground. 

At the risk of digressing into an academic discussion here, I want to mention an extremely challenging book that is very important: Christ and Culture, written by Reinhold Niebuhr and first published in 1951.  I am not necessarily recommending that you read it, but it will absolutely turn your mind inside out when you consider its content.  Niebuhr says that Christians are engaged in a double wrestling match.  We wrestle with our Lord, trying to understand what He would want us to do.  We also wrestle with the culture, trying to understand how we are to respond.  Niebuhr says that we will never be able to completely resolve the great moral issues of our time.  We will continue to deal with these struggles day by day.

Niebuhr identifies five ways of responding to our culture, to our world.  The first way is to think of Christ against Culture, Christ opposed to culture.  Niebuhr provides an example by mentioning the Benedictine monks who completely withdrew from society.  “Be ye therefore separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17).  We could choose to withdraw, to get away from society.  He mentions groups like the Quakers, the Mennonites, and especially the Amish who basically reject most of the culture.  We consider this response because in a sense we admire the people who have made such decisions.  Christ against Culture makes the assumption that all evil is within the culture and if you withdraw from the culture, you have withdrawn from sin.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sin is inherent in every human being, even monks in a monastery. This way of relating to the culture seems to be one of the easiest decisions to make, but it is also one of the most difficult to live by and follow. 

I will give you a personal illustration.  From the time the issue of a lottery was first presented until this very day, I have been opposed.  Little good did that do.  I know that many educators and lawmakers think the lottery is beneficial, but I basically see it as a tax on the poor.  The lottery is a strange kind of education in my mind.  In this regard, I am opposed to the culture. 

I heard a story this week about a man who came home from work.  His wife asked, “What would you do if I told you I had won the lottery?”

He said, “I would take half the money and leave you.”

The wife replied, “Well, I won the lottery.  I won $12.  Here’s six.  Take off.”

Niebuhr’s second type of response, Christ of Culture, is a merging, a syncretism of Christianity and the culture.  This approach might be considered the extreme of Christ against Culture.  Christ of Culture advocates a desire to eliminate conflict and a desire to create harmony.  In a sense, we sort of baptize everything the culture is doing into a part of our faith, a part of our religion.  Society becomes a part of the way we do church.  Some philosophers have said that religion needs to adapt to the culture.  That may be true at times, but great danger can result in creating a civil religion whereby everything done within the culture is never questioned or challenged.  Aligning ourselves with the culture does not deal with sin at all.  It simply ignores sin.  We can celebrate the values of our country and the values of our faith simultaneously at times.  No matter which political party you align with, no matter how you vote, you sometimes disagree with decisions made within the United States of America.  You cannot just adopt this wholesale response with any Christian conscience. 

In between these two extremes are alternate ways of thinking about our relationship to the culture.  Christ above Culture suggests that Christ himself and the Christian church can pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and hope that the power of Christ will overrule the culture.  At times, I pray that way, but we must accept the harsh reality that the culture does not always respond. 

Another approach is Christ and Culture in Paradox.  We see almost a dualism.  Christ is in opposition to the culture.  We should treat other people with grace and mercy in the Christian church.  The Bible tells us, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  The way the culture responds is sometimes in conflict with the way the church responds.

Niebuhr’s final type, Christ Transforming Culture, is basically the evangelical Christian approach advocated by John Calvin.  The premise behind this approach recognizes Christ’s ability to change a human being, his ability to change many human beings, and his ability to transform all of culture over time. 

Understanding how we relate to the culture is not easily decided.  We simply cannot pigeon-hole ourselves into one of these five categories.  We can consider every situation, every decision, and every circumstance based on these options.  Niebuhr’s categories are helpful, but we will put those aside and return to the teachings of Jesus.  The easiest way to understand what we are supposed to do is to look back at the Scripture.

