Matthew’s Gospel, beginning in chapter five, contains Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with the Beatitudes where he says that blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are persecuted and ridiculed on account of their faith in Christ.
Thus, the Beatitudes turn the normal operation of the world on its head and reveal instead the wisdom of God in blessing those who, in the eyes of this world, are nothing. Indeed, the cross of Christ itself looks like a shameful defeat to the eyes of the world, yet through the cross we have salvation and all these blessings in the Beatitudes come to us.
This is because of what Christ has done for us; he has made us his people. He has made us the blessed. And so as his people, as the Church, we are his incarnational agents in this world. Jesus says to us: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus Christ brings light into a darkened world and here in his Sermon on the Mount he is saying that you too are the light of this world. You bring the light of Christ to others. As you carry out your vocations in this world people see that you are Christ’s people, bearing his name, and so “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” People ought to look at us – the people of the Church – and wonder why we do the things we do and why we are the way we are. They ought to be able to recognize in us a light that they do not often see.
It makes me think of an Army cadence that I know. A cadence is a song that soldiers sing as they run, in order to mark the time and stay in step with one another. Many cadences are not appropriate for church, but, there’s one that goes, “Everywhere we go. People wanna know. Who we are. Where we come from. So, we tell them. We are Airborne. Mighty Mighty Airborne. Rough and tough Airborne.” And so it goes.
The point is that when people see a group of soldiers, they tend to be curious about them. Particularly when they’re running in unison and singing the same song. And most times even when soldiers are alone, you can tell who they are, because they have a certain bearing.
I think this is illustrative for the Church as well. Aren’t we called to run in unison and sing the same song? Isn’t our bearing to be a clue to people that we are different, marked off as children of God? Shouldn’t the fact that we are the Church be noticeable by the way we carry ourselves?
St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians said that when he came to them, he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The same for us as well. The crucified and risen Christ is the foundation of our faith, and he gives us our unity with each other and enables us to sing the same song of the good confession of him as both Lord and Christ. So, if we hold fast to this confession, then people ought to be able to recognize that we are his people and be curious about us, asking us who we are and where we come from.
We are Christians, appearing weak in this world, but mighty with Christ. We are rough and tough because Christ is rough and tough for us, since he died and rose for us and gives us the Spirit of power to proclaim him to others. And so people ought to be able to tell that we’re a little bit different, even when we’re alone, because of our unique bearing.
That’s what it means, really, to be the light of the world. You’re different. You’re marked off. You have been baptized, dying to the darkness and being reborn into the light. Therefore, you now shine this light yourselves. And just as a light is not meant to be hidden, but placed on a stand to give light to others, so too are you to shine so that others may “give glory to your Father who is in heaven” as they too are brought to faith through this light of Christ. But, for people to see the light, we need to be out there with them in the darkness, allowing the light of Christ to shine through us. We needn’t be afraid, because Christ is with us.
Jesus also uses the image of salt to talk about you. Salt seasons and preserves. Every kid knows that to make something taste better you put salt on it. Likewise, you make the world better, because you are Christ’s people. You also help to preserve the world, keeping things from decaying further and getting rancid.
So, Jesus calls you the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You are his people, and you do his work in this world.
Then, he says something interesting. He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
So, you do Christ’s work in this world, because you are his people. But, do these works save you? Do these works make you righteous?
Well, let’s look at that. First, Jesus Christ says that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. The term “Law and Prophets” was a shorthand way to refer to the Scriptures, what we today call the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t come to abolish them or throw them out, but to fulfill them. That’s why we read the Old Testament and use it in worship, because Jesus came to fulfill it and bring everything to completion. The Old Testament is pointing to the coming of Christ, both to his first advent which was fulfilled in his incarnation and to his final advent which will be fulfilled at the end of the age.
Regarding the Law and the Ten Commandments specifically, Jesus hasn’t abolished them or removed them. God’s Law and the Ten Commandments still stand. They are still calling us to be perfect. So, Jesus says that anyone who relaxes these Commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, and whoever does them will be called great.
How do you relax a commandment? Well, one way is to tell people that God just wants them to try their best to fulfill the Commandment and He’ll reward them based on their effort. That’s relaxing the commandment, because it’s accepting of anything less than perfection. But, God demands perfection; He demands holiness, just as He is holy. So, He demands that we perfectly fulfill the commandments.
Yet, can we do this? Can we be perfect? The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time thought that they were perfect. They didn’t think they were sinners. They worked really hard to try to fulfill the commandments, yet couldn’t make themselves perfect and were still sinners. Yet, Jesus tells us that unless our righteousness exceeds theirs, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s bad news, then, for us. For if the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t do it, how could we?
That’s the point, really. We can’t do it; and, that’s exactly why we can’t relax the Law. The purpose of the Law is to reveal to us the sinners that we actually are. We have to maintain the Law in full force in order to realize that we can’t fulfill it. The Law drives us to another to save us.
So, to answer my question from earlier. Do our works save us? No, they don’t save us. Indeed, they can’t save us, because there’s always one more thing left to do and there’s always one thing that we should not have done that we did. We can’t work ourselves into perfection. This isn’t a spin class; we’ll always have sin dragging us down, because our tires actually have to hit the road of life and thereby encounter the friction of living in a fallen world.
Yet, Jesus’ words still stand: “… unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Well, how do we get this righteousness? Jesus gives it to us, freely, without cost to us. He fulfilled the Law perfectly on our behalf; it’s his righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. That’s why it’s called the Gospel; it’s “good news.”
Indeed, it is good news that Jesus Christ came to accomplish all that the Prophets said he would come to do. He is the only one who has ever walked this earth who is perfect and holy and righteous. And he gives us this as our own, as a gift, as a wedding garment for his bride the Church. This is the Gospel; the fact that we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and receive his perfection and holiness as our own – like a uniform in a sense.
And this uniform marks us out as different. We are soldiers of Christ, running the good race, salting the earth, spreading the light. People ought to see in us the peace and reconciliation that Christ brings to this earth. People ought to see in us the care that God has for people and all his creation. People ought to see in us the firstfruits of the restoration of all things as we engage in the arts, sciences, services, construction, our personal relationships, and all that we do.
So, as you carry out your vocations, you do so as Christ’s people, spreading the restoration that Christ has in store for all creation wherever you go. You bring a little sampling of heaven with you on earth. And this will eventually cause people to ask who you are and where you come from.
So, you see the value of your works then. They’re for other people. They’re to help care and tend for God’s creation and show people the love that God has for them through Christ and that you bring with you. Your works do not save you, because God saves you freely through Christ, simply because He loves you and is gracious to you. And then God works through you in your vocations to care for His world and to spread the love of Christ through you so that others may know him.
So, the things you do truly are important and sanctified by God. God came in the flesh; does that not tell you how important humanity is to God that he took on our flesh in order to save us? Jesus was a baby, a boy, a man, a son, a friend, a carpenter. Does that not tell you how valued these and all human vocations are to God? You, through the vocations into which God has called you, are the salt and light in a world that needs seasoning and preservation and light.
So, shine the light of Christ as you carry out your vocations, and salt the earth by seasoning and preserving it. And as you do so, people will wanna know, who you are and where you come from. So, you tell them, you are Christians and you come from the waters of Baptism where the Holy Spirit has been bestowed upon you to be salt and light in the world, because God has redeemed people and all creation through Jesus Christ.
(Image: Altarpiece – “Sermon on the Mount” – detail By Henrik Olrik. From Sankt Matthæus Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark. By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980809 )