There are 12 verses of Matthew 5 preceding today’s Gospel reading. It’s the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. It all begins when Jesus sees the crowd. There was something about the crowd. We don’t whether it was its size or its enthusiasm or what it was that inspired him but he quickly found a high place where they could see him and hear him and he began to teach.
The Gospel doesn’t say anything about the expectations of the crowd. Undoubtedly, they had heard of this man. He had been teaching in their synagogues and he had a reputation as someone who could heal the sick. Enough was known about him to gather a crowd.
Jesus probably knew more about them than they knew about him. He knew that in any crowd there were those who were poor in spirit, those who mourned, some who were hungry for righteousness and justice, some who were merciful and pure in heart and some who sought to make peace and those who were persecuted for simply being who they were. And he began by blessing them all.
Now I’m guessing that not many, if any, of this crowd had ever been blessed for their poor spirits or meekness or because they had been persecuted by everyone from soldiers to tax collectors to corrupt government officials and cheating bosses.
Think for a moment of the children in this world in Allepo, Sudan, the queer or transgender kid down the street contemplating suicide after being bullied at school and rejected at home, men and women in abusive relationships, the struggling single mother watching her children grow up in poverty, the twenty-something young man or woman born in a country they have no memory of brought here as a child who watches as a president threatens to deport him or her, the addict or the one who cannot silence the voices in her head, the man digging through the dumpster behind King Soopers, people who do not want a light shining on their lives and want only to hide and be as invisible as possible and that have certainly never been told that they are the light of anyone’s world.
Not one of them nor anyone among the crowd listening to Jesus that day ever had the purity of their hearts or their thirst for justice recognized, much less blessed. Whoever sees Christ crucified among their faces?
Can you imagine the healing of minds and spirits that began to take place at that moment? And then Jesus took it to the next level. He probably took a dramatic pause and looked out across that crowd and said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
Whoa. Who? Us? Salt and light? Salt preserves. Light shines. We get that but why is this prophet saying such things about we who are meek and mourning and poor of spirit and persecuted and hungering for just a little fairness in the world? Salt and light. What does that even mean?
Well, salt doesn’t mean much by itself. It’s meaning is found only in that which it preserves or that to which it adds taste. And light? In and of itself it’s not particularly meaningful. It’s what it illumines that matters. It’s what appears to others when the light is shined. It’s about the darkness that the light overcomes.
That is where Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth gets interesting. There Paul speaks years before any of the Gospel stories were written about the meaning of the cross. The cross of Christ often seems like such a strange thing to us, but as we begin to understand it more deeply, it can change the way we see poverty, war, creation-care and our fellow human beings so much more. It changes the way our saltiness shines a light on these matters.
1 Corinthians 2:1-16 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Paul says he decided his entire ministry would be based on one image, Christ Crucified, not lofty words or a sense of his own wisdom but on “Christ crucified.”
I was especially attuned to those words this week because of the Highlands Book Club study of Bishop Spong’s book “Resurrection: Myth or Reality.” The book study caused me to think about how I have avoided preaching the cross because it’s difficult to navigate the common understanding that if you don’t believe in a physical, bodily resurrection, you can’t be a Christian. But Spong and now Paul give us another option.
They tell us that the idea of Jesus crucified can have, should have, a deeper meaning. Start with Paul’s letter. Why is he writing it in the first place? Because there are issues dividing the church and the community; baptism; the Lord’s supper; ministry and worship. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 reveal that Paul’s hearers are divided about sexual ethics and that they are prone to resort to civil lawsuits rather than church negotiation to settle their disputes. Throughout the letter, class distinctions and the divisions they engender hover just beneath the surface. The issues dividing the Corinthians are familiar in our own day.
Paul says that if you want to heal those divisions, focus on Christ crucified. If you know nothing else about how to find the kingdom of God, know Christ on the cross.
You see, the problem I’ve had in preaching Christ on the Cross is that once I studied the Gospel, I was never able to understand what I was taught, that Christ died on that cross for my sins. I can’t preach what I don’t get and I didn’t get it.
Paul allows us to see Christ crucified as a metaphor of competing values. His death is the result of those who reject the values of truth, love and sacrifice. Their values were then as they are now, competing with the values of those who have the courage to speak the truth, who love others especially those who are marginalized, and who are willing to sacrifice for what they believe.
Christ is on the cross because he is doing the dying, not the killing. Christ on the cross is siding with the oppressed, not taking the side of the oppressor. Christ is on the cross because he is doing the loving, not the hating. Christ is on the cross because he is doing the sacrificing rather than taking advantage of others. BTW, we depict an empty cross like the three up here and the one at the back of the sanctuary…empty because an empty cross tells us which of those values will win out.
If the church is in a death spiral, as some say, perhaps it is dying for our sins, the sins that accompany an inability to see the need for the church to be crucified as Christ was crucified. Paul is speaking to us through his 2000-year-old letter to the Corinthians. He’s telling us that we need to know nothing but Christ crucified. For those who seek to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is really that simple. AMEN