Sermon: 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 5 February 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 5th February 2017

“A CITY ON A HILL”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-13; Matthew 5:13-20)

Our vision is to be a Worshipping, Recognizably Anglican, Multi-Racial, All-age, Gathered, Christian Community – “a city on a hill”. These words are at the top of the front page of our bulletin every week.

“A city on a hill”: we heard those words from the lips of Jesus just a few moments ago. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden, he says. Well, our church building is pretty prominent in Epping now, the spire can be seen from many directions: of course, with the prospect of major redevelopment and high rise in coming years, the church building may not be as prominent in the future. But this wonderful and special building is not really what St.Alban’s is about. Ultimately the church is the people, not the building.

And this vision statement is about us, rather than our building. It is a special privilege to take up my appointment as Acting Rector during this significant period, as we prepare to welcome our new Rector next month, and to begin a new era in the story of St.Alban’s. Over the weeks ahead, I am hoping to take up some issues that will be particularly relevant to us at this time. And here Jesus’ words ask us: “Who do you think you are?”

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount speak to us as individuals and as a church. When he describes his followers as “the salt of the earth” and as “the light of the world”, he challenges us in our own personal lives, as well as our life as a church.

Salt has always been a special substance. In Jesus’ day it was used to bring flavour to food. It made a difference when it was added. It was also used as a preservative. Rubbed into meat and other perishable foods, it stopped things going bad. And it may well be that this aspect of salt was particularly in Jesus’ mind when he used this image.

For the world is God’s creation, the wonderful place he has provided for humans to live. But the world also has a tendency in many ways to go bad: there is so much that is wrong in the world today – and right now that seems particularly evident! Jesus’ followers are called to bring something distinct to the world, and to bring something to stop the world going bad!

Of course, we not only live in that world: we have something of the same characteristic. There is so much that is wonderful about us, as people made in God’s image. And yet, we too have a tendency to go wrong, to do wrong, to fail to reflect the goodness and love of the God in whose image we are made.

But Jesus calls us to be distinct, to be different, from the world around us.

We are called to live by standards that will not be the same as the world around us: and the words of the Sermon on the Mount certainly make that difference clear. We are called to display love in ways which go far beyond what is expected of the people round about us. We are called to bear witness to a message that is often ridiculed and rejected, and regularly ignored, even in parts of the world that once were seen as Christian.

There is one other aspect of salt: it is sometimes used for cleansing and healing purposes. When it is rubbed intro a wound, salt stings. I was reminded of this as I reflected on a large banner displayed on St.Paul’s Cathedral when Sarah and I were in Melbourne last week.

“Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees” was the message on the banner. Of course that message is accepted by many people who do not see themselves as Christians. And that’s good. But there will be many people, including many in positions of authority, who will say: “How dare the church meddle in matters of politics!” Salt stings. And it would be easier for many people if Christians never took a public stand on anything. But it would not be Jesus’ way. The salt is useless if it stays in the saltshaker.

And as Jesus says, the light is not meant to be hid. It is useless if it is hidden and unable to be seen. Jesus calls us, his followers, his community of faith, “the light of the world”. It is an extraordinary description, for in the Gospel of John he describes himself as “the light of the world”.

Putting these two ideas together seems pretty strange. I have long thought that a helpful way of understanding it by comparing it to the light of the sun and the moon. The sun is the actual source of light, while the moon captures and reflects the light. In the same way, we are called to reflect the light of Jesus in our lives by showing up things that are wrong, by making the truth clear, by showing people the way to live and the way to go.

We are to let our light, which is ultimately the light of Jesus, shine in our lives – both as individual Christians and as a Christian community. There is a tendency in many Western societies to see religion as a private thing: “keep it to yourself” is the message. But while faith is to be personal, Jesus clearly does not see it as private at all!

“Let your light shine” is his message. We are to be open about our faith, not to hide it. We are to look for opportunities to bear witness to the one in whom we place our trust. How do we do that? Jesus’ words are very significant. “Let your light so shine before others, so that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

What will lead people to give glory to our Father in heaven? It is our “good works”. Our lives, the way we live, the things we do, the love we show, the consistency in our actions, are to point people to God. Do the people who know us to be Christians look at us and think that our faith makes a positive difference in our lives? Does the way we live suggest that we have found something that is worth taking seriously?

But witness that is only deeds is incomplete. Joe Christian is a really nice guy, kind and patient and helpful, the sort of person you admire and appreciate. But nobody knows that he is like that because he is a follower of Jesus. His faith is a secret. And so people look at his good works and give glory to Joe, not to his Father in heaven. Witness is not haranguing people with the Gospel message, but our lives convey no message if there are never words explaining our faith.

Of course, the words we say must be consistent with Christ’s ways. Our witness can point people away from Christ if we speak them with arrogance, or in a judgemental way. If we nag or lecture, if we make people cringe when we speak, if they want to disappear when we come into sight, we are pushing people away from the Gospel. But if we never have anything to say when the opportunity presents itself, how will people know that the glory goes to our heavenly Father, not just to us? Our deeds, backed up by our words, are the way we point people to the love of God in Jesus Christ. But our words and our deeds must be consistent with each other.

That is why the failures of the institutional church, and the wrongdoing of far too many church leaders, is so serious. I am not only thinking of the appalling abuse of children by priests and other leaders. I think of the ways so many clergy have used their power to abuse vulnerable people, whether it is sexual or financial or a range of other ways. Jesus has taught us to serve, not to use or abuse. And he has made clear the difference between love and lust.

The result of these terrible deeds is not just the personal harm done to individuals and families, but the harm done to the Gospel of Jesus. These deeds, not to mention the church’s inadequate handling of the problems exposed, have pointed people away from Jesus, who is the light of the world. They deny a central part of the purpose of Christ’s church: pointing people to Christ.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, of course, sets an impossibly high standard. For all Jesus’ criticism of them, most Pharisees were serious about pleasing God. But even their good deeds were insufficient to get them into the Kingdom of Heaven. That reminds us that we too shall always need God’s gracious forgiveness. It should keep us humble rather than judgemental. And it should keep us moving forward in faith and discipleship, never feeling that we have made it yet!

What do people think when they get to know us? Do we bear consistent faithful witness to the love of God? And what do people think when they visit our church? Do our services help them to understand more of Jesus, the light of the world? Does the welcome they receive express the love of Christ? Does the way we deal with each other and the way we respond to the challenges we face bear witness to the message of the Gospel?

Epping Anglicans: a city on a hill. How clearly is our light shining? Let’s think about it. Let’s pray about it. Amen.