After Jesus delivered the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount, he made two very simple but profound statements to his disciples.  First, he told the men, “You are the light of the world.”  Jesus is telling them, “Don’t curse the darkness.  Light a candle.  Be light when darkness is all about you.  Let your light shine before others, so that they can see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.”  Jesus then illustrates his statement by referring to a city set on a hill, pointing out that cities set in that location cannot be hidden. 

I have been to the place where Jesus is said to have done this teaching.  If you stand there on those green hills of Galilee and look toward the mountains, you can see the city of Safed, which is never mentioned in the Bible anywhere.  Safed, the highest city in the Holy Land, is the Galilean version of Gatlinburg.  It is an artist colony, a tourist spot. 

Jesus wants us to know that we have a responsibility to make a difference, to illuminate a world of darkness.  Like the moonlight reflected from the sun, the light of every Christian is reflected from the Son of God.  You will notice that Jesus does not say, “I want you to become the light of the world” or “I want you to work really hard to be the light of the world.”  He is saying, “The very fact that you follow me, that you are my disciples, makes you the light of the world.”  Jesus offers a warning with this comparison.  He cautions, “You are not to put your light under a bowl.  You are to place it on a stand so that everyone can have light to see.” 

Jesus also told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.”  What does that metaphor mean?  First, you must remember that salt was a very valuable commodity in Jesus’ day.  The Latin word for salt gives us the word salary.  Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers often received their pay in salt.  This is where we get the expression “a man worth his salt.” 

No refrigeration was available at the time, and people living then used salt for its quality of preservation.  Some of us still like salted country ham.  The Christian church has the responsibility of preserving core values, beliefs so important to us.  Salt could also be used as a disinfectant.  The expression “salt in the wound” makes us think of a painful experience.  In Jesus’ day and time, the only antiseptic available was salt.  First-aid to an infected wound consisted of washing it with a saline solution.  To continue the analogy, Christians have the responsibility for disinfecting, for bringing purifying values into the world.  We are to be people who get rid of the infection.  My goodness is the world infected!  We have a responsibility to be disinfectants in this world. 

Used in moderation, salt could also be used to fertilize in Jesus’ day.  It provided minerals to the soil that were absent, making the land more productive.  Salt has a nutritional value.  Most of all, we think of salt as being used as a seasoning.  Have you ever tried eating popcorn without salt?  It is like eating Styrofoam.  It has no taste.  Salt brings out the flavor in food.  Christian people are supposed to bring out the flavors of life.  The truth is that the world, dying of spiritual hunger, is going crazy in its attempt to figure out what to consume to make life better.  A little salt makes all of life better.  I want to thank Leroy Wilson for giving me insight about this statement.  During his funeral this past week, I said that Leroy made life better for others.  Many of you make life a little better for others. 

What happens when you get too much salt?  It runs up your blood pressure.  Some Christians can run your blood pressure up in a minute.  If you get too much salt, it can make you nauseated.  Some Christians make you feel that way, too.  It just takes a little bit, just the right amount of salt to make life better.  Jesus warns, “If you lose your saltiness, you are good for nothing.”  The truth is that sodium chloride can become wet, sticky and dissolves.  If that happens, the salt is worthless and destined for the garbage.  Christ has a better plan for us. 

The church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be just the right amount of salt and light in this world.  That is the way I understand that we are to respond.  I have preached an entire sermon on Jesus’ comment, “You are to be in this world but not of it.”  So much could be said about this very issue.  For today, just keep in mind these two things:  you are the salt of the earth, and you are the light of the world.  You make a difference in the world.  Our task, our responsibility, as Christians, is to be the light that brightens the world, to be the seasoning that brings out God’s flavors on this earth.  If you lose your brightness, how in the world will people ever see the goodness of God and glorify Him?  If you lose your saltiness, how in the world will people ever taste the goodness of God and praise Him?  Jesus instructs us to be the light of the Son and the salt of the earth.  The tough decisions we make must follow Jesus’ teaching.

Have you accepted Christ?  Have you made a decision to invite the Lord Jesus into your life to be your Savior?  If you have never decided that, could I invite you to make that decision today?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  Could I invite you to make a decision today?

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2010

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